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Article

Croatia and the European Union  

Pero Maldini

Croatia’s accession to the European Union (EU) meant, in political terms, the recognition of its political and normative-institutional achievements in the establishment of a nation state and the democracy. At the same time, for the vast majority of Croatian citizens EU membership also had a symbolic meaning: a departure from the troubled past and a return to the Western, European cultural circle, which they have always felt they belong to. This feeling is the source for the strong pro-European orientation, which, as state independence was being achieved, and democracy established—as an expression of the strong political will of Croatian citizens for freedom and autonomy—helped achieve those historical and political goals. The EU was perceived as a framework that would enable those goals to be realized, so there was a general political consensus about joining it among all relevant political actors, and the vast majority of Croatian citizens granted their consent. The path to full EU membership was long and arduous, primarily because of the specific conditions that marked the process of establishing a Croatian state and a democratic order. On the one hand, these are endogenous structural and socio-cultural factors: the structure and activity of political actors and the functioning of institutions, which were significantly marked by their authoritarian political and historical legacy. On the other hand, was a war of aggression and a struggle for freedom and independence with long-lasting and difficult social and political consequences. These specific conditions—which none of the other acceding countries had—slowed down the process of democratization and, consequently, hampered the EU accession process. All these reasons are why Croatia had the most comprehensive and longest accession negotiations, including the most extensive body of pre-accession conditions. Although the extent and duration of negotiations, as well as the lack of expected support from the EU (especially during the war) have led to an increase in Euroskepticism and criticism of the EU—and consequently to the low turnout in the referendum for accession—the pro-European orientation remained dominant in Croatia. In general, public support for EU accession in Croatia was based on a set of mutually connected factors: identity-based (cultural affiliation), institutional-political (democracy), and utilitarian (socioeconomic benefits). In the period after joining the EU, due to insufficient preparation, Croatia has relatively slowly used the opportunities (especially economic) provided by EU. Nevertheless, EU membership has accelerated the increase in institutional capacity and better use of European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF). At the same time, the free movement of people, goods, capital, and services, and the opportunities brought by the open EU market, had a double impact: strengthening the economy due to greater orientation toward the EU market, but also slower economic growth, due to structural problems (the lingering power of the state, and regulations to the economy and the market) and increased emigration of the highly educated younger population (chronic labor-force deficit). Nonetheless, through Croatia’s participation in the EU institutions, the real benefits of full membership are becoming increasingly visible, and the sense of integration in the EU’s social, political, cultural, and economic space is growing stronger. At the same time, EU membership affects further improvement of the normative-institutional framework of Croatia.

Article

Cohesion Policy and European Union Politics  

Simona Piattoni and Laura Polverari

Cohesion policy is one of the longest-standing features of the European construction; its roots have been traced as far back as the Treaty of Rome. Over time, it has become one of the most politically salient and sizable policies of the European Union, absorbing approximately one-third of the EU budget. Given its principles and “shared management” approach, it mobilizes many different actors at multiple territorial scales, and by promoting “territorial cooperation” it has encouraged public authorities to work together, thus overcoming national borders. Furthermore, cohesion policy is commonly considered the most significant expression of solidarity between member states and the most tangible way in which EU citizens “experience” the European Union. While retaining its overarching mission of supporting lagging regions and encouraging the harmonious development of the Union, cohesion policy has steadily evolved and adapted in response to new internal and external challenges, such as those generated by subsequent rounds of enlargement, globalization, and shifting political preferences regarding what the EU should be about. Just as the policy has evolved over time in terms of its shape and priorities, so have the theoretical understandings of economic development that underpin its logic, the nature of intergovernmental relations, and the geographical and administrative space(s) within which the EU polity operates. For example, whereas overcoming the physical barriers to economic development were the initial targets in the 1960s and 1970s, and redesigning manufacturing clusters were those of the 1980s and 1990s, fostering advanced knowledge and technological progress became the focus of cohesion policy in the new century. At the same time, cohesion policy also inspired or even became a testing ground for new theories, such as multilevel governance, Europeanization, or smart specialization. Given its redistributive nature, debates have proliferated around its impact, added value, and administrative cost, as well as the institutional characteristics that it requires to function. These deliberations have, in turn, informed the policy in its periodic transformations. Political factors have also played a key role in shaping the evolution of the policy. Each reform has been closely linked to the debates on the European budget, where the net positions of member states have tended to dominate the agenda. An outcome of this process has been the progressive alignment with wider strategic goals beyond cohesion and convergence and the strengthening of linkages with the European Semester. However, some argue that policymakers have failed to properly consider the perverse effects of austerity on regional disparities. These unresolved tensions are particularly significant in a context denoted by a rise of populist and nativist movements, increasing social discontent, and strengthening Euroskepticism. As highlighted by research on its communication, cohesion policy may well be the answer for winning back the hearts and minds of European citizens. Whether and how this may be achieved will likely be the focus of research in the years ahead.

Article

Democratic Backsliding in the European Union  

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.