Europe and its ‘neighbourhood’: Please mind the gap!
Growing up in the political transition and a candidate country, the project of European integration always had two connotations for me: an area of freedom and commonality, an exclusive economic club that everyone would like to enter and simultaneously a normative stance – a “force for the good in the world”, a club of advanced democracies. This emotion from a childhood memory re-entered my mind recently, when listening closely at the Bergedorf Roundtable.
Back in teenage years outside the borders of the European Community, it somehow felt that Europe was outward looking. Its capacity to convert the external into an internal played a big part of its transformative power. And the European unity was not inherent, it was simply worth constructing. Only a decade later none of these seem to hold. The EU and its neighbours seem moving away from each other. But how far is too far?
Winning the Hearts and Minds in Eastern Europe and engaging North Africa?
Not the first internal crisis in the EU integration lately, but perhaps the first time for the ever-more inward-focused Europe to find itself unattractive to the neighbourhood. Increasingly. The challenges are higher than in the1980s or 1990s, but opportunities to influence the state of affairs are incomparably smaller. Global context has changed, yes, but so should the EU.
The EU policies in its immediate surrounding have been for long based on two core assumptions – of EU’s magnetism and of mainstream transitology. The uprisings in the South and setbacks of transitions in the East remind to Europeans that some of the paradigms we grew up with have worn out already. Yet, new ones have not been formulated to replace them. A fresher look is needed.
Are the neighbours turning elsewhere?
The attractiveness of the European integration – the prestige and tangible benefits of economic integration/financial support – were at the heart of EU’s magnetic power. This enabled the EU to build relations with neighbouring states as a co-centric circle of cooperation: integration into the common market was at the core, surrounded by various sectoral cooperation and special relations with non-members. With permeable borders between these circles, an influence over norms and values followed. The EU needed no stick; inclusion was a carrot big enough. As my textbook said back then, while US promoted democracy through a threat of inclusion, the EU did so under the “threat of non-invasion”. Remembering Slovakia in 1998, the treat of being left from the European integration was enough to nurture democratic consolidation.
Nowadays, the neighbours genuinely interested in membership could be counted on one hand. If there is no space to play the membership card in mind of either of the sides, the EU might run out of carrots. And it has no sticks, either. Creation of new tools and mechanism inherently based on the assumption that EU is magnetic to its neighbours is like putting the cart before the horse. They can all be suitable components, but without rethinking the wider strategy they can turn counterproductive.
Transition, consolidation, liberal democracy…What if not at all?
Reading Fukuyama’s End of History in early 2000s it might have seemed that the proclaimed victory of liberal democracy was soon-to-be-completed. Transition theories spoke about a linear transformation of states – from regime overturn, through democratic transition to a consolidation, a mature democracy. Societies that did not reach the consolidation phase were “stuck in a grey zone”, they faced setbacks in democratization. Two decades after, one might question whether they should be seen as future liberal democracies just stuck somewhere on the way for the moment. Or whether ranking how much of democracy have they achieved so far is the best way to understand what is going on.
Context has changed too; the liberal democracy is far from being the only game in town. The neighbouring societies in flux look away from the EU-centric world also ideologically. Perhaps devising their distinctive pathways rather than staying stuck on the road we somehow still expect them to take. And the European club dipped in its internal issues (by the way not the most democratic) is clearly not the magnetic centre of attraction for the political and civil societies in the surrounding region. In addition, traditional democracy faces setbacks also on the EU’s territory.
Time to act and not hide behind the “good-doers”
The EU needs to rethink the paradigm for engagement in the neighbourhood. There is an increasing need for rethinking wider strategy rather than multiply tools. And normatively to stop hiding behind the” good-doers” label, which seems to be no longer recognized. To clarify, to pursue its interests and values. We have to bear in mind that the transitions in the neighbourhood are more and more openly simply not towards democracy. What role is there for the EU in these regime changes and how to effectively pursue ‘our’ interests? To respond, the EU needs a clearer stance, better defined priorities and – this is of utmost importance – to replace outdated paradigms with a fresher view.
Maybe we are really all being hostages to our worldviews, oftentimes from oversimplified textbooks, and we are reacting to something that does not exist. We are not very curious. Creating boxes and drawing parallels is simply not enough for a meaningful reaction.