European Neighborhood Policy Post-Lisbon: A Very Preliminary Assessment

While the Lisbon Treaty has had a positive impact on the European Union’s neighborhood policy, important issues remain unresolved.

In the 1970s, a Chinese diplomat was asked about the impact of the French revolution on world politics. He famously replied that it was too early to judge. Similarly, attempting to assess the impact of the Lisbon Treaty on the EU's neighborhood policy (ENP) not even two years since its creation may be jumping the gun. Thus far, only one thing is certain: those who hoped that the Treaty would swiftly turn the European Union of 27 states into a unified and effective actor in its “neighborhood” must be disappointed. While the EU now has its own diplomatic service – the European External Action Service – and some procedures are now smoother, the EU is far from achieving its objectives in the region.

The Lisbon Treaty came to force in 2009 after a repeated referendum in Ireland. Some saw it as a poor substitute for the original – the European Constitution – which was proposed in 2004 but was never ratified by all 27 EU members (voters in both the Netherlands and France rejected the document). On the positive side, the Lisbon Treaty marked the first time an EU Treaty made direct reference to the ENP, and it brought the ENP under the same roof as the EU’s enlargement policy within the portfolio of the EU’s Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighborhood. This step was important not only symbolically – many thought this was a sign that the EU’s neighbors could one day become EU members – but also politically. It offers EU neighbors elements of political and economic integration without the promise of EU membership. Essentially, this friendly neighbor agenda is an ‘enlargement-lite’ version of the approach the EU adopted toward the accession countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

Controversially, and much to the disappointment of countries such as Georgia and Moldova, the Treaty did not distinguish between the EU’s eastern neighbors and those in North Africa, which have been regarded as ineligible for membership on geographical grounds. And, while in theory participation in the ENP does not prejudice a country’s EU membership eligibility, current member states have grown reluctant in recent years to consider integration with any new neighbor, either to the east or south, thus reducing the appeal of the ENP’s offer. For example, at the recent summit of the EU with six countries of the Eastern Europe and South Caucasus, a number of member states objected to mentioning the EU membership perspective for these countries.

Yet despite the above-described positive changes to streamline the tenets of the ENP, the policy can hardly boast impressive successes two years later. The Lisbon Treaty clearly spelled out the EU’s main objective vis-à-vis the region: establishing an area of prosperity and good neighborliness, founded on the values of the Union and characterized by close and peaceful relations based on cooperation. In its eastern neighborhood, the European Union is struggling to turn its remarkable economic presence into influence and to halt the authoritarian tendencies in the region. In all six eastern neighborhood states except for Moldova, the state of democracy has worsened and corruption is on the rise. And while the EU has – or is currently – negotiated comprehensive trade deals and visa liberalization agreements with the countries in the region, such steps have been insufficient to persuade the countries’ leaders to fully democratize the political systems and fully liberalize their economies.

Across the Mediterranean, the popular uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya earlier this year caught the EU completely off guard. As the authoritarian leaders were toppled, the Union was embroiled in bickering between member states about whether to withdraw the EU’s support from the leaders of said regimes (to which many EU capitals had close links) or to embrace the revolutionaries. When they did come to the revolutionaries’ help, such as in Egypt or Tunisia, it was too late to salvage the EU's reputation. In short, as Nicu Popescu of the European Council on Foreign Relations noted, the eastern neighborhood increasingly looks like the pre-revolutionary southern neighborhood, whereas the south increasingly resembles the eastern neighborhood in the aftermath of the ‘color revolutions’ of 2003-2004.

There are two reasons why the Lisbon Treaty has thus far had limited impact on the Union’s neighborhood policy. First, the Treaty notwithstanding, the key decisions about EU’s foreign policy continue to be made by the member states. The response to Muammar Quaddafi’s bombing of his own citizens was crafted in London and Paris, not Brussels. And while the European External Action Service and the European Commission would like to see the visa regime with its eastern neighbors automatically liberalized as soon as they meet all the technical requirements, member-states such as Germany, Netherlands or Spain are determined to bloc such actions. Even more importantly, the challenges the EU faces in its neighborhood are primarily political, economic, and social in character, not simply bureaucratic and legal, which the Lisbon Treaty indeed fixed. The Treaty was, of course, never meant to transform the regions the EU borders with – it takes much more than a legal document to do so. However, in terms of streamlining the ENP it has been a step in the right direction, albeit neither the most important nor the most needed one.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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