The EU is a 26-member social, political, economic, and ideological international organization, that shares a single internal market, intertwined security measures, and maintains common policies on a range of governance aspects ranging from trade to regional development. The EU has grown over time and has expanded its influence in the European region significantly, also being the third-largest economy globally as a combined entity. Access to the EU single market was highly valued and signified prestige as more members became applicant states (Wood, 2015). However, the membership rate began to slow down at some point, as those remaining countries did not meet the standards to join the union. Realizing the bloc’s influence, the EU founded the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), aimed at stabilization and cooperation of relations with states in the vicinity (European Commission, n.d.). This paper will seek to explore whether the promise of EU membership is the only and primary way for the bloc to exert its influence on surrounding countries or whether the bloc has further regional hegemony.
The enlargement policy is the process that allows the EU bloc to expand through the ascension of new member states. It applies to countries that aspire to join the bloc, as the “prospect of membership is a powerful stimulus for democratic and economic reforms” for candidate nations (European Commission, 2022). The EU has expanded multiple times throughout its history, with candidate states having to undergo a complex process to meet EU standards in a wide variety of social, economic, political, governance, environmental, and other aspects (European Commission, 2014).
Any European region country can apply to join the EU if it respects the bloc’s democratic values and seeks to promote them. Governments must have stable democratic institutions, a functioning market economy able to compete in the EU, and the ability to undertake reforms based on EU policies as the essential criteria to join (European Commission, 2014). Candidate nations must undergo a range of reforms to their institutions, first adopting the EU acquis Communautaire or essentially the accumulation of legal acts, common rights, judicial concepts, and common obligations that are shared by all EU members, and then adopt the euro convergence criteria on the adoption of common financial principles (Thomson Reuters, n.d.). The EU Commission primarily oversees the application and candidacy status, guiding the nations through the necessary steps. The EU Parliament engages in bilateral dialogue and negotiations with applicant states. Along with the European Council, it adopts EU legislation and determines the foreign policy direction and enlargement strategy the bloc seeks to undertake. Finally, member states are critical to enlargement as to join the EU, all member states must anonymously vote for the new member (European Commission, 2014).
Enlargement policy has mainly been viewed as the EU’s most successful policy, both expanding its borders and strongly driving its influence. Enlargement was considered critical to the future of central and Eastern Europe in the aftermath of the USSR. It provided the countries with political and economic orientation for their modern transformation. In many instances, the voluntary adaptation of standard European rules as part of Europeanization was the factor that then allowed for ease of entry to the union. Enlargement has slowed down, that is factual, and now faces a significant threat as many Balkan states and others in the ENP region have adopted highly nationalistic and autocratic governance (Verheugen, 2013).
It should not be the EU’s primary policy anymore, as the bloc has reached its peak and can only take a few additional members. That is a result of the conditions for membership, known as the ‘Copenhagen criteria,’ being much more stringent than before, as well as the majority of the developed economies in the region already either joining the union or establishing a partnership (i.e., UK and Norway). Therefore, the remaining nations in the EU are currently undergoing candidate reforms or still have to achieve significant socio-economic and democratic progress to be realistically eligible for candidacy (Branislav, 2020).
However, Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine has fueled security concerns, which has led to a sudden surge of official applications to join the union, including from the invaded Ukraine and Georgia, and Moldova. These new applicant countries and other states that may follow are far from meeting EU criteria, and it is questionable if they will receive candidacy status (Woelk, 2019). The countries in question have been part of Europe’s ENP program and have struggled to implement reforms for years. Many EU diplomats are skeptical that they would be able to suddenly make the necessary internal changes, even with the existential threat of Russia’s aggression. Some EU members, such as Austria, are already declaring opposition to Ukraine joining the bloc at this time (Barigazzi, 2022). Enlargement does not hold the same value and influence as a foreign policy tool as it did in the 1990s and 2000s, particularly as the criteria to join the bloc have become increasingly strict.
