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Democratic Backsliding in EU Member States and Candidate Countries

International relations
European Union
WS05
Natasha Wunsch
Sciences Po Paris
Ulrich Sedelmeier
The London School of Economics & Political Science

Abstract

In the wake of the integration of ten Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries into the European Union in 2004/2007, enlargement conditionality was hailed as the most successful tool for external democracy promotion. A decade later, initial enthusiasm has given way to growing concerns over democratic backsliding in the EU enlargement region. The phenomenon is two-fold: on the one hand, instances of a deteriorating quality of democracy have emerged among several of the EU’s more recent member states, most prominently in Hungary and Poland. Concerns over the dismantling of judiciary independence and attacks against media freedom extend well beyond the partial rollback of EU-induced reforms that may have been expected after their accession. On the other hand, it appears that political conditionality is running out of steam among the current candidate countries, which are experiencing at best stagnation, and in several cases a downright decline in their democracy levels. The EU’s reactions have been mostly muted and have so far failed to halt a development that risks undermining much of the progress achieved over the course of Post-Communist democratisation. In light of this dual challenge to the EU’s ‘transformative power,’ the workshop aims to take stock of the state of democracy in the enlargement region and to address the EU’s ability to tackle instances of democratic backsliding effectively. The proposed workshop will evaluate the interplay between EU political conditionality and democratic quality in the enlargement region. Which factors explain the observed cross-national differences with regards to democratic stabilisation and regression? Do the same explanations hold for post-accession and pre-accession democratic backsliding? How does the EU’ response to democratic backsliding affect elite behaviour and citizens’ attitudes in the countries concerned? Bringing together comparative politics approaches with Europeanisation research, the workshop seeks to further both our theoretical and empirical understanding of democratisation trajectories in the enlargement region. Relation to existing research The concept of ‘democratisation by integration’ (Dimitrova & Pridham 2004) captures the intertwining of processes of democratic transformation and reforms undertaken in view of EU membership. Political conditionality has been key to bringing about domestic change in candidate countries (Schimmelfennig & Sedelmeier 2005; Vachudova 2005), with the EU accession process portrayed as a ‘super-structure for external influence’ (Vachudova 2015) and ‘the only genuine example of external pressure leading to in-depth democratization’ (Møller & Skaaning 2013: 154). The EU membership perspective has served both as an incentive for democratisation and as a restraint against the reversal of political reform efforts (Pridham 2005), while EU accession itself has been cast as an indicator of completed consolidation (Merkel 2008; Cirtautas & Schimmelfennig 2010). Three core conditions for the effectiveness of political conditionality have been singled out: the presence of sufficient and credible incentives, receptive elites, and the political costs for these elites in democratizing (Pridham 2005; Schimmelfennig 2007; Beichelt 2012). As a result, there are both temporal and geographic limits to the impact of conditionality, which tends to be highest where EU membership is credible but has not yet been achieved (Steunenberg & Dimitrova 2007; Epstein & Sedelmeier 2008; Schimmelfennig & Scholtz 2008; Böhmelt & Freyburg 2013; Börzel & Schimmelfennig 2017). Despite its acknowledged success in fostering political transformation in candidate countries, the effectiveness of democratic conditionality has long been subject to critical debate (Epstein & Sedelmeier 2008; Noutcheva 2009; Freyburg & Richter 2010). A comprehensive comparative study of Europeanisation in CEE highlighted the weaker impact of democratic conditionality as compared to the more technical acquis conditionality (Schimmelfennig & Sedelmeier 2005). Similarly, doubt has been cast over the post-accession sustainability of democratic reforms adopted under pressure (Dimitrova & Pridham 2004), with an expectation that the most sensitive reforms are likely to experience a rollback once membership has been achieved (Dimitrova 2010; Sedelmeier 2014). More generally, accession negotiations have been crucial to shaping elite behavioural patterns, but much less influential with regards to deeper levels of consolidation, such as societal attitudes (Pridham 2005). The CEE enlargement has been described as a ‘turning point’ for the effectiveness of conditionality. In the remaining candidates in the Western Balkan region, the starting conditions for democratisation are less favourable, due to more difficult legacies of ethnic conflict, and recent – as well as sometimes contested – statehood. Their membership perspective is more elusive and the negotiations drawn-out (Epstein & Sedelmeier 2008). Earlier research, moreover, has suggested a less