For many decades after the European Union was established nearly sixty years ago, European leaders believed the bloc played a crucial twofold role in transformation.

The first and most fundamental dimension of this role was to transform the relationship between France and Germany from foes to partners. That shift changed the geostrategic dynamics of postwar Europe.

The second dimension was accession. By admitting the former dictatorships of Greece, Portugal, and Spain as members, the EU expanded the politics of transformation. It continued this policy after 1989, when the Berlin Wall was torn down. Along with NATO, the EU embraced the idea of a Europe whole and free.

Judy Dempsey
Dempsey is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of Strategic Europe.
More >

That is no longer the case. A multitude of events—the euro crisis, the influx of refugees, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of parts of Ukraine, and the upheavals in the Middle East—has changed the EU’s perception of its transformative powers. The union has turned away from being an exporter of change, values, and democracy. The age of innocence has been replaced by a new age of realism, if not pragmatism.

That realism is founded on stabilization. This new doctrine, for want of a better word, was spelled out in considerable detail in a report published in November 2015 by the European Commission. Called “Review of the European Neighbourhood Policy,” it was a sober assessment of the EU’s role in its Eastern and, particularly, Southern neighborhoods. It was also an admission, confirmed by recent crises, that the EU had to reappraise its relations with its neighbors.

While the report paid lip service to EU enlargement for the Western Balkans, the idea of an EU always open to new members from the East and the South is no longer a given.

Not only that. The notion of a Europe whole and free that was the great post-1989 slogan of the Euro-Atlantic community no longer has the fervor, the commitment, or the sincerity that it had over a quarter century ago. In its place is now an EU that looks warily and pragmatically at its neighborhoods. The EU and its neighbors are different and separate.

“The EU’s own stability is built on democracy, human rights and the rule of law and economic openness,” the review stated. It continued, “The new [European Neighborhood Policy] will take stabilization as its main political priority in this mandate.”

Implicit in the review is that democracy, values, and freedoms are not in the first instance sustainable tools of stabilization. Stabilization is regarded as an essential precursor of democracy.

For the commission, stabilization—first and foremost—means security, good governance, trade, economic growth, and social reforms. Stabilization also means giving civil society movements a greater voice in trying to shape societies.

This is important. Before the Arab Spring began in late 2010, most EU countries and the EU itself were content to prop up authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East. The stability that was maintained by those regimes was not questioned. European governments rarely, if ever, encouraged the establishment of genuinely independent pro-democratic movements, while so-called NGOs were sanctioned by the regimes and thus toed the official line.

Employment prospects for the young generation in the EU’s neighborhoods are another essential component of stabilization. “Poverty, inequality, a perceived sense of injustice, corruption, weak economic and social development and lack of opportunity, particularly for young people, can be roots of instability, increasing vulnerability to radicalization,” the review stated.

The big question is how the EU can promote stabilization among its Southern and Eastern neighbors. The review, typical of EU reports, listed a raft of often-vague proposals, from assisting countries with security to offering education and training: “The new ENP will make a determined effort to support economies and improve prospects for the local population. The policy should help make partner countries places where people want to build their future.”

Such woolly language takes away from the main thrust of this review, which was echoed in the EU’s June 2016 global strategy. It is about how recent crises, which are far from over, have dented the EU’s confidence and its once long-held belief that the EU was the agent for change and knew best. Now, there is a cold realism.

This realism will be tested by how and what the EU delivers to its Eastern and Southern neighbors. To the East, Ukraine is the big important test. To the South, it is Tunisia, where the will to make the transition to democracy must not be underestimated or undersupported.

If stabilization, coupled with reforms supported by publics and the EU, can nurture democracy, then it could eventually lead to transformation—on the terms and at the speed set by those countries. But this time round, transformation will not mean joining the EU. Enlargement has run its course.