Written by Luca Saviolo


This paper tackles the issue of the European Union (EU) aid and development policy in the Southern Neighbourhood (Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Libya, Jordan, Morocco, Palestine, Syria, Tunisia). By shedding light on the role of the EU, it aims to assess the impact of the new Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI) and how it fits into an already developed EU framework. In line with the existing literature, this work understands the EU security-stability nexus as the “master frame” informing and shaping EU policies towards the region (Badarin & Wildeman, 2022; Lounnas, 2022; Roccu & Voltolini, 2017a). The rise of terroristic threats, the intensified regional instability and the increase of illegal immigration seem to have pushed the EU to prioritise security and stability concerns over democracy and human rights issues in the last decade. The 2015 review of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) represents the formalisation of such an approach at a policy-text level. By combining a predominantly qualitative approach with a minor quantitative analysis, this paper argues that the NDICI fits into the EU security-stability nexus. 

The adoption of NDICI represents a turning point in the EU’s development policy by merging all the already existing funding instruments into a single framework. This is part of a process of budgetisation and rationalisation of the EU intervention, embedded into the attempt to both overcome the trap of enlargement exhaustion and strengthen its external governance (Lavenex & Schimmelfennig, 2009). By setting a budget of €79 billion, the new funding instrument aims to provide a holistic policy framework beyond EU borders and respond more efficiently and effectively to emerging challenges. 

Thus, the rationale of this work is to assess the continuity of NDICI within an EU security-stability nexus which has hitherto shaped the EU approach towards the Southern Neighbourhood. By doing so, it aims to provide a deeper and more thorough understanding of the new external funding instrument of the EU which has so far only been partially addressed by scholars and academics.

Accordingly, this paper will be structured as follows. After this short introduction, the first section will review the existing literature on the EU relations with the Southern Mediterranean within an EU security-stability frame. The second section will focus on the structure and engagement of the EU action in the region before and after the Arab uprisings. Then, by undertaking a qualitative and quantitative analysis of the NDICI, I will evaluate accounts of continuity in the EU policy formulation. The conclusive section will provide the main findings and offer insights into future research works. 

Literature review

This section will briefly review the existing literature on the EU approach to the Southern Neighbourhood. While most scholars have focused on EU tools and policies adopting an inside-out perspective, different understandings and approaches have been provided over the years.

Tobias Schumacher and Raffaella Del Sarto (2005) describe the Barcelona Process, namely the 1995 initiative to strengthen the relations between the EU and the Southern Mediterranean countries,  as a disappointing instrument in the EU’s policy strategy, with the ENP recasting rather than replacing the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership in terms of greater “power projection” (Seeberg, 2009b: 81; Schumacher & Del Sarto, 2005). This expansionary projection seems to be part of a continuum in the process of European integration and the actual representation of the evolution of the EU’s international stance. Shifting to be conceived as a civilian power, the EU’s role in the international arena has long been debated by academics (Bull, 1982; Duchêne, 1972, 1973). More recently, Ian Manners (2002) has instigated the debate on the “normative power Europe” and the EU’s capacities of setting and shaping conceptions of normal in international relations. Del Sarto (2015) countered such an interpretation, describing the EU as a “normative empire”, engaging with its Southern Neighbourhood in normative policies, but primarily serving its own economic and security interests. Other authors have also investigated the structure and ways through which the EU has engaged with its neighbourhood and the limits thereof (Bicchi, 2007; Lavenex & Schimmelfennig, 2009; Lavenex & Ucarer, 2004; Seeberg, 2009a).

This rhetoric-practice gap is largely highlighted and investigated by the literature pointing to security and economic concerns of the EU, identified as a “realist actor in normative clothes” (Cavatorta et al., 2009; Hyde-Price, 2006; Seeberg, 2009b: 81). Such an approach records a shift from “normative power Europe” to “Fortress Europe” (Badarin & Wildeman, 2022). Emile Badarin and Jeremy Wildeman (2022: 401) argue that “EU development policy towards the MENA region is centred on the short-term aim of deterring migration and promoting security, along with the long-term structural aim of exporting EU-styled governance and reforms”. This interpretation is supported by research showing how democracy promotion in the region is not a top priority for the EU (Hollis, 2012; Lounnas, 2022; Pace, 2009). 

