Another step of the Partnership with the Southern Neighbourhood: the New Agenda for the Mediterranean

Another step of the Partnership with the Southern Neighbourhood: the New Agenda for the Mediterranean

“The Union shall develop a special relationship with neighbouring countries, aiming to establish an area of prosperity and good neighbourliness, founded on the values of the Union and characterised by close and peaceful relations based on cooperation”. This is the first paragraph of the Article 8 of the Treaty of the European Union, one of the legal basis of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). On the 9th of February 2021 the European Commission presented the New Agenda for the Mediterranean, a new strategy concerning the Southern Neighbourhood of the EU, which includes: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. However, the latter’s participation is nowadays suspended due to the ongoing conflict. The new plan was announced on December 2020, for the 20th anniversary of the Barcelona Conference. But why was this new strategy created? What is the project? Was the EU capable of creating the “special relationship” described in the treaty in the previous years or is the goal still far?

  1. Where are we now: the relationship and the challenges.  

The construction process of a deeper relation between the EU and the southern coast of the Mediterranean began in 1995, when at the Barcelona Conference the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP) was launched with the aim of creating an area of peace, stability, economic prosperity, thus upholding democratic values and human rights.

After almost ten years we had the second step: in 2004 the ENP was created. The new policy was born as a consequence of the EU biggest enlargement to the East at the beginning of the 2000s. Nevertheless, it not only included the eastern countries, but, because of the resilient pressure by the Southern Member states, also those on the shores of the Mediterranean. The ENP was created in order to strengthen the prosperity, stability and security of all. Moreover, it was conceived as the alternative to traditional geopolitics: it had to promote structural reforms in neighbour countries through various instruments and long-term engagement. Another step was taken in 2008, when the Union for the Mediterranean was built. The latter aims at the complementation of the dialogue between the EU and its Southern Neighbourhood, a forum for dialogue between EU Member States and those countries in the Eastern and Southern Mediterranean. The plan was a French initiative and de facto it replaced the EMP, but it had less political breadth and less projects.[1]

More than ten years after its creation the ENP was revised and reassessed with the 2015 “Review of the European Neighbourhood Policy”, which was made jointly by the European Commission, the European External Action Service and the High Representative Federica Mogherini. The review was deemed necessary due to the not so successful approach and implementation of the previous policies. In fact, European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker defined the ENP one of the priorities of his term.

Since the start of the so called “Barcelona Process” in 1995, the goal was creating a space characterised by “peace and stability”, “shared prosperity”, and “understanding between cultures” in “full respect of international norms”. Instead, events in the Maghreb and Mashriq regions, which are those covered by the ENP Southern Neighbourhood and in the nearby regions, challenged the implementation of the European policy.[2]

However, it is important to emphasise that the EU is not faultless: its approach, the policy design and its implementation also had a role upon the inconsistent outcome of the ENP.

First of all, the attitude has always been Eurocentric; for a long time it did not take into consideration the presence and interests of other international actors over its Southern Neighbourhood. In fact, the approach that guided the entire policy has been the one of the enlargement. Nonetheless, the accession to the EU for Neighbour countries was not guaranteed, neither possible in some cases; therefore in this case the carrot-stick strategy of the accession process was not applicable. These two arguments are linked to one another because, in the ENP, the EU applies conditionality and the principle “more for more”, which entails that the EU creates stronger partnerships with those countries that implement more democratic reforms. Other actors do not care about conditionality, which makes them more attractive than the EU that becomes less important. The funds from other partners arrive more easily and rapidly, without asking any political or economic reform. Furthermore, the EU decided to apply this conditionality in a selective and inconsistent way. Indeed, after the Arab Springs in 2011, the EU did not apply conditionality in those Arab states, because it was more interested in maintaining as much stability as possible in the region. It is also important to stress that the conditionality and more-for-more approach are based on the assumption that countries want to follow the EU model, which is definitely not true for most countries in the Mediterranean area. [3]  

A factor that did not facilitate the success of the policy was the role and actions of the Member States. They could have helped, but did not. Instead of reinforcing the role and actions of the EU in those regions, which are more still used to bilateral relations with single Member States and not to complex EU policies, Member States continued to implement and pursue their own foreign policies in the region. Moreover, some of them, like France, used the framework provided by the ENP to implement their own foreign policy in the region. More often than not, their actions were counterproductive for EU’s programs and did not contribute to the stabilisation of the region. Indeed, stabilisation was even more difficult after the 2011 Arab Springs, as it promoted democracy and human rights. This episode caused the drafting of a review of the ENP to better address the new challenges: the aims were the construction of sustainable and strong democracies as well as the reformulation of the conditionality, which however was not successful.[4]

Stabilisation of the region became the main goal of the 2015 review: the latter had a more realistic tone, it recognised the failure of the previous strategy, the limits of EU action, as well as the weak mitigation of the ENP in the region. The primary policy areas identified in the documents were economic development for stabilisation, security, and migration. Moreover, four principles guided the implementation, which were stronger mutual ownership, greater differentiation, tighter and more relevant focus, greater flexibility in the use of the available instruments and resources. The 2015 initiative had lower ambitions and distanced the EU approach towards the neighbours from the enlargement mind-set.[5] 

  • What is the New Agenda for the Mediterranean?

