The Export of Democracy: Successes and Failures of EU Enlargement

 The European Union played a very important role in transforming post-communist countries into democratic states with functioning market economies and the rule of law. The massive transfer of institutional and legal know-how from member states to candidate countries, which was guided by the European Commission and other institutions, is in many ways a historically unprecedented event.


True, some countries which were candidates in the previous waves of EU enlargement, such as Spain or Portugal, also started the process with political and civil service institutions which were burdened by the legacy of authoritarian systems. However, none of those countries started the process of EU accession in a situation, in which the country had just emerged from a political system based on an almost complete annihilation of a civil society, market economy, rule of law, and political democracy.


The Positive Side


The importance of guidance and incentives provided by the EU to post-communist candidate counties in the process of rapid institutional changes, whose main objective was to establish in the region systems of political democracy and market economy following the standards common in the West, can be perhaps best illustrated with the help of a historical comparison.


When Czechoslovakia was created in 1918 on the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it quickly established itself as a democratic country. It remained an island of democracy in Central Europe until 1938, but it had to struggle for existence in an increasingly hostile regional environment. In the end, it was destroyed, owing mainly to the growing regional role of the Nazi Germany. Its other neighbors—Poland, Hungary, Romania, and the Soviet Union—all had authoritarian regimes of various types.


Several decades later, EU countries played a completely different role. They provided a benign international environment for democracy building in Czechoslovakia, and, after 1993, for Czechoslovakia’s successor states—the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In fact, it can be argued that some of the former communist countries in Central Europe might have slid back to some form of authoritarianism without EU guidance and the vision of gaining EU membership. Slovakia is a case in point.



This is true across the region. All former Soviet satellites that joined the EU in 2004 underwent one of the most rapid and amazing modernizations of institutions in history. They all emerged from communism with authoritarian political systems, state-controlled economies, and inefficient bureaucracies. Between the mid-1990s, when those countries applied for membership, and 2002, when the accessions process was completed, the unprecedented process of transforming state-controlled economies into modern market economies, as well as the unprecedented process of transforming undemocratic and inefficient political institutions into democratic ones, based on the rule of law, took place.


As mentioned above, the EU played an important role in those changes, providing know-how and guidance. Since EU membership was seen by all relevant political elites in Eastern Europe as the ultimate goal, the EU also could successfully use pressure, when necessary, in forcing candidate countries to follow its recommendations.




The institutional transformation, under the EU’s guidance, was undoubtedly a great success, but it had its dark side as well. As it has happened elsewhere in the world, where authoritarian systems turn into democracies, institutional changes, however complex, turned out to be easier to achieve than changing the political culture and culture in general. In other words, the institutional changes were much faster and complex that changes in people’s minds.


After Czechoslovakia was created in 1918, Czechoslovak President Tomas G, Masaryk once remarked: “Now we have a democracy, but we have no democrats.” Ninety years later, this is still a problem in the region that had little or no experience with democracy until 1989.


To some extent, post-communist members of the EU are even 20 years after the fall of communism democracies without democrats”. While on the surface they look like any other member of the EU from the western part of Europe—perhaps only a bit poorer—below the surface, there is still a significant lack of democratic culture.


This discrepancy between quick institutional progress and a slow pace of changes of people’s mindsets has had numerous negative consequences. The first impact could be felt shortly after eight post-communist countries were officially admitted into the European Union in May 2004. Governments in several countries quickly collapsed, with populist politicians gaining the upper hand, as many people came to believe that process of transformation is now complete. Moreover, many believed that candidate countries had been made to pay too heavy a price for gaining membership.


Political scenes in most of those countries quickly turned into highly polarized battle grounds, from which the previously shared common objectives—joining the EU, in particular—disappeared. The prevailing attitude (which could be summarized as “we have paid our prize, now it is time to relax”) was in most countries of the region accompanied by the return of fiscal irresponsibility.


Another visible aspect of this post-accession change of mentality were problems that some countries from the region—Poland and the Czech Republic, in particular—kept creating for the EU. Such attitudes were driven not only by the resurfacing of nationalist passions, which had had to be kept under the surface during the accession process, but by statements of populist politicians that their countries no longer need to be in the position of a student, who obeys his teachers.


