The 2021 ENP South Communication: A ‘renewed partnership’ but ‘old issues’ remain

The 2021 ENP South Communication: A ‘renewed partnership’ but ‘old issues’ remain

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The European Commission DG NEAR and the office of the High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy released a new policy statement (‘Communication’) ‘Renewed Partnership with the Southern Neighbourhood: A New Agenda for the Mediterranean’ on 9 February 2021. The Communication was accompanied by a staff working document ‘Renewed Partnership with the Southern Neighbourhood Economic and Investment Plan for the Southern Neighbours’. The priorities outlined in the Communication and the investment Plan are to be concretised as the new ‘Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI), which will finance the EU’s international cooperation, is programmed during 2021. 

The Communication promises a renewed partnership with the Southern Neighbourhood. The document itself is ambitious and comprehensive and joins the ranks of highly readable and thought-provoking policy documents produced by the Commission and the EEAS in recent years. However, the Communication does not herald the arrival of a ‘new agenda’. It emphasises transition rather than transformation, particularly in terms of the kinds of reforms the EU promotes in neighbouring countries, the incentives the EU is prepared to offer, and the risks the EU is prepared to take, especially regarding standing up for its own principles when called upon to do so.    

The ‘renewed partnership’ consists of five priority areas, supposedly without hierarchy: 

  • Human development, good governance and the rule of law
  • Strengthen resilience, build prosperity and seize the digital transition
  • Peace and security
  • Migration and mobility
  • Green transition: climate resilience, energy, and environment

This represents a broadening of the agenda from the last major EU policy document for the region. The 2015 European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) Review outlined three priorities: ‘economic development for stabilisation’; ‘the security dimension’; and ‘migration and mobility’. By stressing ‘human development’ and emphasising the governance and rule of law dimensions of economic cooperation, the 2021 Communication reflects current thinking on the social and political dimensions of economic development and its role as a driver of change. The addition of ‘peace’ to the security dimension reflects discussions on peacebuilding and the humanitarian-development-peace nexus in EU member states and at the EU level in recent years. The addition of the digital transition is new, and the inclusion of green transition as a priority in its own right reflects the Commission’s prioritisation of the European Green Deal in international as well as domestic policymaking. 

The Staff Working Document on the Investment Plan for the Southern Neighbours contains concrete proposals for ‘Flagship’ initiatives in four of the five priority areas (peace and security is not addressed in detail by the investment plan). The investment plan is expressly intended to develop in cooperation with member states, via Team Europe initiatives and potentially joint programming. 

What’s New?

Human development, good governance and the rule of law:

The Communication’s heavy emphasis on economic cooperation, trade, investment and jobs, which is reinforced by the Staff Working Document on the Investment Plan, is not underpinned by expressions of commitment to addressing the long-standing structural and political barriers that have prevented the Euro-Mediterranean initiatives of the past 25 years from achieving their expressed objectives. Nevertheless, some of the technical measures suggested have the potential to chip away at these political and structural barriers to closer economic cooperation. Examples include the intention to support the reduction of non-tariff barriers (a major impediment to trade integration in the region), the promise of support for the integration of North African countries in the new African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), and the strong emphasis on reinvigorating the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) as a forum for exchange and deeper cooperation. 

If the provisions on governance in the Communication are taken literally, the Staff Working Document’s statement that ‘financing could also be contingent on governance efforts’ could provide a benchmark against which the EU’s cooperation could be measured. For example, the Investment Plan mentions the recent ‘deal of the century’ normalising relations between Israel and several Arab states as a potential harbinger of trilateral cooperation initiatives, potentially co-financed by Gulf countries and investment banks. Large projects financed in cooperation with Gulf actors that help prop up repressive authoritarian rulers and systems could prove embarrassing when high-profile incidents, such as the violent suppression of peaceful protests or security agency abuse of vulnerable migrants, are covered by international media.

Strengthen resilience, build prosperity and seize the digital transition:

The Communication proposes to help southern Partners ‘take advantage of the digital transformation and become a competitor in the global digital economy’. This should be done via cooperation in four pillars: (i) governance, policy and regulatory frameworks; (ii) developing infrastructure and supporting universal access to enhanced, affordable and secure networks; (iii) digital literacy, skills, and entrepreneurship; and iv) digital services. The objective is to support innovative digital tools for advancing human development through encouraging the deployment of platforms and policies including e-government, eHealth, e-commerce, digital access to culture and cultural heritage, and digital skills in education.

