By Milica Delevic, ECFR

The EU can learn from Brexit how to manage divergence and differentiate integration – for the sake of its other neighbours.

Through Brexit, the European Union lost a member but gained a neighbour. Though not obvious at first, the tortuous negotiations could in future help the EU to develop its relations with the other countries surrounding it. The United Kingdom’s departure gave it a jolt of creativity dictated by circumstance, but from which the EU can learn as it contemplates how to project its much-vaunted “strategic sovereignty” in its own neighbourhood – something it has struggled to do for many years.

For well over a decade, the EU’s enlargement processes have failed to bring any new member states into the EU. Not even in the Western Balkans, an enclave within the EU with a population of less than 20 million, has it achieved its broader aims of stability and democracy. The membership perspective for those countries remains remote and lacks credibility, while concrete steps towards joining, even when well deserved on the part of potential members, often end up blocked by one of the EU’s national governments. As a result, the EU’s ability to incentivise reforms and resolve regional issues has declined. Other geopolitical actors, such as China, are moving in to fill the gap.

When it comes to Turkey, the EU has a policy which is barely functional, with the union unable to agree on either sanctions or rewards strong enough to induce a change of behaviour. As a result, both sides are locked in a mutually frustrating relationship. Elsewhere, Eastern Partnership offers of trade integration and visa-free travel have made some impact in Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, but other countries such as Armenia or Azerbaijan continue to give priority to other partners, particularly Russia. And in North Africa, the EU has been marginalised as a player despite its important interests relating to migration, security, and energy in the region.

In all these relationships, the EU’s insistence that membership and the integrity of the single market are indivisible have hampered what it can offer. Last year, the EU adopted a new enlargement methodology aiming at putting stronger conditionality at the centre of the process. However, the EU is still struggling to frontload benefits significant enough to make the long journey towards membership worthwhile. And, where the membership perspective is not on offer, the EU has failed to develop sufficiently attractive forms of engagement to bring these countries closer to the EU’s orbit.

When it was in the EU, the UK championed a wider and looser union. But consolidation and deepening – which currently dominate the EU – create an environment where spending political capital on expanding the club has become harder. As the Centre for European Reform’s Charles Grant put it, Brexit resembled an accession process in reverse. This forced the EU to think differently – instead of managing conditions for convergence, it had to work out how to manage divergence. And it had to think creatively about options that imply various levels of closeness, about which rules would matter, and who would decide and monitor their implementation.

This experience could thus provide a basis for various forms of differentiated integration, tailor-made to the requirements of individual neighbours. For example, deeper integration in certain sectoral areas could be attempted with other countries, such as in public procurement, transport, and energy, where the Brexit agreement provides for intensive cooperation. Could an (upgraded) customs union be suitable in some cases? Could something like the “rebalancing mechanism” of the Brexit agreement, designed to manage divergence from EU norms, allow greater market access for other partners? Is the concept of periodic reviews contained within the UK deal applicable to other relationships?

Broadening out the approach in this way might help change the attitude of some of the EU’s neighbours too. In particular, countries like Turkey and Ukraine might now find it easier to forgo full membership – provided that the EU is ready to invest a sufficient amount of energy and attention in getting their relationships right. At the same time, the EU should also be careful to keep the door open to closer future relationships – just as it seems to be doing for the UK.

As a mental exercise in reverse engineering, Brexit might help the EU to be more flexible, creative, and proactive in relations with its neighbourhood. Tackling the issue in the context of a Conference on the Future of Europe could offer the chance to rethink the current arrangements and pave the way to moving towards more functional ones. Europe can hardly hope to be a significant geopolitical actor so long as it fails to get its own neighbourhood policy right.