Nick Sitter and Elisabeth Bakke
Democratic backsliding in European Union (EU) member states is not only a policy challenge for the EU, but also a potential existential crisis. If the EU does too little to deal with member state regimes that go back on their commitments to democracy and the rule of law, this risks undermining the EU from within. On the other hand, if the EU takes drastic action, this might split the EU. This article explores the nature and dynamics of democratic backsliding in EU member states, and analyses the EU’s capacity, policy tools and political will to address the challenge. Empirically it draws on the cases that have promoted serious criticism from the Commission and the European Parliament: Hungary, Poland, and to a lesser extent, Romania. After reviewing the literature and defining backsliding as a gradual, deliberate, but open-ended process of de-democratization, the article analyzes the dynamics of backsliding and the EU’s difficulties in dealing with this challenge to liberal democracy and the rule of law. The Hungarian and Polish populist right’s “illiberal” projects involve centralization of power in the hands of the executive and the party, and limiting the independence of the judiciary, the media and civil society. This has brought both governments into direct confrontation with the European Commission. However, the EU’s track record in managing backsliding crises is at best mixed. This comes down to a combination of limited tools and lack of political will. Ordinary infringement procedures offer a limited toolbox, and the Commission has proven reluctant to use even these tools fully. At the same time, party groups in the European Parliament and many member state governments have been reluctant to criticize one of their own, let alone go down the path of suspending aspect of a states’ EU membership. Hence the EU’s dilemma: it is caught between undermining its own values and cohesion through inaction on one hand, and relegating one or more member states it to a second tier—or even pushing them out altogether—on the other.
Enlargement has always been an essential part of the European integration. Each enlargement round has left its mark on the integration project. However, it was the expansion of the European Union (EU) with the 10 Central and Eastern European Countries (CEECs), Cyprus, and Malta, unprecedented in scope and scale, which presented the EU with an opportunity to develop a multifaceted set of instruments and transformed enlargement into one of the EU’s most successful policies. The numerous challenges of the accession process, along with the immensity of the historical mission to unify Europe, lent speed to the emergence of the study of EU enlargement as a key research area. The early studies investigated the puzzle of the EU’s decision to enlarge with the CEECs, and the costs and benefits of the Eastern expansion. However, the questions about the impact of EU enlargement policy inspired a new research agenda. Studies of the influence of the EU on candidate and potential candidate countries have not only widened the research focus of Europeanization studies (beyond the member states of the Union), but also stimulated and shaped the debates on the scope and effectiveness of EU conditionality. Most of the analytical frameworks developed in the context of the Eastern enlargement have favored rational institutionalist approaches highlighting a credible membership perspective as the key explanatory variable. However, studies analyzing the impact of enlargement policy on the Western Balkan countries and Turkey have shed light on some of the limitations of the rationalist approaches and sought to identify new explanatory factors.
After the completion of the fifth enlargement with the accession of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, the research shifted to analyzing the continuity and change of EU enlargement policy and its impact on the candidate and potential candidate countries. There is also a growing number of studies examining the sustainability of the impact of EU conditionality after accession by looking into new members’ compliance with EU rules. The impact of EU enlargement policy on the development of European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) and comparative evaluations of the Union’s performance across the two policy frameworks have also shaped and expanded the debate on the mechanisms and effectiveness of the EU’s influence. The impact of the Eastern enlargement on EU institutions and policymaking is another area of research that has emerged over the last decade. In less than two decades, the study of EU enlargement policy has produced a rich and diverse body of literature that has shaped the broader research agendas on Europeanization, implementation, and compliance and EU policymaking. Comprehensive theoretical and empirical studies have allowed us to develop a detailed understanding of the impact of the EU on the political and economic transformations in Central and Eastern Europe. The ongoing accession process provides more opportunities to study the evolving nature of EU enlargement policy, its impact on candidate countries, the development of EU policies, and the advancement of the integration project.