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Is the EU Policy Project Failing?

Diane Stone

Centenary Professor in the institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the Unviersity of Canberra

Last week Transparency International released its annual corruption perceptions index. The Index paints a depressing picture regarding some Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries that are mis-using public funds and backsliding on the rule of law amidst clamp-downs on civil society groups and government statements against European Union (EU) values of democracy. In a book released on the 23rd of February -- Policy Experiments, Failures and Innovations: Beyond Accession in Central and Eastern Europe – the contributors argue that this trend has been occurring ever since many countries became EU member states.

Once the darlings of economic reform and democratic transition, certain Central European countries no longer capture the news headlines for their progressive policies.  In December 2016, the European Commission announced that it would sue Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic at the European Court of Justice for refusing to take in refugees. The EU is also suing Hungary for passage of a new higher education law that would likely force the closure of the Central European University (CEU) – the home institution for many of the contributors to this book.

A closer examination reveals that the turn away from the democratic norms of Europe and its policy exports has been coming for a long time. And it is not only a rejection of the EU but also other international institutions and ‘globalist values’.

After 1989, Central and Eastern Europeans hoped that democracy would bring immediate economic benefits. These hopes went largely unfulfilled. Standards of living failed to keep pace with popular expectations, especially after the global financial crisis of the late 2000s when foreign banks called in their mortgages in the wake of collapsed financial markets. In this bleak climate, people were attracted to political leaders who claimed they could defend them against outsiders – not only foreign banks but also the international institutions like the EU or World Bank.  These political stances have been under-pinned by policy reforms that at face value look like tearing down legislation or the reversion of policies. 

This is the case in many instances. But the picture is more mixed. The years after 1989 also saw the peak of the unquestioned belief in liberalism – both political and economic. Open markets and open societies were extremely attractive to people who had lived under state socialism. The EU was the largest single foreign influence in the region during this period. The scale of the transfer was remarkable: thousands of pages of legislation and regulation, as well as models for the institutions to implement and enforce them.

But, it was unrealistic to expect a smooth and uniform transmission of European models or international best practice to the political economies and societies re-building themselves in the image of the West. Nor was the EU’s agenda for Central and Eastern Europe intended to be a full plan for democracy and development. Instead, the enlargement policy sought to ensure that potential members were meeting the core requirements for EU membership. That is, a narrower set of goals focused on ensuring that the incomers could participate in a common market, a shared budget and policies, and a community of law.

There were explicit templates and transfers of policy that came with the transposition of the acquis communautaire for accession to the EU. However, most academic analysis of this process has focused on the procedures of transmission from Western European countries and how new member-states adopted these transfers rather than considering longer term issues of compliance and policy durability.

Beyond Accession chronicles the mixed fortunes of policy transfer into CEE countries as they adapted and translated foreign ideas and policies in the path towards EU accession. The life of these policies – which came with strong external origins -- inevitably go through processes of interpretation and result in local deviations as policy implementation rolls out.  These dynamics produce outcomes that significantly diverge from the original intention. Is this failed transfer? Or local adaption and re-invention? Success or failure in the context of Europeanisation is often in the eye of the beholder.

Rather than binary ideas of ‘success’ and ‘failure’, the reform experiences of CEE countries are deeply varied through dynamics of policy translation. A bricolage of policy and reform has taken shape over time within local contexts so that a quarter-century of post-communist transition looks quite different from one country to another. There have been some interesting if volatile innovations in pension reform; local authorities and mayors have been able to transfigure the objectives, and outcomes, of Euroregions policy for cross-border cooperation; while national governments can disguise inaction on EU policy and international norms in areas such as gender policy and Roma policy.

The real question is when does policy evolve and change so much that it undermines the normative objectives of policy and in the case of the European project, the fundamental principles of Union?

Among the Brussels’ bureaucratic elite and the international media, Central Europeans are sometimes depicted as simple-minded populists and back-sliding authoritarians. Hungary is a case in point: In an open letter to the European Commission written by Hans Eichel, former chairman of G20  and Pascal Lamy, former European Commissioner implored the Commission to temporarily suspend payment of all EU funding to Hungary due to state capture and corrupt use of EU funds.  Eichel and Lamy argue this step is necessary for the future of the European Union and its core values.

Such calls come too late and offer too little in strategic direction to alter what are now well-worn policy paths.  Beyond Accession contributors highlight a long-term secular trend of policy deviations throughout CEE countries over the past twenty-five years. Clearly there are big unresolved debates about – and challenges to – EU democratic freedoms and rule of law. But the now middle-aged accession states, in their own distinct ways, are presenting alternative policy plans and administrative innovations that unsettle older conceptions of how to operate and what it means to be a member of the EU. 


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