Never mind that this notion of equality totally disregarded the fact that the countries of the region will be for years receiving significant amounts of money in structural funds and other forms of assistance from more advanced countries. The post-communist lack of democratic culture manifested itself on the European scene above all in the unwillingness of some political elites from Eastern Europe to look for compromises and/or respect compromises once they have been reached.


The discussion about the Lisbon Treaty in the Czech Republic was a case in point. The treaty was negotiated and signed after Poland and the Czech Republic, in particular, were persuaded to give up some of their radical demands. However, despite the fact Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek signed the treaty on behalf of the Czech Republic, Topolanek’s conservative Civic Democratic Party, which headed the government, did not feel committed to approving the treaty. The party’s founder and honorary chairman until December 2008, President Vaclav Klaus, openly lobbied against approving the treaty.


It seems that some of the problems we see today in Eastern Europe have been caused by the fact that Western politicians and financial institutions have come to trust too much the “facade” that was put on the previously decrepit structures of East European societies with the help of the EU. This is why, for example, some Western banks made huge loans in the region, without really investigating whether the countries’ economies are structurally sound, and whether they are not helping to create financial and economic bubbles.


This goes back to the differences, mentioned above, between institutions and culture. While the countries of the region seemed to be perfect partners from the institutional point of view, offering even some marked advantages, such as low labor costs, they were certainly not comparable with their Western counterparts when it came to democratic culture. In times of crisis, the absence of a true democratic culture becomes a serious problem, because politicians tend to intensify the problems, rather than looking for a consensus and solutions across the board.


We could see an example of this behavior the Czech Republic in 2009, where the government was brought down by the opposition (helped by President Klaus’s allies) in the middle of the Czech Presidency of the EU. A country that should be focused on heading the EU and solving the economic crisis was suddenly without a stable government, Europe without leadership. Local politicians once again put their domestic struggle and provincial issues above larger and more important problems.


The Process of Accession


If we examine the process of accession to the EU closer, we can see several stages.


The first period, which we could call “courtship”, took place in the spirit of the post-revolution ethos, during which the generally shared idea of a “return to Europe” played an important role across the region.


During this period, there was a clash of two political cultures:  On the one hand, the sober approach of the EU, which did not want to lower its standards for the new members under the pressure of politically motivated challenges to enlarge as fast as possible; and on the other hand, the inflated expectations of some politicians and citizens, who were motivated by beliefs in the exceptionalism of their countries and by nationalism.


The “mental gap” between the West, represented mainly by the old members of the EU, and the emerging democracies in East-Central Europe was intensified by the fact that the west of Europe seemed to understand little or not at all the urgency of the message coming from the East about how the totalitarian experience can play a useful role in revitalizing democracy in supposedly tired Western democracies, while the east of Europe did not understand, or underestimated, the backwardness of its own political, legal and economic institutions after four decades of Communism.


While the EU, therefore, emphasized the need for an extensive institutional modernization in the post-communist countries aspiring to EU membership, which necessarily meant that the process could not be quick, some post-communist countries believed that they were institutionally not as backward as the EU seemed to suggest, and that, on the contrary, the EU could use some of their experience.


The second stage is the accession process itself. The EU was very helpful in assisting candidate countries in several key areas. The annual reports released by the European Commission each fall, in which the progress of candidate countries in meeting EU membership criteria was summarized, were repeatedly criticized by the governments of the candidate countries, but, in general, in the end served as a useful guidance.


The third stage, the gaining of membership, turned out to be more complicated than many expected. Some of the reasons were described above.


Populism was on the rise–a reaction to the previous period of complex, sometimes unpopular reforms. Even among politicians of those parties that had led the country into the EU, the dominant attitude for some time was that their countries, now that they were full-fledged members, did not have to agree with everything that came from Brussels.


Some politicians had held such defiant attitudes even before their countries joined the EU. However, the candidacy status provided the EU with such strong leverages that in the end the candidate countries’ political elites simply had no choice but to introduce most reforms demanded by Brussels. This consensus disintegrated quickly after the accession, and the need to continue with reforms was challenged even by some politicians who had previously played a leading role in steering their countries toward EU membership.


During the initial post-accession years, the EU continued to be perceived as “them”. The task for “us” was to get as much as we could out of “them” and put up with as few of their “dictates” as possible.


It seems that differences between the old and new members of the EU are much more pronounced than many believed when the accession process started in the mid-1990. The first major difference is that most new members are still involved with the process of changing their identities from ethnic forms of nationalism to civic attitudes. This, of course, complicates not only the way in which they are attempting to define themselves, their national interests, and their role in Europe, but it also it complicates their attitudes toward foreigners.


