The EU is expected to make a decision this week on whether to open accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. Frank Schimmelfennig and Ulrich Sedelmeier explain that EU enlargement policy has suffered from diminished credibility, both in terms of the EU’s promise of membership and its willingness to implement sanctions for non-compliance. The decision over Albania and North Macedonia offers a crucial opportunity to restore this credibility.

Just as a global Danish brewery recently changed its advertising slogan from ‘probably the best beer in the world’ to ‘probably not the best beer in the world’, the European Union’s enlargement policy seems to be undergoing a similar change. In the context of the eastern enlargements of the 2000s, enlargement was widely regarded as the EU’s ‘most successful foreign policy tool’. This claim was based on the EU’s effective use of conditionality attached to its offer of membership.

Yet while EU enlargement conditionality has been credited with playing a positive role in ‘Europeanisation’ and democratisation of the post-communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe that have joined the EU since 2004, it appears to have run out of steam with regard to the current candidate countries in Southeast Europe. Moreover, democratic backsliding in post-communist new member states, notably in Hungary and Poland, raises questions about the role of EU membership in locking in democratisation.

In a recent study, we argued that the diminished credibility of the EU’s promise of membership has become the main obstacle to the effective use of enlargement conditionality in prospective member states. Likewise, the lack of credibility of the EU’s sanctions is the biggest hurdle to sustained Europeanisation in the EU’s new members. We have revisited the ‘external incentives model’ (EIM) we used to explain the effectiveness of EU conditionality in the run-up to the Eastern enlargements of 2004 and 2007 and asked whether it is still relevant to explaining the EU’s domestic influence in the post-accession phase of the Central and Eastern European countries and in the pre-accession phase of the Southeast European countries.

The EIM assumes that the EU drives Europeanisation through sanctions and rewards that alter the cost-benefit calculations of governments in candidate countries. It expects such calculations to lead these governments to adopt, or comply with, EU rules under the following conditions. First, conditionality is more likely to be effective when the rewards are sizeable and tangible (rather than distant). This condition is most clearly met if the ‘membership’ reward is present – the biggest ‘carrot’ the EU has on offer.

Second, conditionality has to be credible. Target governments need to be certain that they will be rewarded if they meet the conditions (and that they will not receive the reward if they do not). Credibility crucially depends on the EU’s consistency in applying conditionality. Third, conditions need to be determinate, i.e. target governments must know what exactly they need to do to get the reward. Finally, the reward must outweigh the target governments’ domestic adoption costs. If governments stand to lose power or be blocked by domestic veto players, or if they lack the administrative or financial capacity, they are unlikely to comply.

For the 12 states that joined in 2004 and 2007, we compared their post-accession compliance with EU legal acts (the ‘acquis’) and with the EU’s liberal-democratic norms. We found that while compliance with the EU acquis is high, and even generally better than the compliance record of the old member states, governments in breach of liberal democratic norms (notably Hungary and Poland) have not been deterred by the threat of EU sanctions according to Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union – even though their membership rights are potentially at stake. We can explain the difference primarily in terms of the difference in the credibility of the threat of sanctions, which depends largely on the autonomy of EU institutions in the imposition of sanctions.

With regard to the rules of liberal democracy, the autonomy of EU institutions is extremely limited: the member states themselves determine by unanimity (minus one) whether such a breach has occurred. The credibility of sanctions is far higher with regard to the acquis. Article 258 and 260 TFEU grant the Commission high autonomy to launch infringement procedures and to refer a member state to the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU), which, in turn, can impose financial penalties for non-compliance. That Poland agreed to reinstall judges of the Supreme Court after the CJEU issued an interim judgment in December 2018 (confirmed in June 2019), but not when it merely faced political criticism and pressure in the other European institutions, is a case in point.

