Connected by a shared endeavour to enhance understanding of the forces that shape contestation toward the EU in its peripheries and unprohibited in approach, this special section explores the concepts of contestation and periphery. Using various methodological approaches, the section showcases a series of overlapping and cross-cutting themes which contextually strengthen the phenomenon and experiences of contestation in peripheral states. In aggregating these themes, the authors attribute contestation to the growing ‘absence’ of the EU’s normative interest in peripheral states and the growing transactional/functional features that define peripheral state relationships with the EU. The authors draw attention to the opportunities for regional rivals, such as Russia and China to capitalize on the absence of the EU’s transformative power in peripheral states, the role of domestic forces in utilizing contestation as a means to preserve regime type and satisfy sovereignty concerns, and the incidences of peripheral states in shaping/reshaping their foreign policy positions in response to the Russia-Ukraine War. Taken together, our special section shows that contestation in Europe’s periphery is less an overt normative resistance against the EU and more an absence of EU normative efforts in peripheral states and the increasingly functional features which define peripheral states’ relationships with the EU.