The European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) was conceived as an alternative to geopolitics. Launched in 2004, the policy promised a deep structural transformation of the EU’s partner countries to result in an “area of prosperity and good neighbourliness, founded on the values of the Union.”

This project was as grandiose in its ambition as it was timid and insufficient in its implementation. Ten years later, much of the EU’s neighborhood is in turmoil, economic transition has slowed down, and the EU’s influence is diminished.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has now asked the new commissioner for the neighborhood, Johannes Hahn, to make recommendations for improving the ENP. This reform should not just tweak the policy here and there—as did the last review in 2011—but actually address the core issues.

It is time for a Copernican revolution in the EU’s neighborhood policy. The union is not the center of the universe, and its neighboring states are not satellites but follow their own trajectories. Some neighbors are failed states; others are potential member states. Some want the closest possible relations with the EU; others wish to remain distant.

The concept of a single set of standards and instruments that can be applied across the board in the entire neighborhood has proved unworkable and should be abandoned. Instead, the EU should put together a well-equipped toolbox that supports multiple relationships tailor-made to suit the different ambitions of the partner countries and the interests of the union.

The current geographic definition of the ENP makes no sense. There is no rational explanation why Syria should be in and Iraq out. In terms of the EU’s interests, many neighbors of the neighbors are just as important as the sixteen current partners. It would be better to include all neighboring regions from Central Asia to the Sahel and to develop regional substrategies for countries that actually have something in common.

The “more for more” conditionality—an innovation of the 2011 review establishing that the EU should give more support to those countries that implement more reforms—was a mistake. Sometimes there will be a strong case for more engagement even though there is less in terms of reform, simply because it is in the EU’s interest, for instance to avert state failure.

It is time for a Copernican revolution in the EU's #neighborhood policy.
 
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Only where there is genuine buy-in for a reform agenda and a real desire for close relations with the EU can conditionality work. This doesn’t mean the EU should give up on values, but rather that it needs a more sophisticated approach with more emphasis on civil society and people-to-people contacts.

Many ENP tools were conceived for a stable environment, but history didn’t wait for the EU’s good work to produce results. The neighboring regions are undergoing massive change and facing grave security threats. The EU needs to make ENP instruments more nimble and flexible and link them to foreign and security policy instruments. Enhancing stability, including through security-sector reform, should become a top priority.

The ENP must move beyond its current bureau-technocratic profile and become more political. Member states need to be more involved across the whole cycle from planning to implementation. Proactive engagement with other important outside players like United States, Turkey, and—however difficult—Russia will be crucial for the success of a renewed ENP.

In a rapidly changing environment, understanding better what is going on is the most important requirement for good policy. The EU needs to mobilize the knowledge of its delegations on the ground and the expertise in the commission and the European External Action Service to build a strong collective capacity for strategic analysis. A better and shared understanding of the dynamics of political, economic, and social change will lead to more effective policies.