Academic research on the EU, Central and Eastern Europe, Uncategorized

Enlargement as a modernization or harmonization project?

On 30 May, we publicly opened a three year research project evaluating the lessons of the EU’s previous enlargements, especially the ‘big bang’ enlargement to the East as well as possibilities for integration in the future. The presentations at the opening conference, in Berlin, outline plans for research, but also, already sketched some interesting puzzles and questions. A key question which has occupied me – and other scholars – for many years, was raised by one of the European Commission speakers: in his view, fulfilling criteria for accession to the EU is not necessarily the same as becoming more developed economically. He suggested that pushing a development agenda through enlargement has its limits. It was stressed that the objective of pre-accession preparations is for candidates  to become as similar to the EU member states as possible – policy-wise, mostly – as it has always been in past enlargements – through adopting the acquis. From this perspective, economic development cannot be an accession criterion as such as it could delay accession forever. Neither was the EU’s political criterion from Copenhagen intended to be or equivalent to a fully fledged programme for democratization. In a way, the Eastern enlargement’s overall success and the success of the countries that participated in it to make huge progress in reform, can make us forget the limits of the EU’s mission and possibilities there.

While it is fully understandable that the European Commission and indeed, other EU institutions, need to define their mission in enlargement in terms of the EU’s overall strategy and in concrete terms based on pre-defined accession criteria, for most of the scholars dealing with the last enlargement, the modernization,  development  and democratization effects of the last enlargement appear unmistakable. There are, in fact, many scholars and commentators who see the completed Eastern enlargement primarily as a modernization project, whereby the term ‘Europeanization’ is used to denote structural reform, state building, restructuring, growth… Our project consortium colleague, Laszlo Bruszt, for example, has written about the state making effects of the EU’s big bang enlargement, which he sees as unintended consequences of the EU’s ‘demanding performance criteria’.

Similarly, among experts and policy makers engaged in this process from Central and Eastern Europe ‘Europeanization’  was used to denote their reform goals and equaled improvement of governance, economic development and administrative efficiency. I have talked to numerous civil servants and members of European integration working groups for whom joining the EU was the same thing as ‘Europeanization’ and ultimately equivalent to ‘becoming like…the Netherlands/Denmark/Germany…’

Remembering the start of post communist transformations, however, democratization and economic reform – uncertain as they were in some countries –  were domestically initiated and driven processes, which the EU was initially reluctant to commit to. Only after 1993 when the EU offered the so called accession perspective for Central and Eastern European states, did the Union provide a goal and a kind of reform template for the states that became serious candidates. So, as I have argued elsewhere, there are good  historical – and analytical reasons – to keep post communist transformations and pre-accession preparations separate. Yet there are also reasons to claim that the two processes reinforced each other and the one would not have succeeded without the other. This may be different for states that become candidates for accession at a different stage in their political and economic development. In other cases, as one of the conference papers noted (an earlier version of this argument has been developed here), the EU may act as stabilizer and not as ‘democratizer’. We should not forget that the provisions of the EU’s acquis (regulations and policies resulting from bargains between older member states), which candidates must adopt almost entirely before accession, may not be beneficial for all economies and in all institutional settings. In other words: despite more than a decade of scholarship, commentary and analysis, there may still be some major unanswered questions about the effects, processes and mechanisms underlying the EU’s enlargement: one of several themes which the MAXCAP project will research in the coming years. We will keep you posted.

Disclaimer: This post is written in personal capacity and does not represent the views of the MAXCAP partners, Leiden University or the European Commission, which funds this project under its Seventh Framework Programme.

This post was edited on 12 June 2013 to represent better some views expressed at the conference.


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