European Neighborhood Policy
The ENP was launched in 2003 with the purpose of avoiding strict dividing lines between the EU and its member states and the bloc’s neighbors. It was launched as the EU was finishing its expansion phases in Central and Eastern Europe after the collapse of the USSR, and it became evident that the remaining states were not yet willing or socio-economically ready to join the bloc. The ENP was created as a tool to blur the lines, strengthening economic ties, promoting stability at EU’s borders, and promoting democratic values and human rights. However, the ENP was reviewed after the events of the Arab Spring, and the new policy places a strong emphasis on stability and security in the region. (European Commission, n.d.).
In 2020, the EU published the Eastern Partnership policy, which focuses on cooperation with its Eastern neighbors with the purpose of working together on policy areas, strengthening resilience, and sustainable development. The four key areas of policy development were aimed at a stronger economy, governance, connectivity, and society. The ENP policy to the East seems to have evolved to promote self-sufficiency, driven strongly by the threat of Russian regional hegemony and the dependence on Western aid, on which many of these countries have grown to rely. Similarly, in 2021, the EU revised its Southern Neighborhood policy, focusing on long-term socio-economic recovery and job creation. The issues at hand include governance, socio-economic, climate and security, with a particular focus on conflict that leads to human rights violations and significant forced displacement (European Commission, n.d.). The ENP with the South seems to have evolved based strongly on the immigration crisis that has been affecting the region.
Difference in Influence
The ENP, by all accounts, was highly unsuccessful. The majority of the 16 target countries in the ENP are now in a worse state arguably than they were in 2003 when the policy was enacted. The ENP was meant to surround the EU with a circle of friendly countries, but as a result, it faces a significant number of adversaries, while others distrust the EU and its goals. At first, the ENP’s influence was strong in promoting European values, and Europeanization took hold. This was seen across a range of color revolutions in Eastern Europe and the Arab Spring in 2011; even as recently as 2020, Belarus had massive protests in an attempt to establish a pro-EU government. However, the EU had no plan to respond because it did not predict that Europeanization would be such a destabilizing process (Speck, 2015). The ruling elites in the EU’s neighborhood countries were satisfied with the benefits of economic cooperation with the bloc, but anything that would empower the population towards political modernization was strictly controlled.
The ENP assumed that no such internal conflicts existed within the countries, so the EU sought to work with the official governments and the ruling elite to achieve modernization but failed to consider the reformers and the grassroots movements. The modernization from the approach mentioned above assumed that the rulers would be benevolent to adopt change, as would many EU leaders based on their values, but the reality turned out to be the same as these autocratic elites, who simply paid lip service to the modernization efforts, but never truly embraced it, as they were threatened by it.
The difference in the ENPs influence comes down to two factors: the country’s willingness to join the EU in some uncertain future and the level of political modernization that the ruling elite allows in their respective country based on the EU’s socio-economic influence. Some countries still have the desire and willingness to join the EU, with strong examples being Ukraine, Turkey (a long-time candidate state), and Georgia (Speck, 2015). They are small enough for their economic output to be integrated without forcing the EU to fundamentally change itself. These countries are generally willing to undertake deep reform to meet EU standards. The ENP policy is appropriate for these countries, and the EU’s influence is relatively strong.
However, the membership path is not possible in many cases, with countries such as Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt – all remaining unchanged or seeing slight reform. The approach with these nations is based mainly on cooperation- meaning accepting those in power and attempting to slowly implement transformation through soft power (Speck, 2015). Realistically, that influence is subdued because the strongmen leaders or corrupted elites in these other states are only interested in the EU’s market access through economic deals, but rarely any political reform. They typically maintain a minimal amount of opposition and implement reforms under the guise of other policy decisions, never allowing the EU’s influence to take hold.
