The Northern Dimension: An often forgotten but important neighbourhood policy

In academic circles, the Northern Dimension (ND) receives far less attention than the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) or the EU’s enlargement policy. This can be attributed to the specific features of the ND. In contrast to most other EU external policies, the ND does not aim at the export of values and norms but rather offers a pragmatic format for cooperation with its neighbours, in the first place the Russian Federation.

Sectoral ND partnerships are devoted to environment protection, social welfare, transport and cultural cooperation whereas more contentious areas such as trade, legal approximation, (energy) security or human rights are deliberately left outside the ND framework. Admittedly, the absence of open conflicts and (geo)political considerations makes the ND less attractive for polemic discussions. Yet, it is precisely this low profile which makes the ND an interesting contribution to the EU’s neighbourhood relations. The project-based and partner-oriented approach allows to put flesh on the bones of an at first sight rather abstract policy. The sectoral partnerships help to pool financial and logistical resources and increase the so-called ‘joint ownership’ of the EU’s initiatives in the region. Last but not least, the focus on concrete, down-to-earth measures allows to continue EU-Russia co-operation in difficult political circumstances. It is noteworthy that despite the existence of sanctions adopted in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, the ND remains active as illustrated with the April 2016 St. Petersburg ND Forum attracting more than 200 participants from Russia and the EU.
The ND fits well with the mantra of ‘principled pragmatism’ of the recently adopted Global Strategy for the EU’s Foreign and Security Policy. With respect to Russia, the strategy underlines the importance of a principled position on issues such as respect for international law, democracy and human rights while, at the same time, stressing the importance of selective engagement in areas of European interest such as environment protection, education, research and cross-border cooperation. The aim is to deepen societal ties despite the existence of major confrontations at the official level. This is precisely where the ND can make a difference.
Of course, the challenges for the successful implementation of the ND cannot be underestimated. Finding a balance between constructive engagement at the practical level and defending the EU’s core values and interests is a delicate exercise. Moreover, there has been a proliferation of regional strategies. Looking at the Baltic Sea area and its vicinity alone, there are not less than three EU strategies. In addition to the ND, there is the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region (EUSBSR) and the recently launched EU Arctic policy. All three strategies are dealing with largely comparable challenges implying a crucial coordination role for the European Commission. The ND, as the oldest of the EU’s neighbourhood strategies, may serve as a source of inspiration for understanding both the challenges and opportunities of developing a policy framework for pragmatic cooperation in difficult political circumstances.

Peter van Elsuwege

Professor of EU law
Ghent European Law Institute (GELI) – Ghent University

For further reading, see: P. Van Elsuwege, ‘The Northern Dimension: A Format for Pragmatic Cooperation with the EU’s Biggest Neighbour’, in: S. Gstöhl (ed.), The European Neighbourhood Policy in a Comparative Perspective. Models, Challenges, Lessons, Routledge, 2016, pp. 92-104.