The European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). Normative shifts and remaining challenges

Essay, 2017

7 Pages, Grade: A


European Neighbourhood Policy: normative shifts and remaining challenges

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. While it is questionable whether the EU’s intentions towards its direct neighbourhood are only noble or also guided by interests, what is certain is that it has been struggling to achieve its objectives, namely to stabilize two regions that find themselves today on the brink of explosion. In the South, the Arab Spring has completely destabilized the Mediterranean region: some countries are under functioning at best, or just not functioning at all anymore. In the East, the whole area has become a buffer zone where Russia and Europe oppose one another to defend their interests and influence (Koenig, 2016). The results achieved through the implementation of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) have thus not been up to expectations so far. However, since it was first introduced in 2004, this policy has undergone a series of transformations aimed at making it more efficient. This paper will expose the three shifts that have occurred since its inception, from a rather idealist approach to a more pragmatic one; describe the “ring of fire” surrounding Europe nowadays ; point out to the weaknesses that still characterize the new version of the ENP; and conclude.

ENP 101

In 2002, after a series of successful enlargement rounds, the EU decided to elaborate a new comprehensive strategy towards its neighbours. Confronted with many threats, both externally (illegal migration from the South and the mounting influence of Russian foreign policy in the East) and internally (radicalization, terrorist attacks and social instability), the EU wanted to create “a ring of friends with whom it enjoys close, peaceful and co-operative relations” (European Commission, 2003). Therefore, it chose to adopt a policy that, through the promotion of good governance (democratization, market liberalization, establishment of robust institutions and the rule of law), would consolidate the stability and prosperity of its neighbours and, at the same time, enhance its own security (Sasse, 2008).

When analysing the motives behind that decision, realist scholars tend to label it as an imperialist strategy that the EU uses to secure its interests abroad, while constructivists consider this endeavour to be more of a normative nature aimed at spreading its values (Del Sarto, 2016). However, as Hettne and Söderbaum (2005) argue, there is no reason why those two interpretations should be mutually exclusive. The EU can very well kill two birds with one stone, i.e. promote its values (democracy, good governance, rule of law, etc.) in order to secure its interests (stability, economic growth, etc.). They add that the EU actually uses both strategies when it is more suitable: normative to promote environmental or human right issues, and imperialist to promote security and trade-related issues.

Moreover, as Ciaciara (2017) explains, this policy can also be seen as a narrative tool that the EU uses to legitimize its action both externally and internally. She defines narratives as a tool that political leaders use to “construct a shared meaning of the past, present and future […] to achieve political objectives.” As the EU is going through several crises (namely institutional and financial) and facing many external threats, it uses its foreign policy to gain more credibility. The ENP can thus be seen as a tool that has been used in different ways over the years to shape the narratives surrounding the EU and to make it more relevant both abroad and at home. In the next section, those shifts in narrative are described.

Off with the old and on with the new

Since its inception, the ENP has gone through three major narrative shifts (Cianciara, 2017). First, between 2003 and 2010, it focused primarily on stability, good governance and prosperity, but there were few references to the security component. The idea behind it was that cooperation would lead to stability, economic and political integration (European Commission, 2003). However, as Del Sarto (2016) explains, in practice, more emphasis was given to aspects related to trade and cooperation on migratory issues than on the promotion of a real democratization process, as exemplified by the good relations the EU entertained with renowned dictators for many years before the Arab uprising of 2011. The result of that attitude was a southern belt of neoliberal dictatorships plagued with rampant corruption and rising inequalities; a rather explosive cocktail.

In reaction to the so-called Arab Spring, the first shift occurred between 2011 and 2013, and notions such as democracy, greater participation in conflicts, stronger engagement with civil society, and enhanced regional projects came to the forefront (Koenig, 2016). It was explicitly stated that the foundation of a “deep democracy” would lead to economic growth – in that particular order (Joint Communication, 2011). This ENP review, however, failed to recognize that implementing such a radical systemic change requires a country to go through painful reforms, which are bound to provoke a reaction, either from the masses or the elites. In the first instance at least, the democratization of a society is more likely to create instability than stability (Cianciara, 2017). Moreover, because Russia’s reaction to the ENP had been rather moderate until then, the EU did not anticipate that its move towards Ukraine would unleash such a chain of events and completely destabilise the whole region (Göral, 2015).

