The old European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) has failed to achieve its goal: to transform the EU’s neighbourhood into a sphere of liberal democracy and market economy.

Instead of having built a “ring of friends,” the EU is now surrounded by a “ring of fire”, as The Economist has put it.

Many of the ENP’s 16 target countries in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa are now worse off than they were in 2003 when the policy was first outlined.

The EU faces tough choices: it needs to decide whether it has enough political will to make a real difference in its neighbourhood, and to what end - as a driver of change working with reformers or as a guardian of the status quo working with the ruling elites.

The ENP was conceived at a time when it was broadly assumed that the EU’s neighbourhood was already on a historic path toward liberal democracy and market economy.

The general view was that with “the end of history” and the triumph of a globalisation, driven by the economy and civil society, politics would become increasingly transnational and the EU would provide a model of the future world order.

The ENP, while lacking the promise of EU membership, would nevertheless make use of the EU’s immense attraction and would help to direct and reinforce the process of Europeanisation in the EU’s eastern and southern neighbourhoods, by offering all kinds of support and guidance.

Europeanisation - a destabilising process?

At the end of the process there would emerge a close, sympathetic, like-minded “ring of friends,” an “area of prosperity and good neighbourliness, founded on the values of the Union and characterised by close and peaceful relations based on cooperation,” as the Treaty of the European Union (Art 8,1) states.

This optimistic view wasn’t entirely wrong. Europeanisation indeed took root in the EU’s neighbourhood: there was a growing desire by many people to become part of the EU’s economic and political success story, either by moving to the EU or by adapting the EU’s achievements in their own countries.

The colour revolutions in the east and the Arab Spring in the south were driven by the wish to live like people live in the heart of Europe, with a prosperous economy; with a decent, fair state; with the freedom to express oneself; and to live the way one chooses.

It was not by accident that the EU’s flag was waving over the Maidan and that the refusal of the Association Agreement with the EU was what triggered the fall of the old Yanukovych regime.

But the problem with the EU’s approach was the failure to recognise that Europeanisation is in many cases a destabilising process, at least in the short term.

In countries where a small number of people control economic and political power by using corruption and force, liberal democracy and market economy are threatening the ruling classes.

Most of the elites in the EU’s neighbourhoods apparently didn’t share the wish of the broader population to Europeanise.

They wanted to enjoy the benefits of cooperation to the extent that this helped to stabilise their rule, but were against any move that would empower the broader population. When it came to political modernisation, those in power often paid lip service to the respective parts in agreements with the EU without honouring them.

When clashes between status quo-oriented elites and reformers erupted in Ukraine, and earlier and throughout the Arab Spring, the EU had no plan on how to respond.

ENP’s children

The ENP and its “children” (the 2009 Eastern Partnership, and 2008 Union for the Mediterranean) were built on the assumption that no such fundamental conflicts existed in the target countries. The EU was seeking comprehensive modernisation by working with the governments regardless of the character of their rule.

The implicit idea was to implement modernisation from above, or what has been called “enlightened absolutism” in the 18th century: wise rulers who are benevolent enough to embrace a structural change even if that would ultimate undermine their own power base.

The ENP is conceptually flawed as it assumes that transformation is a joint interest of elites and broader population in the target countries and as it has no strategy for dealing with the instability and power struggles that come with political and economic modernisation.

In the wake of the violence and instability that has emerged across the EU’s neighbourhood, Europe is now slowly waking up to the reality that the “way of life” that it represents is a contested model, and one that needs to be defended and fought for.

Autocratic elites reject comprehensive modernisation as they feel threatened by it.

The conflicts which have been ingrained into the political systems in the European neighbourhood have become more visible, more acute, and more dramatic in the last years. This is a direct consequence of Europeanisation, of the attractiveness of the EU’s way of life.

The internet, increased travel and migration, and increasing interaction between the EU and its eastern and southern neighbors have brought in sharp relief the lack of opportunity and freedom in many countries around the EU.

The EU needs to realise that its neighbourhood policy is not a technical tool but a political instrument, that it is operating in a highly politicised environment where major conflicts take place.

The ENP carries both huge potential and carries great risks. As the EU now reviews its neighbourhood policy, several adjustments are overdue.

More than Brussels

First, the ENP cannot be executed by the institutions in Brussels alone. EU member states with a strong foreign policy, but others as well, must take on much more ownership of those policies.

Member states cannot sign up to policies agreed in Brussels and then return home and continue to do business as usual; they must put their own full weight behind such policies.

Berlin’s lack of engagement was an important reason why the Eastern Partnership has failed: in 2008 Germany agreed to the program but failed to put its political weight, especially its close relation to Moscow, behind it.

Second, the EU needs to develop a clear vision of what it wants from the ENP, and who the policy addresses. There are three potential goals of a neighbourhood policy: integration, transformation, and co-operation.

Some countries have a chance to become EU members in the nearer or more distant future; they are small enough to be integrated without forcing the EU to change itself substantially; they are willing to undertake deep reform and to adapt themselves to EU standards; and the current member states are likely ready to accept them as future members. For such countries, the current ENP and the EaP policies make sense.

But there are not many who’s membership path is possible, let alone clear.

Another potential goal is transformation, which the ENP has largely failed to deliver on. In the East, Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Armenia remain largely unchanged; Ukraine has just started to reform; Moldova has made more progress on paper than in reality; and Georgia’s reforms have largely been driven by its own political will, not on an EU ticket.

In the South, only Tunisia, Morocco, and Jordan have made some visible steps towards reform; ENP has achieved very little in the whole region, from Morocco to Syria.

The EU needs to recognise that it cannot drive reform even in small countries without offering a major commitment on its part.

The third potential goal of a neighbourhood policy is co-operation. While integration and transformation imply a fight against ruling elites in most countries, a change of the political and economic system, cooperation is a “realist” approach, building on the acceptance of those who are in power as the relevant interlocutors on the other side.

Joint interests

Such co-operation is based on seeking joint interests while widely ignoring the question of legitimacy. Focusing on co-operation acknowledges the lack of will or lack of capacity to set in motion a process of change. It also means to privilege short-term interests in co-operation against longer term interests in systemic change.

To become a consistent, efficient actor in the neighbourhood, the EU must offer its neighbouring countries a clear understanding of what the EU is interested in: future integration, transformation without accession, case-by-case co-operation?

These are questions that cannot just be answered in Brussels.

They will require a lot of soul-searching in the member states: to what extent are capitals ready to back up a transformational agenda in neighbouring countries, knowing that this can lead to conflicts, internal and with other neighbors?

How important is the goal of having liberal democracies and market economies in the neighbourhood?

Is the EU ready to take on a more muscular, confrontational approach in its neighbourhood, will it support reformers once they clash with autocratic elites?

Can the EU live with autocratic states where corrupt elites mismanage their countries?

Is co-operation with those elites a strategy that is viable over the long-term, or are the costs higher than the benefits?

How does implicitly backing-up autocrats fit with the EU’s values and its understanding of itself as a value- and law-based system?

Clear-eyed

A new EU neighbourhood policy must be clear-eyed, accept risks, and make a choice between competing, mutually exclusive goals. It must rely on a broad consensus inside the EU, and it must be wholeheartedly supported by key member states.

The decision the EU will take about the future shape of the neighbourhood policy is going to shape the EU’s identity as an international actor. How does the EU react to the return of geopolitics and conflicts, will it become more “realist,” in the sense that it plays power politics based on narrowly defined interests?

Or does it indeed want to become, as it claims to be, a transformational power in the service of a rules-based liberal-democratic world order?

This article was originally published by the EUobserver.