On the 9th of February 2021 the New Agenda for the Mediterranean has been presented by the European Commission and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign affairs and security policy (the High Representative) in a Joint Communication directed to the other EU institutions [JOIN (2021) 12]. The aim of this new policy is renewing the partnership begun with the Barcelona process between the EU and its Southern Neighbourhood. It is defined as having a people-centred approach in order to address the economic, social, political and environmental challenges affecting the region, which is ever more suffering due to the current pandemic. Vice President and High Representative Josep Borrell declared that “we are determined to work together with our Southern Partners on a new Agenda that will focus on people, especially women and youth, and help them meet their hopes for the future, enjoy their rights and build a peaceful, secure, more democratic, greener, prosperous, and inclusive Southern Neighbourhood”.[6] 

The new Agenda is in line with what was agreed at the end of the European Council held the 10th and 11th December 2020. In the conclusions, the European Council defined a democratic, more stable and prosperous Southern Neighbourhood as a strategic priority. In fact, in order to cooperate in economic and security sectors, immigration and against the pandemic, the Council is planning on relaunching such vital partnership.

Moreover, more perspectives should be offered for young people. The guiding principles should be the ones of the ENP, with new shared priorities and new answers for precise problems. The sectors that the New Agenda for the Mediterranean should cover are the ones of the environment, connectivity, education, culture, natural resources. The conclusions of the European Council also stated that the role of civil society should be enhanced.[7]

The Joint Communication presenting the New Agenda has as main pillar: the green and digital transition. In fact, “The new Agenda aims for a green, digital, resilient and just recovery, guided by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Paris Agreement and the European Green Deal”. As it is possible to see, the EU is pushing for its own sustainable goals in this renewal of the Mediterranean partnership, which the EU is willing to strengthen. It is defined as a “strategic imperative”. The actions that will be taken under the new agenda will receive a  €7 billion fund from the EU, that should be leveraged to €30 billion with the involvement of the private sector and international financial institutions.[8]

In addition to the joint communication, the Commission and the High Representative published also in a joint staff working document [SWD (2021) 23] the “Economic and Investment Plan for the Southern Neighbours”, which addresses preliminary flagship investments and projects that could be financed under the new “Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument” (NDICI). This plan is still indicative and currently not exhaustive; in fact, any evolution is possible due to policy and political issues that may occur, depending also on the legal basis under the next Multi-Annual Financial Framework. The Plan covers four headlines, each of them having some investment flagships that can be either multi-country or specific for a certain one.[9]

The New Agenda sets five key policy areas in the Joint Communication, which are linked to the flagships and projects of the Economic and Investment Plan.

  1.  “Human development, good governance and the rule of law”: it is among the classic goals of the ENP. It covers the respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, democratic institutions and it is connected with the EU Action plan on Human rights and Democracy for 2020-2024. Gender equality and the empowerment of the young population is mentioned. The first key policy entails also the health sector, which capacities and systems in the region should be improved. In the document the COVAX strategy is mentioned: it is a EU’s and international program for providing vaccines for middle and low-income countries. This line of work is strictly linked to the actual Covid-19 crisis.
  2. “Strengthen resilience, build prosperity and seize the digital transition”: it concerns the creation of resilient, sustainable, connected and inclusive economies. This part concerns increasing the trade and the investments in the region, also coming from foreign investors. Importance is given to the digital transformation, considered as a driver for development in the region.
  3. “Peace and security”: it is about the current challenges affecting both the Southern Neighbourhood and the EU, such as cyber and organised crime or terrorism. The EU proposes cooperation for hybrid threats, such as cybersecurity for example. It proposes to use the EU security union strategy and cooperate on law enforcement and judicial cooperation, which should be strengthened between the EU and partner countries, also with the assistance of relevant EU Agencies. Following the 2021 Council Conclusions on climate and energy diplomacy, the joint communication included also the proposition to strengthen the work on the interdependency between climate, security and defence. Indeed, this entails also increased action on climate adaptation and disaster risk reduction, as well as collaboration with the UN and regional organisations.
  4.  “Migration and mobility”: this policy encompasses the EU’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum, which aim is to change substantially the engagement with the other partners. The areas of migration and mobility could receive operational and financial support through the tools at EU disposal, such as EU Agencies, the NDICI and relevant internal instruments. In doing so, both the interests of the EU and its partners would be taken in consideration.
  5. “Green transition: climate resilience, energy, and environment”: this one entails cooperation in the development of targets and measures designed to tackle climate change in line with national determined contributions under the Paris Agreement, National Adaptation Plans and the external dimension of the European Green Deal. [10]

