Written by Diogo Ferreira (ambassador to Portugal) and edited by Thomas Coffey

Since its founding, the European Union (EU) has progressively developed relationships with its partnered nations, strengthened its foreign policy skills, and expanded its role as a global actor. This is best exemplified by the 2007 Lisbon Treaty, which formally recognised the European Council as an EU institution and, hence, improved the EU decision-making processes (Hix & Høyland, 2022). Based on this, the EU offers a stronger foundation to advance stability, security, and prosperity in its neighbouring countries, notably from non-EU Eastern Europe and North Africa, by establishing the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) as a framework for foreign policy to develop relations with its neighbours. This policy also strengthens the EU’s position as a global actor for the advancement of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law (European External Action Service, 2021).

Even though the ENP saw some success, its limited impact has led to criticism of the programme. This article will analyse the extent of the ENP as a vital instrument for the EU to develop itself as a strategic actor. This will be done by exploring its deficiencies and which recommendations the EU should consider to address the institutional shortfall in their partnership activities within the ENP.

The creation of the European Neighbourhood Policy

Following the largest expansion process ever, which saw ten nations join the EU in 2004 (with a combined population of nearly 75 million, which included Poland, Hungary, and the Baltic States), the EU established the ENP in the same year. Built on the premise of a ‘Wider Europe’, the ENP brings together countries that share the same values and objectives as the EU into closer cooperation, with the potential to establish an enhanced degree of economic and political unity (Scott, 2005). This is done to avoid further territorial lines between neighbouring countries and the EU by enhancing economic cooperation, conflict prevention, and promoting regional cooperation among neighbouring countries (Commission of the European Communities, 2003). Since the EU could not rely solely on the enlargement process to instigate transformation beyond its borders, the ENP was created as a response to the anticipated border issues that the EU would face post-enlargement (Tocci, 2005). As such, it aimed to build a ring of stable and prosperous states around the EU to promote stability and cooperation around its borders.

The limited impact of the ENP

Despite its righteous intentions, the ENP’s methods have been under intense scrutiny over the last 20 years due to their alleged disdain for nations that are deemed to be less advantageous. Scott (2005) supports this notion by showing that participants in the Eastern Partnership initiative—which consists of six non-member states in Eastern Europe: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine — have been set strategic boundaries to limit cooperation with other EU member states. This is because economic and political interdependence frequently clashed, leading to the marginalisation of the latter in favour of a skewed idea of free trade and limited illegal immigration from Eastern European nations. Because of the stricter regulations of the EU’s external action, aspects of the socio-cultural dimension of the partnership were overlooked in favour of economic and political interdependence, which stemmed from a lacklustre conception of “European values” (Scott, 2005).

Korosteleva (2011) further suggests, based on interviews and focus groups from Moldova, Belarus, and Ukraine, that rising tensions between the EU and Russia forced these Eastern European states to unconditionally choose a side where “each neighbour indicated the difficulty of the choice they were forced to make by both powers” (Korosteleva, 2011). This research suggests an asymmetrical framework of multilateral relations, which makes the practice of partnership in the ENP towards Eastern European countries challenging. This means that each neighbouring country’s interests and aspirations must align with EU values, primarily regarding trade, democratic governance, and the rule of law. Trade agreements require the full adoption and application of EU trade-related standards to act as a model for neighbouring countries in their modernization process. One example of this is the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas Agreement (DCFTAs), which was signed with Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, and came into effect in 2016 (Petrova & Delcour, 2019). While modernising local institutions in neighbouring countries through trade agreements is not perceived as a negative consequence, these trade agreements are considered non-negotiable packages that severely constrain viable options for Eastern European countries. The adoption of these agreements reflects an extensive over-reliance on the EU’s model as a driver of development, with the role of local actors being circumscribed to adopting reforms stemming from the agreements (Petrova & Delcour, 2019).

Is ‘resilience’ the magic word?

