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Monday, 13 March 2023

Democracy promotion and safeguarding after accession: Does the EU matter?

On the 7 March 2023, the European Studies Centre welcomed Eli Gateva (DPIR, Oxford) to present her paper on democracy promotion and safeguarding by the EU. The event was chaired by Jonathan Scheele (SEESOX), with Othon Anastasakis (St Antony’s College, Oxford) and Mihail Chiru (DPIR, Oxford) serving as discussants.

Gateva’s paper speaks to a broader literature on the EU’s responses to democratic backsliding. Most academic research on the topic tends to focus on sanctions. However, Gateva’s article proposes a novel framework to study the EU’s impact after accession, analysing the post-accession trajectories of Romania and Bulgaria under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM). Conceived as a short-term instrument to address several ‘outstanding issues’ in the areas of judicial reform and the fight against corruption, the mechanism is yet to be revoked.

Gateva points out that despite the limited sanctioning power of the CVM, the trajectories of Bulgaria and Romania have diverged. Romania is traditionally seen as the success story of democratisation, while Bulgaria’s record is patchier. This challenges the received wisdom that EU interventions only matter before accession. The article argues that identifying and exploring the key mechanisms through which EU membership can empower and constrain domestic actors is critical to understanding the differentiated impact of EU democracy promotion and safeguarding.

As Gateva explained during her presentation, Bulgaria and Romania joined the the EU in 2007. However, what set them apart from the countries that joined in 2004 was an additional safeguard clause known as the ‘super safeguard clause’ which allowed for the postponement of their accession by one year. Although the EU didn’t postpone their accession, it decided to establish to establish the CVM. The mechanism was envisaged to last last up to three years, but it is still in place. This raises the question: how successful has the EU been in influencing developments in the two countries?The presenter contextualised the cases of Romania and Bulgaria within Eastern Europe. Viewed using the metric of the V-Dem Rule of Law Index, Romania had a relatively low starting point but has managed to chart a generally upward trajectory. This stands in contrast to Hungary and Poland which achieved high rankings, but have recorded significant deteriorations. Bulgaria, Gateva argued, has stayed out of the headlines despite worsening trends, partly because the changes in the country have been quite subtle.

She stressed that, in order to understand the impact of the EU fully, we must investigate how EU membership changes domestic politics and policy-making. The EU, she argued, empowers actors in countries through two main groups of mechanisms: participation and resources. Empowerment through participation involves EU policymaking, EU leadership selection, and EU citizenship. Empowerment through resources involves funding, legitimation, and policies. At the same time, EU membership also constrains actors through monitoring, pressure, exclusion, and the withdrawal of resources.

Over the years the Union has used all the above mechanisms to counter democratic backsliding. In Romania, the EU exerted pressure during the 2012 constitutional crisis, as well as over the 2017-19 reforms. The Union has also suspended funding for both countries. Moreover, some EU member states have repeatedly blocked Bulgaria and Romania from joining the passport-free Schengen area, even though both countries met criteria for Schengen membership.

Gateva concluded that EU membership does not mark a point of no return for democratic transitions. Moreover, EU democracy promotion and safeguarding matters even after accession. Bulgaria’s and Romania’s post-accession experience has shaped EU enlargement policy and internal policies, as monitoring compliance using Copenhagen political criteria now applies to all EU member states.

In his comments, Anastasakis praised Gateva’s conception of empowerment as an ambiguous concept, highlighting the idea of “differentiated empowerment.” One point on which he challenged Gateva’s paper was the portrayal of Romania as a success story and of Bulgaria as a failure; he pointed out that there was a big drop in Romania’s rule of law index during the years 2015-17, undermining an optimistic linear understanding of development in the country. He also made a point about the EU’s double standards, as anti-democratic developments in older member states often get overlooked.

Chiru praised the rich corpus of data collected by Gateva, though he suggested that it should be explored more extensively in the paper. He also said that the apparent argument of the paper should be stated more clearly: that the EU has a positive influence only when working in tandem with local actors. He underlined the fact that the effects of the CVM are not always positive. It sometimes (for example in Romania’s case) empowers actors who use anticorruption rhetoric to entrench their power. He also suggested that Gateva look at Croatia – which was not bound by a CVM – to provide a counterfactual.

Gateva clarified that both the Romanian and the Bulgarian case exhibit dynamism and nuances that are difficult to capture. The conventional view that Romania is a success story and Bulgaria a failure does not stand up to scrutiny. Furthermore, rooting out corruption is a very high bar that a number of non-Eastern European countries have been similarly unable to clear. Nevertheless, she maintained that Bulgaria’s democratic backsliding is much more elusive than in other Eastern European countries and is not fully captured by democracy indices. .

In the Q&A, attendees asked about concrete parts of Gateva’s argument. One participant asked whether the EU could be compared to the IMF, in that it is increasingly turning towards financial incentives and punishments. Gateva replied that the Commission’s main priority is still framed within the goal of cooperative dialogue; the EU does not want to alienate countries. She also added that some of the IMF’s goals were simpler to achieve than the EU’s, which involve complex matters like reforming the judiciary.

In response to a question raised by Anastasakis about double standards, Gateva noted that democratic deficiencies and corruption are not confined to Eastern Europe. After all, Italy, Cyprus, Malta, Greece, and even Austria have had a range of corruption scandals, not to mention the UK and its laundering of money for various oligarchs. She argued that the thinking on the CVM has changed for the better. All member states, and not just candidate countries, are moving towards being evaluated against European standards.

Ladislav Charouz (Research Assistant)

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