These five key policy areas are also the key directions outlined earlier in the document. But among the key directions there is also the commitment to unity and solidarity between the Member States, that should also be extended towards the Southern Neighbours. It also acknowledges the new normalised relations between Israel and some Arab countries: from that, the EU proposes to start a new dialogue in the region.[11]

All instruments of EU policy will be used for the implementation of the New Agenda and the cooperation would be carried out through dialogues with all the stakeholders, including civil society actors, so that the diversity of interests and needs of all the countries of the Southern Neighbourhood would be taken into account. The joint communication stresses the need for cooperation also at the sub-regional and the inter-regional level, not forgetting the possibility of cooperation with the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa. However, the role of the Union of the Mediterranean remains indispensable. The main instruments for the cooperation with the partners will be the NDICI and the EFSD+ [12]. These two instruments would permit the gathering of financial resources also from private sector investment in cooperation with international financial institutions, the European Investment Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Member State development banks. [13]

  • The other institutions: the Council and the European Parliament’s reaction.

In its conclusions of 25th and 26th February 2021, the European Council confirmed what has been said in its previous meeting of December 2020. It backs the New Agenda and invites the Council to implement the new strategy designed by the Commission. European Council President Charles Michel said that “a renewed and reinforced partnership with the Southern Neighbourhood is in our collective political and strategic interest”. [14]

The reaction of the European Parliament has been more diverse. During an audition of Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi, to the AFET (Foreign Affairs) Committee of the European Parliament[15], almost all the political groups of the European Parliament backed the Commission’s joint communication, appreciating the new strategy and the lines of actions. Nonetheless, the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) asked for clarification of some issues to Commissioner Várhelyi. [16]

The European People’s Party (EPP) group remarked how much the previous policies did not meet the expectations. It welcomed the new proposal and are hopeful for a change with this New Agenda. Indeed, the EPP asked for concrete figures and deadlines regarding the distribution of vaccines to the neighbours. Furthermore, it proposed to start a discussion for upgrading and modernising trade agreements to make them more fitted to the current situation.

The Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group welcomed the New Agenda, but asked for clarification regarding the funding. Concerning the NDICI, the S&D called for a deeper participation of the European Parliament.

The Renew Europe group too acknowledged the failures of the previous policies towards the Neighbourhood, although it welcomed the New Agenda and considered the lines of actions adequate. However, it outlined the discrepancy between promoting human rights on the one hand while sustaining the regional autocratic regimes for stability on the other.

The Identity and Democracy group gave its support to the New Agenda, but asked for some clarification regarding the opportunities for digitalisation in the region and emphasised the presence of other actors, and competitors, like China and Russia.

Although the European Greens welcomed the New Agenda, they outlined the impossibility of sharing European values with autocratic governments. Lastly, the party outlined how the more-for-more approach may be the solution.

The Party of European Left was the only one to openly criticise the new strategy in its entirety: it said that the new partnership is not something new and highlighted the fact that the migration part was only about pushing back migrants.

Many MEPs called for a greater involvement of women in the economic development of the region. In fact, they criticised this aspect of this strategy saying that women were not at the centre of the plan like the Commission claimed. Moreover, the members of the AFET committee asked for a greater participation of the European Parliament in the design and implementation of the New Agenda. 

The European Conservatives and Reformists did not participate in the debate.[17]

So,  all in all, the new policy was approved and welcomed by the other institutions. However, a few things may be said regarding the reactions.

The European Council, as told by its President, appreciated the New Agenda: but how the single Member States will act? It can be assumed that they had a similar reaction to previous policies, which otherwise would have not been implemented, but they did not act in accordance with them. On the contrary, many Member States, those most interested in the Mediterranean, acted following their own foreign policy and interests. 

With regard to European Parliament, some issues raised by the MEPs are quite important. First of all, the funding theme: the Commission is not so clear in the Joint Communication and in the Economic and Investment Plan on how to leverage 30 billion from 7 billion provided by the EU. The funding so is still unclear. Secondly, the greater involvement of women and young people in the regional economy could bring a real change, but as highlighted by some MEPs they are not completely at the centre of the strategy as claimed by the Commission. And last but not least: MEPs called for a greater participation of the European Parliament in the design and implementation of the policy. This is a classic reprimand from the Parliament for the External Action of the EU, which still lacks a proper democratic control by the only European institution directly elected by the European citizens.