Such works have been mostly based on an inside-out perspective, neglecting the role of local actors and perceiving the ENP as a one-way, outward-directed process. In contrast to this, Roberto Roccu and Benedetta Voltolini (2017a) have provided a constructivist understanding of the EU approach to the region. Albeit identifying the security-stability nexus as the “master frame” for the ENP, such a frame needs to be conceived as a dialogical interaction between the EU and the region (Roccu and Voltolini, 2017a). In this way, an outside-in perspective is established, and framing the EU security-stability nexus through a social constructivist lens allows adaptation to different fields and specific conditions. Accordingly, understanding the ENP is no longer linked to a mere European dimension, but requires an interregional approach capable of grasping dynamics of both sides of the Mediterranean. Insightful research works have pointed to local actors and their interests, material capabilities, and social structures, showing how the EU security-stability nexus is embedded into networks of regional and interregional dynamics (Casier, 2011; Fontana, 2016; Gnedina & Popescu, 2012; Maggi, 2016; Seeberg, 2009). For instance, Iole Fontana (2016) has explained countries’ variance in the ENP implementation in terms of domestic political actors, administrative capacities and civil society. 

Although different understandings have been developed to grasp the EU approach to its neighbourhood, most of the literature seems to move away from the idea of Europe as a normative power and agree on the primacy of security and economic interests over democracy and human rights promotion. In this sense, the EU resembles more a normative empire rather than a normative power (Del Sarto, 2015). It is therefore worth asking whether the EU is continuing to pursue this security-stability path or not. If the pandemic crisis has indeed pushed the EU beyond its long-standing caveats on pooling common budget, has the EU’s approach to the region changed with the NDICI? What are the characteristics and objectives of the NDICI? Looking at the Arab uprisings and their residuals as a pertinent example, has the EU prioritised the promotion of democracy and sustainable development? 

The EU’s approach before and after the Arab uprisings

Before moving to the analysis of the new funding instrument of the EU, it is worth highlighting the evolution of the ENP since its establishment. The ENP traces its roots back to “The Wider Europe Neighbourhood, A New Framework for Relations with our Eastern and Southern Neighbours”, through which the European Commission stressed the need for a new unified policy towards its neighbourhood (Commission of the European Communities, 2003). 

The creation of the ENP was aimed at promoting “democracy, rule of law, respect for human rights, and social cohesion” at EU borders (Commission of the European Communities, 2004). More specifically, the original goals of the ENP included alignment with EU democratic and humanitarian standards, for example through political (e.g., free and fair elections) and economic reforms through the instrument of conditionality (Lavenex & Schimmelfennig, 2011). Using technical instruments such as twinning (institutional collaboration between EU and ENP countries), TAIEX (Technical Assistance and Information Exchange instrument) or SIGMA (Support for Improvement in Governance and Management), Israel, Jordan, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority, and Tunisia were those MENA countries supposed to join the Southern ENP framework (Wesselink & Boschma, 2016). Libya and Syria were required to pursue internal political reform to meet the requirements for signing Association Agreements (AAs) or Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (PCAs), while Algeria and Egypt joined later. The EU aid in the region took different forms, but, as highlighted in the previous section, the EU approach shows an overall misfit between objectives and actual policies (Del Sarto, 2015). The EU used to back authoritarian regimes by sponsoring and financing them to pursue its security and economic interests, although this might be at odds with democracy promotion (Gillespie & Youngs, 2002; Roccu & Voltolini, 2018; Volpi & Cavatorta, 2006). In Tunisia, the EU committed €180 million for economic governance and competitiveness, €65 million for employability and €55 million for sustainable development, while democratic and institutional reforms were not included in the agreed agenda (see Tunisia NIP 2007-2010). In Lebanon, the EU disbursed only €22 million for political reform, €86 for social and economic reform and €79 million for reconstruction and recovery (see Lebanese Republic NIP 2007-2010). In Morocco, the EU deployed €722 million mostly for social and economic modernisation, while only 1.1% of the budget targeted democratic governance and human rights (European Commission, 2014). A similar path was followed in Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, and partly in Libya where EU funds mainly covered special missions on migration. 