Influence on Domestic Policy Without Membership
Europeanization can be viewed as a continuum where the EU policy penetrates domestic political systems. It becomes a matter of perspective on the continent, on what falls outside the reach of the EU. If everything is Europeanized, what is essentially not? Many political scientists argue that the extent of the EU’s reach is nearly everywhere on the continent and its sphere of influence to a certain degree. Europeanization can influence three primary areas: domestic structures, specifically political institutions, administrations, legal and representation, public policy, including its instruments, and finally, cognitive and normative structures, such as political discourse, values, governance, and paradigms (Radaelli, 2002). The most affected by this are applicant countries, but the EU does hold some, albeit limited, influence on its neighboring countries. However, to all extent, it is a rare occurrence that EU influence has impacted the domestic policy of a country that is not seeking to join the bloc.
The EU in itself only has the hard power to facilitate policy and regulate legal standards at the level of countries, and even then, it lacks the authority to decide upon a range of elements of domestic policy such as national social security, various benefits, and distribution of social rights. EU directives can contribute to policy coordination or set minimum standards but not fully control. However, there are softer tools at the EU’s disposal to influence the domestic policy of non-member or non-applicant states. One of the major influences of the EU is economics; as an economic union with free trade, it holds tremendous wealth and power. The EU can motivate a country to comply with human rights practices with appropriate domestic policies to receive or maintain a preferential trade status as an example of soft power. In some cases, as an international body and trend-setting bloc, the EU can set international norms that can then have a boomerang effect to motivate or resources to pressure national governments through supranational forums (White, 2020). To some countries, the EU may serve as an example of efficiency and progress based on which to mimic domestic policies.
One of the major countries in the ENP area is Egypt, a regional power and a relatively major economy. The country had undergone tremendous political and economic turmoil in the early 2010s as part of the Arab Spring but has since seen a slow economic recovery. To Egyptian authorities, the EU is seen as an economic and cultural power, not a military one, despite the majority of EU countries being part of NATO and having significant military forces. The EU is Egypt’s largest trading partner, accounting for 29.7% of Egypt’s trade by volume. European financial aid and investments provide funding for crucial projects in the country, with more than 1.2 billion euros from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) (Ghafar, n.d.). The EU’s economic support is vital for Egypt, which is seeing overpopulation and socio-economic and security challenges and still lacks a stable economy.
As a result of this economic outreach, the EU maintains a level of political and economic leverage in Egypt. It is relatively limited, such as legitimizing or delegitimizing a political transition in Egypt or highlighting a human rights issue or highly discriminatory domestic policy. Egypt craves recognition in many forms, particularly from such an entity as the EU, making small gestures such as releasing political prisoners, adopting more Eurocentric rhetoric, or quietly resolving a controversy after international criticism. However, Egypt’s institutions have severely rejected the EU’s criticism, particularly of the country’s political direction. In 2018, the Egyptian Parliament indicated that the EU Parliament’s criticism of the country’s approach to human rights was interference in internal affairs and hypocritical, directing the EU to investigate its own issues domestically, including continuous anti-Muslim policies and sentiments (Ghafar, n.d.). The Egyptian government is highly sensitive to some aspects, such as human rights abuses, and publicly negates or demonstrates nationalistic rhetoric in many such circumstances.
Ironically, Egypt realizes that just as much as it relies on the EU, the bloc needs the partnership as well as part of its ENP because Egypt is a key security partner and vital to stability in the MENA region as well, including on highly sensitive issues for Europe such as immigration control. Furthermore, Egypt is one of the most prominent economies in Africa, and its purchasing parity from the EU as a major trading partner is highly beneficial for some of the major European economies, particularly France and Italy. There is also potential for Egypt to become a regional gas hub, diversifying EU’s energy needs, which is more critical than ever before at this time (Ghafar, n.d.). As a result, the EU has been soft on its condemnation of Egypt and is unlikely to go beyond mild criticism unless there is a massive change in the status quo. Despite Egypt not always being a perfect partner, pursuing its own interests, Egypt is exploiting at the very least, the perception that Europe cannot afford to lose that partnership.
