What development strategy for the European Union’s Neighbourhood?

Tea break during the ESPON Seminar on the EU Neighbourhood, Paphos, Cyprus

What kind of regional development actions might boost competitiveness and growth through forging new links with states around the borders of the European Union (EU)? This is the question that will be the focus of a meeting in Cyprus that I am participating in this week. The EU’s European Neighbourhood Policy dates from 2004. Its objective is to avoid “the emergence of new dividing lines between the enlarged EU and our neighbours and instead strengthen the prosperity, stability and security of all.” What are the pressures and opportunities and how might a place-based approach help?

The European Neighbourhood Policy

It is no coincidence that interest in Europe’s Neighbourhood came into prominence in 2004. That was the year when the EU grew from 15 to 25 states. The nature of its external border in the east changed radically. Insiders and outsiders were redefined in a profound way. For example, Baltic States once part of the USSR now looked to Scandinavia, Warsaw and Berlin, rather than to Moscow.
The European Neighbourhood Policy aims to build shared values and standards, e.g. on human rights or environment. It is advanced though a series of bi-lateral agreements with 16 countries around the EU’s borders. These are Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Egypt, Georgia, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Moldova, Morocco, Occupied Palestinian Territory, Syria, Tunisia and Ukraine. In twelve cases an Action Plan has been agreed, though by their nature these tend to become “wish lists”.

In addition there are regional and multilateral co-operation initiatives: the Eastern Partnership (2009), the Union for the Mediterranean (formerly known as the Barcelona Process, re-launched in 2008), and the Black Sea Synergy (launched in 2008).

The pattern that has emerged is rather different from that which the UK was pushing for in 2002, when, in calling for a “wider Europe” initiative, it was thinking of Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus. Russia would not play ball, and instead operates a more “equal” form of co-operation with the EU. You might also note that Turkey is conspicuous by its absence from the list.

In terms of defining relations and development opportunities with neighbouring countries, the Neighbourhood Policy is much less significant than the European Free Trade Agreement, which makes Switzerland, Norway and Iceland de facto quasi-members of the European common market. Similarly, the EU’s economic links across the Atlantic, are profoundly important, though rarely highlighted in official EU policy discourse. In contrast, the focus in the Neighbourhood Policy on 16 extreme diverse and geographically spread countries, some of which are hostile to each other or internally unstable, begs the question of whether it amounts to a paternalistic, geo-political vanity project.

What we have is a policy essentially put together by diplomats, that does not have any overarching spatial development narrative. The Arab Spring, with its initial rhetoric of democracy, injected new life into the process. But the retreat from the practice of territorial cohesion within Europe, as fierce austerity regimes are imposed on debtor countries to protect the Eurozone, might be expected to dampen enthusiasm for Neighbourhood development.

What development forces connect the EU and its Neighbourhood?

In terms of flows, two connections stand out. The first is energy. As researchers from the ESPON project on globalisation are expected to say this week, the EU is one of the biggest importers of energy in the world: it imported 45% of its energy resources in 1997 and 53% in 2007, and the figure could reach 70% in 2020. The level of external dependency is higher for oil (83% in 2007) than for natural gas (60%) and coal (35%).

Most of the current major world oil and natural gas producers are situated in the Neighbourhood. The research hers will report that almost 70% of the known oil reserves and 80% of natural gas reserves are located in a geographical zone which includes the former USSR, Northern Africa, Norway and the Middle East. Furthermore, several Neighbourhood countries are provide essential transit routes connecting the EU to these reserves (Ukraine, Belarus, Turkey). Most of the EU’s natural gas imported by EU arrives through international pipelines. This means that the EU is significantly dependent on maintaining good relations with its neighbourhood – as well as boosting renewables. This might change if the US exploits all its new found reserves, using the controversial fracking technology, and if new ways are found to transport natural gas.