In addition, we compared the pre-accession political conditionality in Southeast Europe (the Western Balkans and Turkey) with the 2004/07 candidates. This shows again that credibility makes the difference. As the EU promised all candidates full membership, there is no difference in the size of the reward. The same is true for the credibility of the EU’s threat to withhold membership in case of non-compliance. If anything, the Western Balkans are less relevant and attractive for EU economies, and more dependent on external support than the 2004 and 2007 candidates. To some extent, the salience of geostrategic competition with Russia in the Western Balkans region has led the EU to prioritise stability and a pro-Western orientation at the expense of democracy promotion.

Yet the credibility of the EU’s promise of membership has suffered most in comparison to the previous enlargement rounds. Public support for EU enlargement in the member states eroded over time, and populist parties have instrumentalised opposition to enlargement. France introduced the requirement of a national referendum for future accessions, further increasing uncertainty for would-be members. In addition, particular bilateral conflicts with Western Balkan countries, which have little to do with the formal membership conditions, have inhibited the accession process. The most important example was the state name dispute between Greece and Macedonia, which had led Greece to block the start of accession negotiations from 2009.

Similarly, several EU member states do not recognise Kosovo, and the lack of a normalised relationship between Serbia and Kosovo also blocks Serbia’s accession. Given that domestic adoption costs tend to be high for the current candidates for membership, the weak credibility of the membership promise is particularly serious. We find, indeed, that democratic progress in the region has stalled and that the two countries with the highest credibility problems have regressed the most. That the EU has for now failed to honour the high domestic risk that the North Macedonian government has taken in adopting a new state name to solve the bilateral conflict with Greece, despite repeated assessments by the European Commission that the country meets the conditions to start accession negotiations, deals another blow to the credibility of EU conditionality.

Our comparative evidence highlights the central importance of the credibility of the EU’s incentives. Of the theoretical conditions of effective Europeanisation, credibility is the only condition showing full correspondence with the pattern of compliance. Even if incentives (rewards and sanctions) are strong in principle, they fail to affect compliance if they lack credibility. In addition, highly credible incentives have proven capable of overcoming considerable domestic costs in the pre-accession periods. The decline of credibility is thus the most important factor in the decline of the Europeanisation effects of the EU’s enlargement policy.

It follows from our analysis that restoring credibility is the key to improving the effectiveness of Europeanisation. If EU institutions and member states remain divided on the importance of the norms of liberal democracy, the use of post-accession sanctions against democratic backsliding, and the desirability and urgency of enlargement in the Western Balkans, credibility will be difficult to restore. The decision whether to open accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia is a crucial opportunity to do so. Although the European Commission has confirmed that both countries have made sufficient progress with domestic reforms to start accession negotiations, the Council has been so far unable to agree on this step.

The member states were expected to take a decision in June 2018, but postponed it to June 2019, and then again to October 2019. Currently the signs for a positive decision are not good, despite a joint statement in June this year by 14 EU foreign ministers calling upon their reluctant colleagues to ‘live up to our commitments and ensure the credibility of the EU enlargement policy based on clear conditionality and the own merits principle’ and a letter on 3 October by the current and future Commission president, as well as the presidents of the European Council and the European Parliament stating that the two countries had done ‘what we asked them to do’ and that the decision on accession negotiations ‘is a test of the Union’s ability to deliver on its promises’.

The window of opportunity to restore the credibility of conditionality is closing fast. Even if credibility were eventually restored, the domestic compliance costs for national governments that have come to rely on illiberal means to hold on to power may have become prohibitive in the meantime – certainly in Turkey, potentially in Hungary, and arguably in some Western Balkan countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina. Likewise, domestic publics may have run out of patience with reform-minded governments that cannot deliver progress on the path to EU membership.

For more information, see the authors’ recent paper in the Journal of European Public Policy

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Note: This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: UNIS Vienna/Nikoleta Haffar (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


About the authors

Frank Schimmelfennig – ETH Zurich
Frank Schimmelfennig is a Professor of European Politics at ETH Zurich, Switzerland.

Ulrich Sedelmeier – LSE
Ulrich Sedelmeier is an Associate Professor in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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