The EU Global Strategy (2016) and the Review of the European Neighbourhood Policy (2015) initiated a new approach in the EU’s neighbourhood policy, with resilience and local ownership being hallmarked as the guiding principles. In a new article, Irina Petrova and Laure Delcour explore what meaning the EU attaches to these concepts and whether the recent narrative shift also brought about changes in the EU’s practices in the neighbourhood.
In the face of increasing instability and multiple crises, the European Union has recently embraced the concept of resilience as a governance strategy. As argued by Nathalie Tocci, “the EU acknowledged the need to build risk and uncertainty into its policies: The fact that developments in our surrounding regions (and beyond) are not simply beyond our full comprehension, but also and above all beyond our control.” Resilience therefore implies a greater reliance on the partners’ domestic structures. This puts local ownership at the heart of the EU’s foreign policy approach.
Although resilience and local ownership have been, for over a decade, studied in the context of peacebuilding and development, the extension of these concepts to other EU policies has yet to be scrutinized. We seek to enrich the understanding of the interplay between these two concepts by exploring how they are used in the neighbourhood policy (more specifically, its eastern dimension), a key foreign policy priority of the EU.
Our analysis of the EU’s foreign policy documents highlights a narrative shift. While the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) policy was previously built on the modernization theory (according to which external actors provide ready-made policy templates to be applied by domestic actors), after the 2015/2016 policy revision it increasingly refers to tailor-made cooperation templates and broad societal involvement. This signals a shift to a hybrid perspective on resilience-building, whereby resilience envisages the adaptation of domestic structures based on external templates, but only under the condition that they fit well with the local context.
Yet to what extent has this narrative turn also brought about actual change in the EU’s practices in its eastern neighbourhood? To answer this question, we traced the EU’s objectives, instruments and mechanisms in three pivotal areas of cooperation with eastern neighbours: trade, mobility, and good governance. Our findings reveal similar patterns across all three sectors.
First, in contrast to broad conceptualization of resilience and local ownership in the EU’s rhetoric, the toolbox used in the EaP reflects a narrow operationalization of these concepts. For instance, policy instruments used as part of the visa liberalisation process or the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements indicate the EU’s framing that resilience of the EaP states can only be enhanced via the adoption of Western/European (or EU-promoted) standards. Despite the promise of a tailor-made approach, the cases of Azerbaijan and Belarus are particularly illustrative of the fact that approximation with European standards is still expected (albeit on the smaller scale) even from those partners who insisted on building a truly common bilateral agenda.
Second, all three sectors show that the EU has left little scope (if any) to accommodate the preferences of those countries seeking closer ties with the EU, when these preferences diverged from its own vision. This continued reliance on the modernization paradigm in resilience-building reduced the space for the local ownership.
Third, limited local ownership implies a logic of subordination between domestic and external actors. This is despite the emphasis placed on partnership, ownership and dialogue in the EU’s narrative. Hence, our article confirms that the vision of the EU’s resilience-building in the neighbourhood aims at an effective governance of the EaP countries, rather than the genuine empowerment of local actors [hyperlink to the Introduction to the SI]. Therefore, if the EU is serious about adopting resilience as a way to navigate in an increasingly unstable and uncertain world, a substantial overhaul of policy practices is still required to match the narrative turn.
Irina Petrova is a doctoral researcher at the Leuven International and European Studies (LINES) Institute at KU Leuven. Laure Delcour is an Associate Professor in European Studies and International Relations, Université Paris 3-Sorbonne nouvelle (Paris). The are the authors of “From principle to practice? The resilience–local ownership nexus in the EU Eastern Partnership policy”, Contemporary Security Policy, which is available here.