From Circle of Friends to Ring of Fire

Europe’s troubled neighborhood: from a “circle of friends” to a “ring of fire”? EU Commissioner Hahn on the future of EU neighborhood policy and the central objective of maintaining stability

On April 15, the Center on the United States and Europe (CUSE) at Brookings Institution, in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Stiftung North America, hosted a discussion with Johannes Hahn, the European Union’s Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations. Johannes Hahn discussed the radical changes taking place along the EU’s borders and European approaches to tackle these challenges and the implications of the Dutch referendum on the EU association agreement with Ukraine.

With the protracted conflicts in the Middle East and Eastern Ukraine, the European Union is facing a time of increasing turmoil in its neighborhood. At the same time, the EU is confronted with a series of critical humanitarian, security, and financial crises. To address these challenges and to pursue the overarching goal of establishing and maintaining stability, the EU should not revert to “old Realpolitik” such as propping up autocratic regimes, but rather pursue a realistic and pragmatic policy approach with short-term and long-term objectives.

The growing instability on the European shore has not only highlighted the central value and need for security, it has also added new fields of action to the European neighborhood and accession policies, such as security sector reform and counter-terrorism measures. While these areas have not been part of the Commissioner’s “traditional” policy areas, they have gained importance in Hahn’s work, leading to increasing allocation of ENP resources for these domains.    

Hahn stressed the need for investment, especially in the economic development of the EU’s neighboring states, as economic progress and prosperity are likely to correlate with development in other fields, such as human rights. Hahn put forth that Europe’s short-term priority is to regain control over its borders through effective border control. European soft power thus needs to be complemented with hard measures.

According to Hahn, the further development of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy is crucial to these endeavors and an absolute necessity for EU member states. Strategies and measures, however, need to be tailored to the diverse needs of European partners and cannot be addressed in a one-size-fits-all approach. Hahn also stressed the concept of ownership, meaning that the EU member and neighboring states must engage in a partnership on equal terms. The EU, in Hahn’s view, will also need to reach out to the neighbors of its neighbors, such as Russia and countries in the Arab world.

With regard to the Eastern Partnership, Hahn reflected on a revision of the Partnership’s mode of operation. Under the current framework, representatives of the EU member states and the six eastern European partners Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine meet in biannual Eastern Partnership summits, which usually raise high expectations. According to Hahn, more emphasis needs to be put on the implementation of reforms in the partner countries in the future.

In response to a question on the result and the implications of the Dutch referendum of April 6 on the EU-Ukraine association agreement, Hahn stressed the need to respect the outcome. However, he also recalled the fact that 27 member states have already ratified the agreement and clarified that the provisions of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) are not affected by the referendum. The DCFTA forms the economic section of the Association and came into force on January 1, 2016.  The successful implementation of association agreements in the EU’s partner countries in the East is an important indicator of how effectively the European Neighborhood Policy will evolve.