The second crucial flow is people. The contrasting demographies between youthful, “child-heavy” North Africa and the aging EU with its dependent pensioners is striking. Add in the uneven regional patterns of migration and you see a Europe comprising in the east shrinking cities and regions, but in the west metropolitan growth fuelled by young migrants.

Last but not least, you have the issue on managing environmental resources that transcend national or even EU boundaries. The ESPON ESaTDOR project has done case studies that look at seas shared with countries of the EU neighbourhood – the Barents Sea, the Adriatic and the Black Sea. In each case co-operation is needed but it can be difficult to achieve where there are political differences and unequal commitments to sustainable resource management.

Development strategies

So can the neighbourhood be a force to help the EU recover from the long economic crisis? Or has it become a more peripheral concern as budgets have to be trimmed and countries struggle to sustain their own essential services? Each border is different, whether physically or culturally and economically: is the idea of overarching policies like that for the Mediterranean really appropriate when faced with such diversity. What are the key trans-border networks that matter for Europe’s economic development and environmental stewardship? My own view would be that improving linkages to Russia is probably the top priority, and would be of potential economic benefit to the Baltic States, but also to the rest of Europe if the north-south road and rail routes across the Baltic States to Scandinavia can be improved.

Hopefully over the next couple of days I will learn more and see the issues more clearly. I will update this blog by adding comments so that you too can follow the discussions here in Paphos, where as I write a Mediterranean storm is whipping up the waves on the seafront. It seems a metaphor for this part of Europe at the moment.

  • Cliff Hague

    After a day of presentations and workshops I am still sceptical about the argument that a positive policy of development co-operation and EU funding targeted towards “the Neighbourhood” is going to yield significant dividends for the EU. The two main arguments in favour are about energy and demography. The energy case is very dependent on what might happen to energy prices globally: investment in big pipe lines and transnational cables begs the question of how viable these will be if prices fall, and how vulnerable to natural disasters such as earthquakes to which south-eastern Europe is vulnerable. The demographic argument – that the Neighbourhood provides a pool of labour to do the work to support Europe’s burgeoning pool of pensioners – needs much more evidence about the territorial impact of different types of migrants (oligarchs or agricultural workers?). Anyway the eastern Neighbourhood (Russia, Belarus, Ukraine) is losing people and aging itself.

    I will be tweeting again on Thursday and try to add an update comment on Thursday evening.

  • During the open seminar in Paphos and in your text, I can remarque an absance of the Western Balkans as a part of South-Eastern Europe which is neither in European Union, nor in the ESPON Programme. That is a specific neighbourhood. In my intervention from the audience druing the round table, I characterised the Western Balkans as an “inner neighbourhood” since it is completely surounded by the EU and ESPON countries. Countries in the Western Balkans have rather clear perspective of joining EU and therefore ESPON in the forthcoming period. However the involvement and cooperation in the projects and activities of the Programme are not clearly defined and that is an important point for the formulation of the Operational Programme for the ESPON 2014-20.

    • cliffhague

      Siniša, you make good points. I am sure the issue will be addressed for the ESPON 2014-20 OP. Meanwhile I have been working on the report from the Paphos seminar whihc ESPON will publish. The final draft was finsihed today, so hopefully it will be out soon. In retrospect I don’t think that we made enough of the Western Balkans in the report, but we do call on ESPON to give more attention to the neighbourhood in general in future.

    • Cliff Hague

      Siniša, you make good points. I am sure the issue will be addressed for the ESPON 2014-20 OP. Meanwhile I have been working on the report from the Paphos seminar whihc ESPON will publish. The final draft was finsihed today, so hopefully it will be out soon. In retrospect I don’t think that we made enough of the Western Balkans in the report, but we do call on ESPON to give more attention to the neighbourhood in general in future.

      • Cliff, thank you for the answer. I will only recall our readiness to become part of the ESPON programme and hope that we will be given the oportunity to participate in the formulation of the OP parts which concern the Western Balkans.