For more than 30 years, the policy towards its neighbours of what has evolved into the European Union has been straightforward: absorb them. Invite them into the club as soon as they learn the rules. It all worked rather well.

Then, the EU got so big that older club members, led by France and the Netherlands, cried: “Enough!” The prospect of Turkey – big, poor and Muslim – eventually joining certainly helped trigger this loss of faith in the EU’s most successful exports: stability and prosperity. In truth, however, the EU was already running out of ideas on what to do about the neighbours. So, not for the first time, it created a muddle and called it a policy, the European Neighbourhood Policy, to be precise.

At this week’s first ENP conference, of foreign ministers and senior officials from the 27 EU member states and these 16 privileged neighbours, José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, called the policy a success. It is not. It is a mix of jumble and evasion.

The EU’s opening stab at a neighbourhood policy was the Euro-Mediterranean programme created in 1995. This aimed to set up a political and economic partnership, underpinned by a free trade zone, with 12 Middle Eastern and North African nations, which, it was made clear, would not be offered membership.

This had mixed results, but it was intellectually coherent. Serial meltdowns in the Middle East have destroyed all other attempts to put in place economic foundations for peace. Yet some pillars of the Euro-Med policy are still standing: in particular a string of bilateral association agreements with the EU and a big growth in intra-regional trade.

But with the EU now in a funk about further enlargement, culturally and geographically distant countries from Ukraine to Georgia have been parked in this same policy, rebranded as the ENP. That is not coherent. Countries such as Ukraine need the perspective of eventual membership, however distant, not least as a lever for reform.

This, of course, goes to the heart of the debate over where Europe’s borders should be drawn. Poland, for instance, strongly supports Ukrainian accession, whereas France, for example, does not. That is precisely why leading member states defend the ENP. By mixing up apples and pears it helps put off the enlargement debate.

The experience of the Middle East already shows that EU ability to induce positive change in its surroundings diminishes when there is no prospect of accession. Europe does not need to limit its influence in this way with countries that might – one day – enter the club.

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