These figures rebut arguments in favour of a normative Europe, involved and active in promoting democracy and human rights in the Southern Neighbourhood.

The Arab uprisings, which marked a crucial step for the evolution of the region, have been identified as a possible turning point in terms of EU policies. This shift is largely represented by the “more for more” approach developed by the EU as a response to regional turmoil. The 2011 Revised ENP stressed the importance of “deep democracy” linked with the concept of “inclusive growth”. However, scholars largely agreed that despite the stronger emphasis on a rhetorical level, the substance of the EU intervention did not change (Colombo & Tocci, 2012; Teti, 2012). Other authors have supported the “continuity” thesis, arguing that a reframing of the security-stability nexus allows the EU to be a more flexible, pragmatic international actor (Dandashly, 2017; Durac, 2017; Roccu & Voltolini, 2017b). This flexibility seems to have prompted the EU to develop a tailor-made approach per country and per sector, even as the understanding of security has broadened across all sectors (Roccu & Voltolini, 2018b). Assem Dandashly (2017) perfectly shows such a pragmatic approach of the EU in the region by comparing the EU’s means of engagement in Tunisia and Egypt. However, this is also visible by looking at the EU’s financial commitments in both countries before and after the Arab uprisings. Despite both having experienced a regime change, the EU’s engagement differs strongly in terms of its priorities with only €1.8 million committed to democratic transformation and institutional building in Egypt between 2011 and 2013. The comparison of EU financial commitments in the other countries of the EU Southern Neighbourhood (Algeria, Lebanon, Libya, Jordan, Morocco, Syria) reveals a more heterogeneous picture than in the 2007-2010 term. This is due to an increased pragmatism of the EU that has led to a tailor-made approach, with the EU promoting political and institutional development only in those countries considered ready to undertake a democratic transition while supporting status-quo forces in partner countries that do not share similar ambitions, thus prioritising security and stability over promotion of values.

Economic and security interests therefore remain central in shaping EU policies and constitute the master frame of the EU aid and development policy in the Southern Neighbourhood. Such a frame has been formalised with the 2015 ENP Review, stressing the rationale of stability, security, and state-societal resilience. Democracy funding diversion into migration issues and the establishment of the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa go in this direction and confirm an already well-established path. The next section seeks to assess the role of the NDICI within this security-stability pathway, identifying legacies and elements of either continuity or discontinuity in the EU approach to the Southern Neighbourhood at a policy-text level. 

The NDICI through an analytical lens

While the tensions between norms and realpolitik have always been at the centre of academic and political debates within the EU, the Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument represents the biggest and most ambitious move in the evolution of the EU aid and development policy.

Aiming to build a comprehensive framework to respond to the increasing external challenges that the EU is currently facing, the NDICI merges existing external financing instruments of the EU into one for the multiannual financial framework 2021-2027. Specifically, it absorbs the European Development Fund (EDF), the European Neighbourhood Instrument (ENI), the Development Cooperation Instrument (DCI), the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), the Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace (IcSP), the Partnership Instrument (PI) and the Guarantee Fund for External Actions. This reflects a simplification process that aspires to rationalise EU development funds, ensuring coherence and favouring flexibility over programming. 

The NDICI instrument overall is worth €79 billion for the 2021-2027 multiannual financial framework and aims to “uphold and promote the Union’s values, principles and fundamental interests worldwide” (art. 3). In this sense, the new instrument seeks to ensure consistency and coherence in the EU’s action, and an emphasis on EU norms and values is constantly present throughout the text. In particular, “Union action should be rooted in international human rights”and “should address human rights and democratisation issues at all levels” (par. 3, 42). The NDICI targets and highlights its normative identity and underlines its contribution to a value-based global order by renewing its support for multilateralism. This introduces new attention to climate and the environment with “an overall target of 30 % of the Union budget expenditure supporting climate objectives” (par. 49). Such a commitment is renewed within both the general and specific objectives of the instrument. The NDICI’s value-oriented rhetoric marks a clear normative discontinuity with the past. 