The intention to deepen cooperation on cyber security and take advantage of digital technology in law enforcement ‘in full respect of human rights and civil liberties’ is cause for concern, given the human rights records of many of the region’s security and law enforcement agencies. The Investment Plan’s Flagship on ‘Digital Transformation’ proposes concrete initiatives for Morocco, Tunisia and Israel. While this could be interpreted as a tacit acknowledgement that this kind of cooperation should be more closely linked to good governance and limited in countries where governments are more authoritarian, the Flagship does not mention long-standing rights issues raised by the unresolved status questions of Palestine and Western Sahara.

Peace and security:

The Communication represents a significant statement of the EU’s intent to contribute more to conflict resolution and peacebuilding in the Mediterranean region. The Communication’s assertion that the EU is ‘a trusted partner… uniquely placed to bring together conflicting parties’ is unfortunately not as true as it should be. However, the new ‘Concept on EU Peace Mediation’ may herald its increased engagement in southern Neighbourhood conflicts, if there is adequate commitment to supporting mediation with political and economic resources, and member state unity. 

The Communication promises to strengthen law enforcement and judicial cooperation between the EU and ENP-South partner countries, including by negotiating cooperation agreements between the EU and individual southern neighbours. This intention is not new, as the EU and member state security services have been cooperating with neighbouring security services for many years. Given this long history of cooperation, the statement that the EU will ‘engage with Southern Partners in order to ensure that their law enforcement and judicial systems meet high standards of data protection and respect human rights’ comes across as naïve. Similarly, the expressed intention to enhance operational cooperation on maritime security and with coastguards makes no acknowledgement of the potential dark sides of this kind of cooperation. 

Migration and mobility:

The Communication’s provisions on migration management raise the prospect that financial support will be at least partly conditional on cooperation in this area. For example, the Communication states that migration and asylum ‘will be embedded in the different strands of our cooperation – political, security and economic’. Funds allocated under the Investment Plan’s Flagship on ‘Migration’ will be conditional on migration management cooperation.

The Communication proposes to promote the ‘Talent Partnerships’ proposed by the EU’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum, published in September 2020. Few details on the Talent Partnerships have been announced, but it appears that the new instrument aims at building cooperation with third countries in matching labour and skills needs in EU member states. This could be a potential area for linking vocational training, business-to-business networking, interregional value chains and circular migration to benefit individuals and economies of both sides of the Mediterranean, and to open up legal pathways for skilled migrants to spend a few years working in Europe. 

Green transition: climate resilience, energy, and environment:

The Communication acknowledges the southern Neighbourhood’s potential for renewable energy development, especially with regard to solar and wind, and to hydrogen production which it elevates as a ‘new strategic priority’. This potential is clearly linked to the European Green Deal and the increasing mainstreaming of sustainable development priorities in international cooperation globally.  

The Investment Plan’s Flagship on ‘Energy Transition and Energy Security’ promises support for Egypt’s transition to a green economy, but does not address the potential reputational risks of investing in the Sisi government’s priorities – risks that several EU member states also play down in their development and foreign policy towards Egypt. The Flagship’s intention to help Algeria develop untapped resources in wind and solar energy may be less realistic, but it promises to mirror the EU’s and member states’ large investments in supporting Morocco’s renewable energy sector. 

A renewed partnership, but not a new agenda

In general, the ENP South Communication is a technical, rather than a political statement. It is intended to serve as an overarching expression of principles and a general statement of intent, and it does not go into much detail in its 20 pages. There are clear efforts to be coherent with other relevant EU policy statements to which there are several references throughout the document.

It is less evident that DG NEAR and the High Representative are ready to address incoherencies in the neighbourhood policy itself. There is no discussion about inevitable trade-offs between pursuing objectives in the five priority areas, particularly migration/mobility and peace/security. There is also no real acknowledgement of the potential drawbacks of cooperation with the region’s governments, some of which are repressive and authoritarian as well as undemocratic. This is a concern when there is clear intention to deepen cooperation with their security sectors, and to share digital systems.

Despite these drawbacks, the ENP South Communication and the accompanying Investment Plan does offer some new ideas and potentially interesting proposals, particularly in the areas of green transformation, peace mediation and mobility. Its timing at the beginning of the NDICI programming cycle, and its calls for closer coordination via Team Europe initiatives should provide impetus for EU member states to engage with DG NEAR and with each other at the EU-level. For observers of EU-Mediterranean relations, the Communication provides a fresh set of benchmarks against which the EU’s ability to practice what it preaches will be judged.


Author: Dr. Mark Furness, Senior Researcher for the Inter- and Transnational Cooperation, DIE. 

The author is grateful for the feedback provided by the researchers: Bernardo Venturi, IAI and Gonzalo Escribano and Haizam Amirah-Fernández, Elcano

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash.

The views are those of the author and not necessarily those of ETTG.

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