Finally, in 2015, following a large consultation process, the level of ambition of the ENP was lowered, reflecting a more realistic approach (Koenig, 2016). The stabilization of the EU borderland became the number one priority, and emphasis was given to the need for greater “differentiation” according to the ambitions of countries, recognizing that they might not all want to become liberal democracies. This last shift partly stems from the several pressing threats that the EU is facing, i.e. conflicts, terrorism, influx of migrants (Cianciara, 2017). As Koenig (2016) points out, the 2015 ENP constitutes the most significant remodelling this policy has undergone since it was created.

From a “ring of friends” to a “ring of fire”

While the intentions behind the ENP might have been good, more than ten years since it was first introduced, its record in terms of stability and security is deplorable, to say the least.

In the East, an ongoing conflict in Ukraine is still paralyzing the country and no swift solution seems to be looming on the horizon (Göral, 2015). Russia has posted troops in Georgia and Moldova, without any authorization from official authorities (Touma, 2017). Azerbaijan is still systematically violating the human rights of its citizens, including by silencing the voices of its activists, journalists and political dissidents (Human Rights Watch, 2017). Besides, the frozen conflict that opposes the latter with Armenia seems to have been reactivated, as tensions are mounting (Vartanyan O. & Grono M., 2017). Belarus, a country that showed little interest in EU norms and rules so far, can still easily be called “the last European dictatorship” as its ruling elite has increased its authoritarian grip on the population, rather than losing it (Korosteleva, 2009).

In the South, Libya is facing so many crises at the moment that it does not even qualify as a functioning state anymore, and Amnesty International even went so far as to accuse the EU of being “complicit” in the abuses suffered by migrants at the hand of smugglers (Fucarini, 2017). The situation in Egypt is also rather bleak, as any hopes the revolution of 2011 might have created have been crushed in a violent counter-revolution led by the army (Sallon, 2016). While recently, the EU has strengthened its ties with Algeria, which remained relatively untouched by the revolutionary wave that has swept the whole region, the seemingly stable situation in the country could very well explode once its incumbent President, Bouteflika, dies – which is bound to happen sooner rather than later (Martinez, 2013).

As described, in the past decade, the ENP failed to create a “ring of friends”, which has effectively transformed into a “ring of fire”. With the 2015 review, the EU tried to address the gap between theory and practice, which has hindered this policy since its creation (Koenig, 2016). Nevertheless, it is still riddled with hurdles that need to be addressed.

Remaining challenges to overcome

As explained above, the ENP has experienced a series of narrative shifts, the last one being the most significant. However, this new 2015 ENP review has also come under heavy criticism, as several issues remain unaddressed.

First, Europe’s power of attractiveness, a core principle of the ENP, is declining on several fronts. While the process of enlargement had been tremendously successful and revealed the enormous soft power the EU had, the fact that the ENP excludes the perspective of membership and is based on rather vague incentives has led to a lack of interest on the part of some countries that has not really been dealt with (Sasse, 2008). Furthermore, even though Member States generally agree on the norms and values that need to guide ENP action, their interests can sometimes vary. It is therefore hard to ensure coherence between European and domestic foreign policies (Koenig, 2016). This lack of coherence creates a fragmented situation, which does not foster confidence, and countries such as Turkey or Armenia have been pulling out increasingly from EU negotiation for closer integration (Rouet, 2016).

Second, as Koenig (2016) explains, there is a risk that the focus on the “differentiation” aspect in the last version of the ENP serves as a pretext to justify the mismatch between EU rhetoric and actions. While the EU has repeatedly been criticized for not taking into account the various characteristics of its neighbours, some critics point to the fact that offering each country an individualized policy is also controversial. Indeed, it could lead to the EU lowering expectations for some countries for the sake of stability and security and ignoring issues related to human right or democracy.

Third, Koenig (2016) highlights that the 2015 ENP review is extremely vague as to what position the EU should adopt faced with an increasingly assertive Russia. While it recognizes that EU relations with this key player are under pressure since the annexation of Crimea and the crisis in Ukraine, it does not specify how to proceed in the future (Joint Communication, 2015).

Finally yet importantly, while the number of conflicts in its neighbourhood has dramatically increased in the past decade, the allocation of funds to the ENP has not risen accordingly (Koenig, 2016). Without the means to accomplish the enormous tasks placed on its shoulders, the EU cannot expect to achieve its objectives in the coming years.