As shown by Aline Burni, Benedikt Erforth, and Niels Keijzer (2021), this is probably due to the pressure of the European Parliament (EP). In this sense, it would be worth adopting a more cautious approach, and the analysis of the NDICI’s structure may reveal more concrete and interesting results than a critical description of its rhetorical targets.

The NDICI structures EU funding through geographic, thematic, and rapid response action programmes (art. 4.1). This list sets a hierarchy that is confirmed by the budget allocation. Geographic programmes receive a financial envelope amounting to 75% of the total budget allocation. In particular, the Neighbourhood’s funds amount to “at least” €19.3 billion, receiving the largest sum among geographic areas in proportional terms (art. 6.2). Here, it is possible to observe how the amount of money set for neighbouring countries has increased compared to the ENPI (€11.2 billion) and the ENI (€15.4 billion). Thematic programmes and rapid response actions receive €6.4 billion and €3.2 billion respectively, while €9.5 billion is reserved for emerging challenges and priorities. This sheds light on the asymmetries governing NDICI’s funding lines, where flexibility and pragmatism triumph over programming. More specifically, it is possible to observe the pragmatic and realist character of the NDICI that attributes a preeminent role to its geopolitical interests. Therefore, thematic programmes are once again seen as an added value in terms of subsidiarity and aim to consolidate and rationalise the EU’s external action with its founding norms and values (Commission of the European Communities, 2005). Accordingly, the emphasis on EU values and normative objectives should come as no surprise, albeit democracy, human rights, and civil society absorb less than 40% of the total amount of thematic funds. 

However, the NDICI’s hierarchical funding structure does not provide any direct evidence for its actual content, thus a step forward in its implementation is needed. 

The regulation identifies a large set of principles and scopes for programming whose analysis obscures understanding rather than aids it. In fact, the NDICI seems to be “overloaded with objectives and principles that identifying its actual focus and purpose is not possible” (Burni et al., 2021). This mostly reflects bargaining obstacles and dynamics. 

Yet, the NDICI’s policy text seems to be particularly concerned with migration and security and a constant reference to both issues as primary targets is evident in articles 3.1, 3.2, 8.10, 10.1, 11.1 and 18. To stress this point, it is worth comparing their mentions with the ENPI and ENI’s texts. In order to avoid biased results due to the different lengths, I weighted the observations by dividing them by the number of pages. I only considered the observations that indirectly or directly referred to the Neighbourhood. The graph has been provided on a scale of 1:100 to better catch the degree of disparity between the different regulations. 

Figure 1 illustrates that the use of the words “migration” and “security” has largely increased in the NDICI text. In particular, migration is mentioned 69 times on 78 pages. The value of 88 can be interpreted as follows: the word “migration” occurs on approximately 9 out of every 10 pages. “Security” is present in almost every page of the regulation. These results contrast dramatically with the ENPI and ENI’s texts, where mentions of migration and security are always below 50 per cent and fall below 20 per cent in the case of ENPI. Conversely, such a disparity is not so straightforward with respect to “democracy” and “market”. While the former appears more frequently in the ENI and the NDICI with a significant gap to the ENPI, the latter seems to show a more balanced picture among those. This column chart therefore portrays a steep and clear increase in the use of the terms “migration” and “security” within the NDICI’s regulation compared to the previous ones. “Democracy” also records a relevant rise from the ENPI to the ENI, but the latter is in line with the NDICI; “market” does not disclose any significant variation.

Figure 1 – Author’s elaboration from ENPI, ENI and NDICI Regulation’s texts

Accordingly, the NDICI’s increased reference to migration and security issues seems to be in line with the EU stability-security nexus. This argument is strengthened by further analysis at the policy-text level. 

