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Saturday, 2 May 2015

Political contestation, state capture, and European integration in South East Europe

Jonathan Scheele (SEESOX Associate; Senior Member, St Antony's College, Oxford)

On 20 February 20145, Milada Vachudova, from University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, gave a seminar chaired by Othon Anastasakis. Milada looked the impact of external actors on political reform in SEE.

Milada Vachudova underlined that the starting point in 1990 for each former communist state had been different – the eastern bloc was never a monolith. While the basic equation had always been that the cost of exclusion from the EU was so substantial that it created an incentive for domestic politicians to put in place substantial reform, had this really worked? To take the case of Bosnia, was the relative failure of reform so far due to the specificity of Bosnia itself or to mistakes by the EU? While the leverage represented by an EU accession perspective was indisputable, if one looked at the potential counterfactual for Romania and Bulgaria, it had clearly failed to guarantee an adequate quality of democracy and rule of law. She noted that, in her view, the EU had not so much embarked on a sort of “civilising mission” in the early 1990s, but rather reacted to the fall of communism by offering a longer term prospect of accession in order to prevent early market access opening. The practical advantages of this process were clear in terms of the potential for establishing the rule of law in these countries, but criticism of its outcome needed to be realistic in terms of how much could actually be achieved. And the loss of leverage after accession was a significant factor in determining the longer term effects of the enlargement process.
Research on the positions of political parties (Chapel Hill Expert Survey – CHES) showed that, by 2006, there remained little or no opposition to accession in the EU10 countries, with the exception of some old communist groups. This resulted from a two stage process; in the first it had become important for every party that opposed the authoritarian regime to adopt “EU-compatible” positions. Watershed elections brought them to power, after which the, in the second stage, former authoritarian parties were also forced to adopt “EU-compatible” positions in order to stay in the changed political game. Thus, as negotiations began, all parties supported accession, reflecting a broadly moderate position by the average voter. However, the situation in the Western Balkans was different, with two contrasting tendencies emerging – moderating in Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia, and radicalising in Bosnia and Macedonia – reflecting different reasons in each case.

She concluded that, given the huge amount of policy change associated with EU accession, it had proved difficult for the EU to force change in Rule of Law related areas (corruption, media freedom), even if the CVM process had proved useful in maintaining leverage in Romania and Bulgaria after accession. In the end however there were limits on EU leverage and, even where it had led to political competition, domestic factors had significantly influenced the outcome. While the EU had certainly not always showed consistency (Bosnia) nor adequate expertise, it would be hard to blame everything on EU mistakes; the same approach had yielded different outcomes in, say, Poland and Bulgaria, and much seemed to be the result of domestic politics.

The discussion ranged widely, though nobody contested her basic premise. Points made included:

seminar chaired by Othon Anastasakis. Milada looked the impact of external actors on political reform in SEE.
  • The challenge of conciliating EU-related rhetoric and delivering what voters are asking for; a strong pro-EU position won’t necessarily achieve electoral success or even reform. On the other hand, overt contradiction between pro-EU positions and actual values is unsustainable. The case of Slovakia had been very salutary – and successful. However, excessive focus on one issue can also hide problems in other areas (as in Greece where a focus on joining the € obscured growing corruption and clientilism).
  • How far leverage could be conserved after accession, when the final decision was always political. In any case, different countries performed differently (e.g. Poland as compared to Hungary).
  • There was no real alternative to EU accession for Central and SE Europe. Absent EU enlargement, we could have seen situations emerging similar to those in post-Soviet states. No other institution has ever achieved a tiny fraction of the change that the EU has.
  • But Hungary was worthy of study – how was it getting away with it? By cultivating useful friends in high places, particularly through the EPP. More generally, doubts are being raised as to how far competition between political parties does in fact lead to entrenched democracy or reduce corruption. Supposedly competing parties can in fact collude, as had been shown in some new Member States.
Overall, this was a stimulating session, raising a number of lines for further research. Sadly however, it also confirmed what many had feared regarding the capacity of externally imposed rules actually to entrench reform, without a strong domestic actor to drive it.

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