I provided an introductory overview of the main security challenges and threats the EU is facing in the Southern Neighbourhood in Session Three of The Chatham House Annual Members’ Conference, which focuses on Enhancing EU Stability: Labour, Migration and Development. The session addressed four essential questions:

  1. Will political instability and domestic upheavals in the Balkans and the MENA region spill over into the borders of the EU? What threats does this pose?
  2. The Neighbourhood Policy looks to strike a balanced migration management strategy where illegal immigrants are kept out, but highly skilled workers from neighbouring countries are welcome: how is this working in practice?
  3. To what extent does the current shape of the European Neighbourhood Policy reflect the security needs of the EU?
  4. What is the EU’s role in tackling the Middle-East peace-process and how can it be enhanced?

My overview started out with the observation that spill-over in the traditional sense of contagion where conflict in one country or region spills over into another is less of an issue in respect of the Balkans and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Nonetheless, the fact that these parts of the EU neighbourhood remain politically, socially, and economically unsettled causes several problems for the EU, including the need for continuing engagement of the EU, increased migration pressures, the probability of further radicalisation in the region, and the fact that instability provides a fertile ground for transnational organised crime.

This means that the European Union’s European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), much like almost any other foreign policy, is security driven. However, ENP objectives (prosperity, democracy and security in the Neighbourhood) and a wide range of programmes and initiatives to achieve them are not necessarily the most effective means of serving the Union’s security needs, as the challenges in the region do not lend themselves to the kinds of intervention that the EU is good at.

This is nowhere more obvious than in relation to the Middle East conflict and the current phase of the peace process. The EU may not be the main mediator in the conflict, but it has an important role to play nonetheless, primarily in two dimensions: in assisting on the ground, especially through humanitarian and development aid programmes; and as a market and source of investment, especially for Israel and some of the Arab states (particularly for oil and gas), and potentially more so for a future Palestinian state and its economy.

However, if the current peace process fails (or rather when?) and the US disengages as it did previously, the EU may be pushed into a more proactive role to “manage” relations between Israel and its Arab neighbours and between Israel and the Palestinian territories, as well as among Arab states and the West Bank and Gaza. This raises the question of whether the EU would be prepared for this, not least in terms of a common position among member states and within its institutions.

This last point reflects a much broader problem that the EU has in my view with regard to its ENP in general and with regard to the MENA region in particular. Since the beginning of a more structured engagement of the Union with the region, and most definitely since the launch of the ENP, there has been a proliferation of initiatives, programmes, and instruments targeted at the Southern Neighbourhood, but it is not always clear whether these are driven by “process” and are masking a lack of policy substance, whether they reflect the complexity of issues that need to be addressed, whether they represent a comprehensive approach on the part of the Union, and/or they are an indication of the diversity, rather than unity, of interests and approaches across the member states and institutions of the EU.

Whatever the reason, to enhance the overall effectiveness of ENP on the ground and better serve the needs of the EU, its member states and citizens, the ENP needs to be both comprehensive and coherent, and it needs to be driven by a commonly shared definition of EU interests vis-à-vis the Southern Neighbourhood.