EU ‘ring of friends’ turns into ring of fire

The European Union’s dream of building a ring of friends from the Caucasus to the Sahara has turned into a nightmare as conflicts beyond its borders send refugees teeming into Europe.

In contrast to the success of its eastward enlargement drive that transformed former communist countries into thriving market democracies, the European Neighbourhood Policy launched in 2003 has been a spectacular flop.

It offered money, technical assistance and market access, but not membership, to 16 countries to the east and south in return for adopting EU democratic, administrative and economic norms. “As we look at the situation now, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that we are surrounded not by a ring of friends – but by a ring of fire,” former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt said earlier this year.

The failure to stabilise or democratise the EU’s surroundings was partly due to forces beyond Brussels’ control: Russian resentment over the collapse of the Soviet Union, as well as political and sectarian strife in the Middle East. Five of the six Eastern Partnership countries – Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan – are weakened by unresolved frozen conflicts in which Moscow has a hand.

The sixth, Belarus, is so authoritarian that it is subject to EU sanctions and has eschewed the offer of a free trade deal. EU officials now acknowledge that the framework designed to engage and transform the bloc’s neighbours was flawed from the outset due to a mixture of arrogance and naivety.

“The idea was to have a ring of friends who would integrate with us but not become EU members. That was rather patronising,with the European Union telling everyone what to do because we believed they wanted to be like us,” said Christian Danielsson, head of the European Commission department for neighbourhood policy and enlargement.

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