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EU enlargement: wrong lessons from an apparently exemplary process

The enlargement of the EU to include ten East and Central European countries went smoothly. But further expansion is meeting resistance and Poland and Hungary are now abandoning a number of democratic principles. What are the reasons? Antoaneta Dimitrova, Professor of Comparative Governance, explains in her inaugural lecture on 12 March.

Antoaneta Dimitrova
Antoaneta Dimitrova

Dimitrova, appointed as professor at the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs six months ago, questions in her inaugural lecture exactly what has happened since the major expansion of the EU at the turn of the century. The ten East and Central European countries were exemplary pupils: they focused attention in their countries on the policies and institutions prescribed by the EU and were textbook liberal democracies. Currently, Western Europe, the cradle of the EU, is resisting further expansion, and Poland and Hungary are abandoning EU values. 

Imported governance

‘In East and Central Europa there was a form of imported governance,' Dimitrova analyses. 'That made the introduction phase a lot easier because there was no need to reinvent the wheel and there was also a reward on the horizon: EU membership and the revenues, including financial revenues, and the other advantages it would bring. The question is how these institutions worked in practice. It was different for each sector and depended on the different local players who shaped the new rules and were responsible for the implementation. 

Effects felt later

A major omission before the expansion was that the politicians in the EU member states gave their citizens very little information about the proposed enlargement and the ten countries involved until it was a done deal. According to  Dimitrova, there was too little prior discussion with the populations in the east and the west about the expectations from the expansion and from the enlarged European Union as a whole. 'The exceptions were the referenda about membership in some but not all Central and East European countries,' according to Dimitrova. Geopolitical considerations were the main concern of the elites and in both the west and the east  they decided and acted on behalf of the populations. The effects of enlargement only became apparent - and tangible - much later.   

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Second-class EU citizens?

Dimitrova: ‘On the one hand the population of Western Europe started to experience the competition of cheaper labour from East and Central Europe. On the other hand, groups of citizens in the east felt - and still feel - like second-class citizens because of the dominance of Western Europe in the EU, in particular because of the conditionality of membership.' During the process of access many ad hoc conditions were imposed, ranging from closing nuclear power plants in Bulgaria and Lithuania to improving the conditions in orphanages in Romania. The fact that Cold War stereotypes  were still operating on both sides of Europe did not help in arriving at a single broad, inclusive EU. It is against this background that Poland and Hungary in particular began to rebel against EU rules and agreements.  

New expansion in a different context

The enlargement to include six countries in the western Balkans about which negotiations are currently ongoing has a different context from the previous expansion. The European Commission recently presented a new strategy for the accession of these countries. In this strategy it is allowing itself to be led too much by the apparent, rapid changes implemented by the ten countries from the previous enlargement. The six new candidates are keen to become members for reasons of economic progress and security.  Imposing all kinds of conditions and requirements only works if there is a real prospect of membership. But a majority of the citizens of the current member states are not at all positive towards further enlargement while all EU countries have to agree. The limits of imported governance will only become felt in the coming years. This is particularly the case if accession is once again not discussed with the population.  

Antoaneta Dimitrova will deliver her inaugural lecture on 12 March


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