consistent application of conditionality in the Western Balkans due to conflicting objectives on the EU’s part, which weakens its credibility and thus the likelihood of compliance (Töglhofer & Wunsch 2011; Richter 2012). Of late, specialists of South East Europe have raised concern over the EU’s lenience towards current accession candidates favouring the emergence of authoritarian leaders in this region (Bieber forthcoming; Kmezić & Bieber 2017). An emerging body of empirical work on democratic backsliding in CEE has generally taken the form of case studies highlighting the specific dynamics of backsliding in individual countries or groups of countries that present particularly prominent instances of the phenomenon and examining the EU’s reactions in these cases (Sedelmeier 2014; Batory 2015; Iusmen 2015; Kelemen 2017). A separate strand of work has investigated possible remedies to backsliding at the EU level (Sedelmeier 2014; Müller 2015; Kochenov et al. 2016; Kelemen & Blauberger 2017; Sedelmeier 2017). Against the background of these varied theoretical, methodological and empirical insights, the workshop aims to tackle four cross-cutting dimensions regarding the state of democracy in the EU’s enlargement region. Onset vs. persistence of democratic backsliding. Several enlargement countries have experienced brief periods of democratic challenge but then returned to previous democracy levels. A more limited number is experiencing persistent democratic backsliding. Before the great diversity in the duration and scope of democratic backsliding, we seek to understand which factors favour its onset and which its persistence, and whether there is any difference between the factors explaining these two stages. We focus specifically of the role of the EU in preventing the onset of backsliding and, once it has occurred, the EU’s ability to reverse it. Inter- and intra-regional comparison. Democratic backsliding concerns both pre-accession countries in the Western Balkans and the post-accession countries in CEE. A comparative perspective tackling similarities and/or differences between as well as within the two regions is likely to further our understanding of the explanatory factors shaping democratic outcomes in the enlargement region. Conceptual innovation. ‘Democratic backsliding’ has become a buzzword well beyond the context of EU enlargement. Yet, existing studies do not rely upon any common definition of the phenomenon. Theoretical discussions seeking to distil key features as well as distinct dimensions of democratic backsliding can feed into the broader debate on the global decline of democracy and the concurrent rise of illiberalism. EU vs. domestic approaches. The EU has come under pressure to respond to increasingly obvious cases of democratic backsliding in the enlargement region. At the same time, scholars are concerned that increasing external pressure may strengthen existing levels of Euroscepticism in the countries and build domestic support for authoritarian leaders. Parsing out the interplay between EU pressures and domestic actors and their sources of action can help expand the EU’s toolbox towards effective approaches to democratic backsliding. References Batory, A. (2015). Populists in government? Hungary's “system of national cooperation”. Democratization 23(2): 283–303. Beichelt, T. (2012). The Research Field of Democracy Promotion. Living Reviews in Democracy: 1–13. Bieber, F. (forthcoming). Return to the 1990s? Patterns of Semi-authoritarianism in the Western Balkans. East European Politics: XX. Böhmelt, T. & Freyburg, T. (2013). The temporal dimension of conditionality and candidate states’ compliance with the acquis communautaire, 1998–2009. European Union Politics 14(2): 250–272. Börzel, T.A. & Schimmelfennig, F. (2017). Coming together or drifting apart? The EU's political integration capacity in Eastern Europe. Journal of European Public Policy 24(2): 278–296. Cirtautas, A.M. & Schimmelfennig, F. (2010). Europeanisation Before and After Accession: Conditionality, Legacies and Compliance. Europe-Asia Studies 62(3): 421–441. Dimitrova, A. & Pridham, G. (2004). International Actors and Democracy Promotion in Central and Eastern Europe: The Integration Model and its Limits. Democratization 11(5): 91–112. Dimitrova, A.L. (2010). The New Member States of the EU in the Aftermath of Enlargement: Do New European Rules Remain Empty Shells? Journal of European Public Policy 17(1): 137–148. Epstein, R.A. & Sedelmeier, U. (2008). Beyond conditionality: international institutions in postcommunist Europe after enlargement. Journal of European Public Policy 15(6): 795–805. Freyburg, T. & Richter, S. (2010). National identity matters: the limited impact of EU political conditionality in the Western Balkans. Journal of European Public Policy 17(2): 263–281. Iusmen, I. (2015). EU Leverage and Democratic Backsliding in Central and Eastern Europe: The Case of Romania. Journal of Common Market Studies 53(3): 593–608. Kelemen, R.D. (2017). Europe’s Other Democratic Deficit: National Authoritarianism in Europe’s Democratic Union. Government and Opposition 52(02): 211–238. Kelemen, R.D. & Blauberger, M. (2017). Introducing the debate: European Union safeguards against member states’ democratic backsliding. 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