Czech president Klaus warned repeatedly before the Czech Republic joined the EU that the Czechs could dissolve in the EU as a sugar cube in a cup of coffee. Although this formulation was often ridiculed, Klaus captured very well the essence of a big problem in the EU’s east: a large degree of insecurity about who we are. In fact, former president Vaclav Havel often ironically referred to this particular Klaus’s statement when he said that if the Czechs were certain of their true identity, they would not make such statements. Such an attitude toward Europe, as represented by the EU, betrayed, according to Havel, a lack of self-confidence.


In general, several years after the ten post-communist countries joined the EU, it is clear that their concepts of sovereignty, national interests, democracy, and even globalization are different from the old members of the EU. One of the reasons for a large degree of insecurity in the eastern part of the EU is the fact that those countries emerged from Communism with the concepts of identity, sovereignty and democracy, which were to some extent still the legacy of pre-communist times.


They simply missed four decades of the institutional and political developments which the west of Europe experienced. For example, the concept of democracy that emerged in East-Central Europe did not really include, at least in the beginning, the understanding that had become prevalent in the West; namely, that a democratic regime is not constituted simply by the rule of majorities, but that modern democracies, leaning on the concept of human rights, respect minorities.


Another fallacy, often expressed by some Czech politicians, for example, is that the most important feature of democracies is their procedural aspect—that is free elections. Other, equally important aspects, such the rule of law, supported by liberal constitutionalism, and a robust civil society are often discounted. The belief in the majority rule as the main feature of democracy is accompanied by the lack patience with minority views, or, if you will, by a lack of tolerance.


Some lessons


In retrospect, it is clear that the institutional backwardness and the poor level of political culture in the new member states from the former Soviet bloc were much greater than many originally realized. Among other indicators, this was demonstrated by the high level of polarization of domestic politics, whose inability to embrace productive compromises was subsequently transferred to EU-level.


It was only several years after accession to the EU that the political elites of the new member states began to grasp the political culture of the EU, based as it is on negotiations and compromises. Gradually, the division between “us” and “them” began to recede.


The Benefits and Drawbacks of  EU Enlargement


Viewed from Brussels and “old” EU member countries, the biggest enlargement in the EU history, moreover including countries that were economically and politically far behind the “old” core of the EU can be seen both as beneficial and problematic, depending on the particular aspects of the process.


On the positive side, one can argue that leaving the candidate countries outside the EU for a longer period of time could have eventually produced a backlash and, subsequently, instability. However, we cannot verify this hypothesis. It is the old question of whether the stabilization of such countries is more productive if they become members with all of their problems, or if they denied membership so that Brussels can keep its leverages.


In general terms, we can argue that while the enlargements in 2004 and 2007 complicated the decision-process in the EU, and made more difficult institutional reforms, they helped the new members to further accelerate the process of institutional modernization.


On the negative side, the infusion of rather problematic political cultures into the EU has complicated what the EU needs the most—further reforms. The admission of unreliable new member states from Easter Europe has weakened support for the EU among West European publics.


However, part of the problem was caused by the “old” EU. It seems, for example, that a new European Constitution, or at least a set of institutional reforms (some of which were in the end approved with difficulties in the form of the Lisbon Treaty) should have been adopted before the enlargement.


The candidate countries could have been given an option: take it or leave it. The “old” EU would have prevented frustrating discussions with Poland, for example, about the merits of the Nice Treaty, the “Polish plumber” factor that contributed to the failure of the European Constitution, or the obstructions of Czech President Klaus during the process of the Lisbon Treaty adoption.


There is a lesson for the future. It seems that the EU of 27 states should make sure that they have a decision-making mechanism in place that can handle any future enlargement. In other words, the EU should prevent the repetition of decision-making paralysis caused by the previous wave of enlargement.


Another lesson is that the offer of EU membership should be strictly tied to meeting all criteria of democracy and market reforms. In 2004, and in 2007, in particular, the EU, it seems, sacrificed some of its standards to political considerations, which, in some cases, turned to be counterproductive. In other word, any enlargement which includes countries whose political cultures and economies are not fully compatible with those of the existing member states produces a backlash that complicates the functioning of the EU as such.








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