  • What can be done better?

The first issue is the one of the human rights, the rule of law and good governance in the new strategy. Although it is one of the headlines in the New Agenda, it is difficult to imagine how to reconcile all these goals with the authoritarian regimes in the Maghreb and Mashriq region. Furthermore, the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened an already dire situation. How will this issue be solved? The conditionality could obviously be a good solution, as the more-for-more principle, but in previous years they were not implemented correctly and thoroughly; on the contrary, discretion guided their application. In fact, in order to tackle stability, as well as to control the heated migratory flows, authoritarian governments received funding from the EU, which did not help in improving the human rights situation.

However, even if the EU could implement a coherent strategy for conditionality linked to human rights, rule of law and good governance, we still need to consider the presence of other actors in the region which are not interested in human rights, like China and Russia, and can provide a faster funding than the EU. Moreover, according to recent studies, more than one country in the Southern Neighbourhood consider the EU as partner among others and they do not seek a peculiar relationship. [18] Therefore, the EU should be able to demonstrate how and why it is a better and more reliable partner than other countries, while giving up an Eurocentric and patronising approach.

In the joint communication, the European Commission and the High Representative describe how private investments in the region could benefit the regional economy, but, as said by the European Left during the audition of Commissioner Várhelyi, could it really be? Would private investments be capable of creating a sustainable and fair economic development? The joint communication talks about moving closer to Europe the chains of value of European industries, but would it not make the region more dependent on foreign direct investments?[19]

Moreover, in the joint communication and in the Investment Plan, the Commission and the High Representative describe the strategy to transform the regional economy in a green and digital one: this is also the main goal of the actual Commission for its term. Primarily it is a European goal. In conclusion, the EU has to be capable of becoming a leader, to guide the Southern Neighbourhood and convince its partners, thus improving what it was not able to achieve in the last two decades.


[1] Factsheet “The EU and its Southern Neighbourhood”: https://ec.europa.eu/neighbourhood-enlargement/sites/near/files/eu-southern-neighbourhood-partnership_en.pdf

Lehne S., “Time to reset the European Neighbourhood Policy”, Carnegie Europe, February 2014

Balfour R., “The sad demise of Europe’s imagined Mediterranean”, Navigating the pandemic: the challenge of stability and prosperity in the Mediterranean, Mediterranean Dialogues, ISPI, 2020

[2] Balfour R., “The sad demise of Europe’s imagined Mediterranean”, Navigating the pandemic: the challenge of stability and prosperity in the Mediterranean, Mediterranean Dialogues, ISPI, 2020

[3] Lehne S., “Time to reset the European Neighbourhood Policy”, Carnegie Europe, February 2014

[4] Ibid.

[5] Koenig N., “Taking the ENP beyond the conception-performance gap”, Policy Paper 160, Jacques Delors Institute, 22nd March 2016

[6] https://www.etf.europa.eu/en/news-and-events/news/renewed-partnership-southern-neighbourhood

[7] Conclusions European Council 10th and 11th December 2020

[8]https://eeas.europa.eu/sites/eeas/files/joint_communication_renewed_partnership_southern_neighbourhood.pdf

[9]https://eeas.europa.eu//sites/default/files/joint_staff_working_document_renewed_partnership_southern_neighbourhood.pdf

[10]https://eeas.europa.eu/sites/eeas/files/joint_communication_renewed_partnership_southern_neighbourhood.pdf

[11]Ibid.  

[12] European Fund for Sustainable Development plus

[13]https://eeas.europa.eu/sites/eeas/files/joint_communication_renewed_partnership_southern_neighbourhood.pdf

[14] Video conference of the members of the European Council, 25-26 February 2021: https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/meetings/european-council/2021/02/25-26/

[15] AFET because of the French name “Affaires  étrangères”.

[16] Audition at the European Parliament: https://multimedia.europarl.europa.eu/it/committee-on-foreign-affairs_20210212-0830-COMMITTEE-AFET_vd

[17] Ibid.

[18] Lehne S., “Time to reset the European Neighbourhood Policy”, Carnegie Europe, February 2014

[19] Audition at the European Parliament: https://multimedia.europarl.europa.eu/it/committee-on-foreign-affairs_20210212-0830-COMMITTEE-AFET_vd

Lucrezia Lepri

I have a bachelor's degree in Political Sciences with a specialization in International Relations at the University of Florence, now I am enrolled in a master's degree in European Studies. I am particularly interested in the EU's external action, in its economic integration and in EU policies aimed at combating climate change.

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