‘Nothing is imposed in this policy!’: From the European Neighbourhood to Greece

By Ondřej Horký-Hlucháň with Petr Kratochvíl,
Institute of International Relations, Prague


Anti-EU graffiti in Athens, 28 June 2015. Photograph: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters


The European Union recently imposed harsh reforms on the Greek government, parliament and people. While the European leaders openly preferred to maintain the burden of an unsustainable debt over democratic sovereignty, they have also stressed that ‘the ownership by the Greek authorities is key’ in the Euro-Summit ‘agreement’ and emphasized ‘the need to rebuild trust’. While the neocolonial attitudes of EU core countries might come as a surprise to some, a thorough look at some EU policies such as the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) shows that the EU’s actions are often to a large extent based on a very similar attitude, reminiscent of its colonial past.

This is at least the outcome of our research that built upon three theoretical pillars found in the theories that are seldom applied to the EU: postcolonialism, postdevelopment and critical approaches to modern history such as Balkanism and the so-called ‘East-West slope’. By analysing dozens of documents and their genesis we have found that in spite of the justification by liberal-democratic values and principles, the EU’s approach to its neighbourhood is often highly constrictive and the institutional arrangements grossly asymmetrical. The ‘partners’ of the EU are presented with no other route to ‘progress’ and ‘development’ than becoming ever-more EU-like but, unlike in the case of enlargement, without the perspective of participating in the EU’s decision-making process. If they decide not to move closer toward the EU, they are named and shamed as non-cooperative. Nowadays, this approach also seems increasingly relevant for understanding the EU’s approach to Greece.

The novelty of the EU’s approach to the neighbourhood compared to other colonial and neo-colonial policies is that it conceals its dominance by using cooperative and egalitarian language. Yet, the European Commission has officially and repeatedly denied the asymmetry of the relation between the EU and its neighbourhood. This claim is present not only in the authoritative exclamation ‘Nothing is imposed in this policy!’ which gave the main title to our article and this blog entry, but also in other texts by the former Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner who believed in ‘encouraging not imposing reform’.

A number of Orwellian neologisms with adjectives that disfigure the meaning of the original nouns perfectly illustrate this disguised asymmetry. For example, ‘shared values’ and ‘common values’ – the underlying principles of the policy – are in fact the values monopolized by the European Union as attested elsewhere in the footnotes of the documents. Moreover, the there is nothing like a simple ‘partnership’ of the EU with the countries of the neighbourhood, but it is supplemented with an adjective as a ‘reform partnership’. Here, however, only the partners (and not the EU) have to deepen their reforms.

Sounds familiar?

To take another example, rather than stressing the ownership of the policy by the ‘partner‘ countries, as is common with the EU development policy, somehow more aware of its colonial legacy, the term ‘ownership’ appears almost exclusively in the form of the phrase ‘joint ownership’… which is based on the ‘shared values’ i.e. the values of the EU. Finally, the policy’s central metaphor of ‘creating’ a ‘ring of friends’ presumes the existence of a centre and posits the idea of the hegemony of the EU over the neighbourhood through unilateral action, which is contradictory to the idea of an equal relation between peers.

So is this the celebrated ‘normative power Europe’? When Ian Manners revisited his popular concept ‘normative power Europe’ in the mid-2000s, he defended it against François Duchêne’s concept of ‘civilian power’, which he believed was discredited. Indeed, Manners was aware of the postcolonial argument that ‘civilization’ was connected too much to the ‘European’ endeavour. That is why he attempted to use the term ‘normative power’ to ‘capture the movement away from Cold War (and neo-colonial) approaches to the EU.’ However, the political reception of Manner’s concept has always highlighted norms at the expense of power and it cannot change the path dependency of the policies as well as the continuity of staff in the Commission from the DG Development to DG Enlargement and later to the ENP.

But of course, there is no power without resistance to it. The reserved reception of the ENP by the Southern neighbours has shown that the North African governments were aware of the dominance. At the same time, however, they didn’t reject ENP altogether because they could seemingly conform to the EU’s conditionality and self-servingly profit from the assistance it was offering. The EU’s support to non-democratic governments before and after the ‘Arab Spring’ is an excellent example of this ambiguity. This dimension seemed to be less manifest in the Eastern dimension since most Central and Eastern European countries have never had colonies nor had been colonized which makes them less sensitive. But the normative pull of the EU as well as the asymmetric nature of the relationship was too easily recognized by Russia. From the start it refused to participate in the seemingly benevolent ENP and later it vehemently opposed its deepening by intervening with military force in Ukraine.

We were not surprised to find post-colonial theories useful to understand the EU enlargement period before and the European Neighbourhood Policy now. But who would expect that post-colonialism may now be useful to understand the asymmetric relations within the European Union? The structural inequalities between the core and peripheral economies of the EU are not new but they never took over the politics. However, the July Euro-Summit ‘agreement’ against the outcome of the Greek referendum is a game changer. Even the Structural Adjustment Programmes by the Bretton Woods institutions in the 1980s never imposed as drastic laws to be passed within two days on the parliaments of the ‘Third World’ as those imposed by the Troika on Greece.

It is a general feature of the ‘colonizers’ that they deem their politics, policies and institutions to be superior and ultimately beneficial to those of the ‘colonized’ in spite of their continuing failure, from the European Neighbourhood to Greece. While the first ‘educate’ and set the rules of the discourse, the latter only struggle to make their experience and wisdom expressed and heard. Beyond the post-colonial diagnostic of the concealed asymmetries in the EU’s policies, we can therefore start by taking the voices from the periphery seriously and understand their resistance rather than prescribe a larger quantity of the usual pills. If we fail to adjust in this way, we may just need to get used to the current post-democratic hangover of the European Union and can expect the marginalized from the inner and outer periphery join the Eurosceptic camp on both of its political extremes.

This blog entry is partly based on the original article ‘Nothing Is Imposed in This Policy!’: The Construction and Constriction of the European Neighbourhood’ by Ondřej Horký-Hlucháň and Petr Kratochvíl, recently published in Alternatives: Global, Local, Political. The preprint of the article is available here.