For more than a decade, the EU has tried to cooperate with its neighbours in a way that foster mutual security and stability. While on paper the policy it has come up with seems rather promising, so far, it has not lived up to expectations. The ENP has been modified several times to adapt to the reality on the field, but it has still fallen short of a solution to this conundrum. Instead of a theoretical “ring of friends”, the EU finds itself surrounded by an effective “ring of fire”, and it has a hard time putting it out. From Libya to Ukraine, its entire neighbourhood is plagued with active and frozen conflicts, mounting tensions, migrant crises, terrorist threats, etc. It has tried to bridge the enormous gap between expectations and reality by adopting a more pragmatic approach, but this carries a number of risks. The first relates to the decline of EU’s power of attractiveness, if countries do not want to be associated with it anymore, then the ENP will rapidly lose its relevance. Second, if the EU does not learn from its past mistakes and leaves out the human right and democracy aspects from this cooperation, then the ghosts of the Arab Spring might come back to haunt it in the future. Third, in the East, the EU needs to find a way to collaborate with Russia, because if it does not, it will live up to the grim expectations of realists, i.e. “international conflict becomes inevitable when a major international actor intensifies its political activity in an area where the vital interests of other are at stake” (Göral, 2015). Finally, more resources need to be allocated to the ENP in order to achieve the Herculean tasks ahead of it.



Cianciara A. (2017). Stability, security, democracy: explaining shifts in the narrative of the European Neighbourhood Policy, Journal of European Integration, 39:1, 49-62, DOI: 10.1080/07036337.2016.1256397

Del Sarto R. (2016). Normative Empire Europe: The European Union, its Borderlands, and the “Arab Spring”, Journal of Common Market Studies, Vol. 54, n°2, pp. 215-232, DOI: 10.1111/jcms.12282

Göral E. (2015). A Critique of European Neighbourhood Policy: The Case of Russian Intervention in Ukraine, Marmara Journal of European Studies, Vol. 23, n°1.

Hettne B. & Söderbaum F. (2005). Civilian Power or Soft Imperialism? The EU as a Global Actor and the Role of Interregionalism, European Foreign Affairs Review, Vol. 10, pp. 535-552.

Koenig N. (22 March 2016). Taking the ENP beyond the Conception-Performance Gap, Jacques Delors Institut Policy Paper, p. 15-16.

Korosteleva E. (June 2009). The Limits of EU governance: Belarus’s response to the European Neighbourhood Policy, Contemporary Politics, Vol. 15, n° 2, pp. 229-245.

Rouet G. (December 2016). Editorial: A new European Neighbourhood Policy to strengthen the European project, Easter Journal of European Studies, Vol. 7, n° 2.

Sasse G. (March 2008). The ENP: Conditionality Revisited for the EU’s Eastern Neighbourhood. Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 60, n° 2, pp. 295-316.

European documents

European Commission. (11 March 2003). Wider Europe – Neighbourhood: A New Framework for Relations with Our Eastern and Southern Neighbours, COM(2003) 104 final.

Joint Communication by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and the European Commission. (25 May 2011). A New Response to the Changing Neighbourhood: A Review of European Neighbourhood Policy, COM(2011) 303. Joint Communication to the European Parliament, the Council, the European economic and social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. (18 November 2015). Review of the European Neighbourhood Policy, JOIN(2015) 50 final.

Joint Communication to the European Parliament, the Council, the European economic and social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. (5 May 2017). Report on the Implementation of the European Neighbourhood Policy Review, JOIN(2017)18 final.

Articles accessed online

Fucarini A. (2017). EU Complicit in Libya migrant torture and abuse – Amnesty. Retrieved from

Azerbaidjan. (2017). Retrieved from

Martinez L. (2013). La transition fait craindre un retour à la violence. Retrieved from

Sallon H. (2016). Cinq ans après, que reste-t-il de la révolution égyptienne?. Retrieved from

Touma A. (July 2017). Moldova Asks Russian Troop to Quit Transnistria. Retrieved from

Vartanyan O. & Grono M. (July 2017). Armenia and Azerbaijan’s collision course over Nagorno-Karabakh. Retrieved from

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The European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). Normative shifts and remaining challenges
Webster University Vienna
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European Neighbourhood Policy, security, foreign policy
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Leïla Bendimered (Author), 2017, The European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). Normative shifts and remaining challenges, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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