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Reviewing the European Neighbourhood Policy: narratives, reality, legitimacy

The European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) has been accused of numerous sins: ineffectiveness, incoherence, double standards, and, increasingly,  irrelevance. The policy has recently undergone two reviews, in May 2011 and in November 2015, that according to its vocal critics have done little to address the problems. Moreover, a lot has been said and written on perceived gaps between stated policy objectives and outcomes or the tricky relation between interests and values in ENP implementation.

But European Union (EU) strategy papers should not exclusively be seen in terms of targeted policy solutions aimed at addressing key challenges in the neighbourhood. They should also be understood in terms of narratives that perform identity-building and legitimacy functions. The narrative is not about revealing the actual nature of the Union’s objectives and activities in the neighbourhood. Crucially, it constructs the idea of what the EU is and what it does in order to attain various political goals.

Two narrative shifts took place in 2011 and 2015. Whereas from 2003 to 2010 ENP narrative was dominated by discourse of stability, good governance and prosperity, in 2011 a shift towards ‘healthy’ and ‘deep and sustainable’ democracy took place. But in 2015 it was replaced by a discourse of (in)stability and security, where stabilising the neighbourhood became a top priority that preceded the objective of fostering ‘good governance, democracy, rule of law and human rights’. The 2015 communication proposed the following priorities for cooperation (the order is not incidental): 1) economic development for stabilisation; 2) security dimension; 3) migration and mobility; 4) regional cooperation.

Thus, the EU has turned to stabilisation and securitisation of the increasingly de-stabilised neighbourhood, but at the same time has diagnosed roots of instability largely outside the security domain – in terms of “poverty, inequality, a perceived sense of injustice, corruption, weak economic and social development and lack of opportunity, particularly for young people”. This signifies a return to the original ENP-approach, where economic development and good governance were considered drivers of stability. In light of the securitising narrative, supporting democracy is no longer at the forefront, but it remains nevertheless a long term objective.

Narrative shifts to deal with legitimacy deficit

How can these narratives shifts be explained? Can they be understood as reactive measures towards unrest in the Southern Mediterranean? Whereas the 2015 shift towards security discourse can be more easily explained in light of imminent threats (territorial annexations, hybrid wars, terrorism, huge flows of refugees and migrants), the shift towards a discourse of democracy promotion in 2011 is more puzzling. I argue that changes in narrative were produced in order to allow the EU to deal with different aspects of a legitimacy deficit.

In 2010 and 2011 the European Union was already in the middle of the sovereign debt crisis. The narrative of a successful economic project that provided well-being for all its members was no longer as credible and viable as before. Moreover, the Lisbon treaty established new institutions responsible for EU foreign policy and gave new powers to the existing ones like the European Parliament. These developments created the need to reinforce legitimacy both at the systemic and the institutional level. Thus, internal legitimacy concerns encouraged EU decision-makers to explore alternative legitimacy sources based on the use of the EU founding narrative of peace and democracy. A normative democratic agenda is often used by supranational institutions, such as the European Commission or the European Parliament, to reinforce their standing and expand their agenda in relation to Member States and the Council, while justifying further pooling of resources at the EU level. Unsurprisingly, EU Member States’ governments were hesitant to engage in a normative ENP critique and mostly refrained from making overly supportive statements in the first weeks and months of the so-called “Arab Spring”.

The EU output legitimacy has become more and more problematic. Both internally with the euro zone crisis, and externally since the EU showed weaknesses as both a global and regional actor. This encouraged EU institutions to rely even more on input legitimacy, based on stakeholders’ participation in external policy-making. The 2015 joint communication by the High Representative and the European Commission proves that both institutional and policy legitimacy relied heavily on integration of stakeholders’ views.

Coming to terms with reality?

A key problem for the EU is the gap between narrative and reality on the one hand, and ambitious goals and feeble results on the other. How does the EU discursively deal with these gaps that risk undermining its (anyway weak) legitimacy in external relations? Firstly, in the 2015 review EU institutions largely neglected the democratic discourse and enhanced the securitisation logic. This can be seen as an attempt to close the gap between the narrative and the reality on the ground, namely destabilisation and war after the Arab uprisings, war in eastern Ukraine, refugee/ migration crisis and terrorist attacks. This move was in line with a realist argument that the higher the perceived level of threats, the smaller the normative emphasis on democracy promotion (a second order concern) and the greater the role of securitising discourse.

Secondly, European institutions explicitly limit expectations about EU transformative power in the neighbourhood. Accordingly, the Union only makes an offer and the responsibility lies with the partner countries to make good use of it. It is also acknowledged that not all partners have the same level of aspirations and willingness to adopt EU norms and values. Whereas the notion of ‘differentiation’ is often explained in terms of realistic assessment of varying contexts in each partner country, it can also be interpreted as a defensive discursive strategy of EU institutions aimed at critics of ENP’s lack of effectiveness.

Finally, despite the 2015 shift away from the normative democratization agenda aimed at closing the narrative – reality gap, the core of the narrative – the EU’s role as a facilitator for modernisation and transformation was maintained. This reflects the limits to a radical change of ENP narrative as the latter is deeply embedded in self-representations that underpin both EU and wider transatlantic identities.

Dr Agnieszka K. Cianciara is assistant professor in the European Studies Department of the Institute of Political Studies at the Polish Academy of Scienes in Warsaw.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.