With respect to geographic programming, the regulation states that EU cooperation shall be based on a “tailor-made framework” that takes into account both partner’s needs, interests, and capacities (art. 13). This reflects a state-centred approach aimed at fostering stability and preserving the status-quo in partner countries. Article 17 addresses emerging challenges and priorities cushion and indirectly increases the security-stability nexus framing such a regulation. It specifically states that “to address new needs or emerging challenges, such as those at the Union’s or its neighbours’ borders linked to crisis, whether natural or man-made, violent conflict and post-crisis situations or migratory pressure and forced displacement”. This increases the room for manoeuvre for tackling security and stability concerns with a direct reference to the neighbours. Despite article 18 vaguely stressing the need for promoting political cooperation and consolidating democracy, it affirms the objective to strengthen partnerships on migration and mobility, as well as on security matters. Article 20 inserts an incentive-based approach even on cooperation on migration. The relevance of migration is confirmed in Annexes II, III, IV of the Regulation that stress the need to promote bilateral and multilateral cooperation and tackle regular and irregular migration and its causes. In this framework, attention to security is endemic to the text, shaping the NDICI’s nature in accordance with a stability-security oriented strategy. 

Thus, this confirms the argument of this contribution which identifies the new funding instrument as inserted and embedded into an already traced path. However, this embeddedness is at the same time, rather conversely, coupled with a strong rhetoric and commitment to EU’s values and norms whose interplay with the EU security-stability nexus remains fuzzy. 


This paper aimed to investigate the direction of the NDICI Regulation and its degree of misfit with respect to the EU security-stability master frame. The academic literature has largely shown that the EU approach to its Southern Neighbourhood is affected by incoherence and inconsistency between policy formulation and actual policy implementation. More specifically, the EU seemed to be more interested in pursuing the stabilisation and securitisation of its borders, while neglecting and disregarding its alleged and declared normative nature. 

This has led authors to describe the EU action in terms of security and stability concerns, building and shaping what has been called the “security-stability nexus”. Roccu and Voltolini (2017a) have identified it as a master frame that informs and characterises the EU in the Southern Neighbourhood. This is in line with most of the works produced on the region (Cavatorta et al., 2008; Hyde-Price, 2006; Lounnas, 2022). And this is coherent even with the analysis provided in the third section of this work. By looking at the ENPI implementation, it is possible to observe how the EU partnership with its neighbours does not fit well with its rhetoric and appears to be largely limited and restrained to specific cases under specific conditions. Whether this is due to the EU’s lack of normative ambition, or its realist inner nature, is beyond the scope of this paper. Here, the question I address is if the NDICI is framed within the same security-stability nexus. 

The NDICI’s structure aims to ensure efficiency and effectiveness for the EU aid and development policy and seems to be oriented towards emerging challenges and threats. While this is testified by the increased relevance of the emergency cushion, the predominance of geographic programmes provides the NDICI with a geopolitical dimension. This structure favours pragmatism and flexibility and subordinates EU thematic programmes. 

However, this contrasts with a more accentuated and constant reference to the EU’s values and norms. The regulation is intrinsically normative at a first glance and may reveal a significant disparity with respect to the EU’s security-oriented approach. It is worth noticing that these value-based commitments are embedded into an extremely broad and vague framework, whose direction is barely traceable. In fact, this matches with an increased attention to migration and security matters. The fourth section demonstrated that the use of the terms “migration” and “security” has risen with respect to the ENPI and ENI regulation. This, however, is not just a matter of content but involves and merges with the whole structure of the NDICI. In this sense, migration becomes a key pillar of the regulation, while security is endemic in it and shapes and orientates its nature in line with the existing security-stability nexus.

This work represents one of the first contributions to a better understanding of the NDICI and its overall direction. Due to its early nature, some relevant limits emerge. Firstly, the scope of this paper is limited, since it merely investigates the regulation from a policy-text level. The policy process is a long journey, and policy formulation is likely to differ from its actual implementation. Secondly, the NDICI also includes different geographic areas. This may lead to some biases in the analysis by attributing, at this stage, general provisions to specific territories.

Thus, in the next few years, research work needs to address such gaps by adopting more ambitious objectives and focusing on the implementation of the NDICI in the countries of the Southern Neighbourhood. Such an approach requires looking at individual action plans and special measures to investigate if and to what extent the NDICI and its rationalisation have affected the EU aid and development policy in the Southern Neighbourhood, and how its normative rhetoric deals with increased attention to security and migration. 


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