Examining all the information, frameworks, and applications in the form of ENP’s partnership with Egypt, it can be argued that membership is largely the only means that the EU can exert any real influence on its neighboring countries. In other cases, it is the only mild economic influence that has little actual impact on the policies of these countries. As mentioned earlier, the ENP countries to the East of the EU are more susceptible to influence, as they are seeking to escape Russia’s sphere of influence and gain security protections, albeit many are approaching membership or already are part of NATO. Meanwhile, countries in the MENA region are not as impacted as they have either no interest or lack the possibility from a socio-economic standpoint to meet the EU standards to be even considered for membership (outside of Turkey and Israel). As history has shown, the EU rarely divests or abandons economic projects in other countries; it would require either continuous and significant diversion from the EU’s values domestically or something atrocious such as the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
The ENP was developed with the concept of EU enlargement at hand to support the structural transformation of the EU’s southern and eastern neighbors. However, these countries in the ENP currently share little with the EU except geographic proximity. The ENP methodology is based on the enlargement experience, but membership was never guaranteed (Lehne, 2014). Therefore, the approach ultimately fails for countries that do not want closer association with the EU, especially politically, such as Egypt and most MENA countries and some of the Eastern neighbors, such as Belarus and Russia. Meanwhile, it frustrates those countries that may desire membership, such as Ukraine and Georgia, because ultimately, despite all the cooperation they may have with the ENP, candidacy status is not guaranteed. While the EU insists on conditionality in its interactions with neighbors, it applies the conditions selectively. Furthermore, the ENP is meant for long-term engagement and a stable environment but is largely inconsistent in the rapidly changing environments of the EU’s neighborhood in the modern day.
Therefore, weighing these facts, the EU can only exert true influence with the enticement of membership. Without such a possibility, countries will cooperate with the EU but not shift policies or national agendas because of the EU’s criticism. That also stems from the fact that the EU is primarily an economic union; it focuses more on ensuring its socio-economic and security needs are met, despite its positioning as an advocate for democracy, human rights, or other vital issues. That is not to say that the EU will never sanction, but its soft power is ultimately limited, despite potentially billions of euros of business, trade, and investment with any given country part of the ENP. The EU’s influence has been curbed dramatically in the recent decade as it faces its own internal struggles. Its reputation was strongly affected by Brexit, and now several of its member states have highly nationalist governments in place that will ultimately oppose any major EU objectives that may take away from their nation’s influence or prosperity (Belin and Reinert, 2019). The EU is not falling apart, but it is internally failing, weakening its capacity to promote democratic values or global cooperation.
It is only if a country is actively seeking to join the EU or has attained candidacy status the EU begins to gain more substantial influence because, to join the bloc, a country’s domestic policies and institutions have to meet specific standards and match other EU member states across a range of indicators. Other neighboring states respect their ties to the EU and seek mutually beneficial partnerships, but generally, the EU lacks such a strong hegemony as the US or China in their respective regional spheres of influence. That occurs largely because the EU does not necessarily have a unified foreign policy in itself, but rather a group of nations agreeing on specific concepts, nor does it have enforcement mechanisms.
The EU is an economic and political bloc that holds tremendous influence in Europe. It has grown from a union of several countries to encompassing nearly the whole continent. A significant underlying cause to its soft power was the ability to join the Eurozone. However, as it has grown, the bloc created the ENP to guide its relations with nearby countries, many of which are not yet willing or capable of meeting the standards of the EU. This paper explores whether the EU’s influence stems solely from its ability to add new members to the bloc or whether that reach extends further with some level of regional hegemony. It was determined that the EU membership is the primary means of influence held by the EU as purely a political and economic international organization. Outside of its borders, it has very limited influence on its ENP neighbors, who are not actively seeking to join the Eurozone. While economic and security cooperation with ENP countries is crucial, as with the example of Egypt, it is mutually beneficial and lacks the same enforcement power that the EU has over its member and candidate states.
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