The Eastern Dimension countries should have a real chance of joining the European Union.
In December 2013, there would have been reason to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) with the presentation of associated new achievements (the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement) and optimistic future plans at the Vilnius Summit dedicated to Eastern Partnership. The fiasco that actually took place there and the following events in Ukraine were, however, (hopefully) merely a symbolic final chord of the events that have happened in the previous five years, which once again illustrated the practical inefficiency of the principles of the European Neighbourhood Policy both in the southerly and easterly direction, and indicated the need for immediate changes.
It is actually difficult to imagine what could have gone worse in the neighbouring countries of the EU from 2008 until today: despite spending 11 billion euros during the years 2007–2013 in a targeted manner and according to all the rules (in order to develop peace and well-being), the result was only one success story (Moldova), a large number of stagnating partners and a row of escalated conflicts both in North Africa and the former Eastern bloc. However, for the sake of objectivity, it must be added that it would be unfair to see Europe’s failed policies as the main culprit in the events in Georgia, Ukraine, Libya and many other neighbouring countries. Significant contributions came from global rivals, the conflicting interests of member states and, naturally, the actions of the target countries themselves.
Reforms are therefore necessary, but policymakers should still overcome their embarrassment over the results achieved so far, and work with the shortcomings in a systematic way before the reinvention of the Neighbourhood Policy (which has unfortunately already begun on the basis of the old values), so that they would not have to state after yet another five years that the plans were ambitious on paper, but there were actually only a few people to begin with who had faith in their success.
When we evaluate things in retrospect, it can be claimed that creating the Neighbourhood Policy was, first and foremost, a symbolic act and a matter of reputation, not an activity directed towards practical results. In 2013, the desire to create a new ambitious policy was greater than the desire to make it work, which is why all the neighbouring countries (from Algeria to Azerbaijan), that on the one hand, had no hope of joining the European Union, and on the other, were not fit to become strategic partners, were pressed into the same universal framework. The beautiful virtual phenomena called the Eastern and Southern Dimensions were brought to life, and these helped to create a continuous buffer zone of countries on the map, forming something resembling a notional part of Europe, who had to contribute to our security and well-being, but had no right to sit at the same table with the deciding parties as equals.
Unfortunately, the process of bringing practices in line with ambitious plans has not been successful despite ten years of effort, during which the policymakers had incorporated all the components of the enlargement policy and foreign relations, which were welcomed by the member states and had brought them success so far. The target countries that had hoped to gain access to special relationships, a mutually useful partnership and, in some cases, also member status, but also the means for carrying out national reforms from the partnership are also, without doubt, disappointed today.
The second reason for the lack of success of the Neighbourhood Policy was the belief that there is a “one-size-fits-all” solution, which would work successfully in all target countries, and, at the same time, root out corruption, estrange religious fundamentalism and establish a working rule of law and democracy, and encourage the further integration of neighbouring countries within Europe. Looking back, it remains unclear why so much value was placed on the standardisation of the Neighbourhood Policy even in a situation where it did not fulfil the set goals and became a hindrance to offering special motivating packages to the partner countries. For that reason, the ability to adapt to the specific needs of the target countries is one of the prerequisites for the success of the future Neighbourhood Policy.
The implementation of the Neighbourhood Policy has also been interrupted by the bureaucracy of the EU institutions, where comfortable, safe and tried solutions have been preferred based on the logic that if an instrument does not work, its capacity must be increased by 7%, instead of aiming to achieve substantive goals. Instead of the low density dispersion of low-efficiency measures that has been implemented so far, clear priorities should be identified for both the goals and geographic regions, which would substantially increase the opportunities for achieving the desired goals. Instead of trying to fit the different needs of the neighbouring countries into uniform plans and standards in view of historical consistency or budgetary comfort, more attention should be paid to the developmental potential of different target countries, their capabilities and wishes to get closer to the European Union.
The fourth obstacle in the way when implementing the Neighbourhood Policy is its “unappetising” nature for the target countries and the imbalance of partner relations which goes with it, but also the unwillingness of the member states of the European Union to recognize this fact. A common response to criticisms has been the statement that the reforms required in the Neighbourhood Policy are in the interests of the target countries and additional motivation is not necessary. Considering only its own security, economic interests and the historically dominant attitude towards former colonial territories, the EU clearly paid too little attention to the interests of the neighbouring countries and their wish to take part in the partnership. It was hoped that the prospect of limited and ambiguous financial support and special relations (but not EU membership) offered is sufficient to persuade the neighbouring countries to fulfil the demanding reform and modernisation packages designed for them by the European Union. But when the target countries came to the realisation that there is no hope of becoming a member of the club and the meagre financial support will not increase in the future, social tensions arose as a reaction and partnership alternatives were sought, for example, from Russia.
Where should the European Neighbourhood Policy reform start from, and what should be focused on in the future? Firstly, the shared part of interests and goals should be rediscovered in the framework of the ENP. For that reason, one should think about which responsibilities the European Union wishes to fulfil and on which interests they are based, instead of asking which national security related activities can be taken on institutionally or financially in the context of the Neighbourhood Policy. It should be made clear among the member states whether publicly announced values like democracy, guaranteeing human rights, rule of law and the involvement of citizens in the decision-making process are actually at the heart of the Neighbourhood Policy, or are the economic profits of the member states, regional political influence, stable and cheap access to natural resources and transportation routes more important. Another question is whether democratisation, modernisation and guaranteeing human rights in the neighbouring countries can be the main goals of a Neighbourhood Policy based on the joint interests of member states at all. Which country would finance this kind of policy sufficiently for a longer period and how would the added value of such a policy be measured? Moreover, we must take into account the fact that the main financers of the policy (e.g. Germany and the Benelux countries) do not share borders with the partner countries of the ENP.
The next step in the re-invention of the European Neighbourhood Policy is to restore the accession potential for the Eastern Dimension countries and find motivating financial levers for the Southern Dimension countries. Although Russia’s aggressive interest in the Eastern Dimension has risen, the further influence and development of the ENP is still mostly up to the European Union.
In conclusion, a working Neighbourhood Policy is existentially crucial for Estonia, as for many other small countries on the external border of the EU, while for the core countries of the EU, it remains another strategic initiative, the failure of which could if necessary be compensated for. In practice, it is the larger member states that have compromised the union the most, particularly in instances where national interests have been considered to be more important than joint interests. Therefore, reflection upon the Neighbourhood Policy and substantive contributions should be one of the priorities for Estonia’s European policy in the coming years.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.