In 2016, as part of the EU’s Global Security Strategy, the ENP underwent major reform by introducing the ‘resilience’ model of geostrategy and partnership. With the continuing influx of refugees and the unfolding humanitarian disasters across Europe, the concept behind the ‘resilience’ model was to increase states’ capacity for change so they could withstand and recover from internal and external crises (European Union External Action, 2016). One of the main proponents of the reform was to guarantee local ownership for the adjacent Eastern European countries by emphasising the importance of involving local authorities, civil society organisations, and other stakeholders to engage in dialogue and cooperation initiatives supported by the EU (Korosteleva, 2018).

Research indicates that the ‘resilience’ model for the Eastern European states is continuously developed through the adoption of EU standards because, as a result of prior trade agreements, EU legislation still needs to approximate the partnership principles (Petrova & Delcour, 2019). As previously indicated, most local authorities have little to no freedom to adjust because of trade agreements that are based on strict EU norms. Therefore, it is more difficult to achieve local ownership, such as the active participation of local governments and civil society, because the EU’s financial assistance through the ENP is subject to stringent requirements and conditions that restrict the capacity of local actors to assume ownership of development projects. This can make it difficult for local stakeholders to tailor programmes to their specific needs and priorities and the ongoing adherence to EU legislation damages local authorities’ credibility (Petrova & Delcour, 2019).

The EU’s concept of ‘resilience’ may also be interpreted as a neoliberal approach to geostrategic partnerships due to changes within the EU’s regulatory policies, interventionist practices, and increased market competition that can lead to social exclusion and marginalisation (Korosteleva, 2018). Such an approach, as suggested by Chandler (2014), needs to move beyond the boundaries of neoliberalism and intervene instrumentally in the sphere of complex social interactions, and hence focus on society first by adopting a more inclusive and socially conscious approach to better address the underlying social issues that contribute to poverty and exclusion in the neighbourhood countries. In other words, for the EU to effectively tighten partnership cooperation with its neighbours, the ENP should not be hindered by the EU’s neoliberal model of the  ‘take-it or leave-it’ approach to its neighbours without accounting for regional socio-cultural differences (Korosteleva, 2018).


This article examined how the ENP uses a relatively unilateral understanding of collaboration with neighbouring nations, predicated mostly on economic and political interdependence, while largely ignoring the sociocultural aspects of the local community. Additionally, the EU’s ENP reform to implement a model of resilience did not change its core practices, which indicates that there is a clear need to amend such issues to alleviate the institutional deficits of the ENP.

These issues are clearer now especially with the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. Whereas the ENP seemingly forced the Eastern European countries to choose a side, EU or Russia, to develop close relations with, now it is evident that with the Russia-Ukraine war, some ENP’s Eastern partner states, with the exception of Belarus, are either siding with the EU (and the United Nations) on applying sanctions to Russia – such as Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia – while others have abstained their position – such as Armenia and Azerbaijan (Al-Jazeera, 2023). In this particular case, while siding with the EU was by no means an obligation from the ENP, the means of unconditionality and unilateralism by the ENP hinders these countries in developing partnership ties with other countries, such as Russia, that do not coincide with EU values.

As such, the EU must restructure the ENP by working with its neighbours to create cooperative policies that combine socio-cultural and political values with economic ones, based on consensus rather than unilateral decision-making. By engaging in joint strategies, the EU can strengthen diplomatic relations with its neighbours through regular dialogues, diplomatic missions, and cooperation frameworks that help to build trust, understanding, and cooperation. A starting example for this would be to establish buffer zones between the EU and the North African and Eastern European states close to the Middle East that could enhance border controls, combat human trafficking, and develop strategies for legal and orderly migration (Sarto, 2010).

The EU should also adopt a more flexible and tailored approach to engagement with individual partner countries and their local authorities based on their specific needs, circumstances, and level of cooperation. This could involve offering different levels of support and incentives based on the country’s commitments to reforms and values. As suggested by Korosteleva (2018), the EU needs to enable “the peoplehood” of neighbouring countries to make worthy governance more sustainable.

All in all, for the EU to play its role as a strategic actor, the ENP needs strategic reform. The abovementioned suggestions could help the EU better achieve its objectives of promoting stability, prosperity, and good governance in its neighbouring countries and contribute to a more secure and prosperous neighbourhood.



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