Sub-regional Cooperation in Europe: An Assessment
Since the 1990s a wide range of new sub-regional groups have emerged in Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Mediterranean and the former Soviet Union. This paper provides an assessment of the new European sub-regional groups, exploring why and how sub-regionalism has proliferated in Europe since the 1990s, analysing what functions sub-regional groups perform and evaluating their significance. The paper argues that European sub-regional groups have developed in three distinct phases: a formative, post-Cold War phase in the early 1990s when many of these groups were established; a second phase in the late 1990s and early 2000s when the eastward enlargement of the EU and NATO and the ending of the Yugoslav wars re-shaped the dynamics of sub-regionalism; and a third post-enlargement phase in the late 2000s where attention has shifted to the role of sub-regionalism in a strategic environment where further enlargement of the EU and NATO (at least beyond the Balkans) appears unlikely and Russo-Western relations are more problematic. Moreover, the paper argues that the European sub-regional groups have four distinct roles: a bridge-building function across the ‘dividing lines’ between EU/NATO and their non-member neighbours and the geo-cultural divide between Europe and North Africa and the Middle East; an integrative function helping some member states to integrate into the EU and/or NATO; a role as frameworks for addressing transnational policy challenges; and a role as facilitators of political, economic and institutional reform in participating states. The paper concludes that although the European sub-regional groups lack the economic, military and institutional power of the EU and NATO, these groups have nevertheless played a positive role in fostering security and cooperation in their respective sub-regions and in the wider Europe as a whole.