Waking up after the enlargement party

The new EU members have fallen under the dead hand of bureaucracy.

Chris Bickerton

Topics Politics

There were few dissenting voices amid the fanfare at the official European Union (EU) enlargement ceremony in Dublin on 1 May. For the European Commission president, Romano Prodi, the enlargement of the EU from 15 to 25 member states represented ‘the fulfilment of the European project’ (1). For both the EU enlargement commissioner, Guenter Verheugen, and Poland’s former prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, enlargement promised to be ‘the most epic European moment since 1945’ (2).

In spite of such lofty statements, there are good reasons to doubt that enlargement represents the recognition of central and eastern European (CEE) states as political actors in their own right. Having been freed of Soviet bureaucracy, enlargement has seen the EU regulatory colossus shift eastwards. The EU’s direct intervention in the national politics of future members suggests that the Brezhnev doctrine of ‘limited sovereignty’ has been appropriated by Brussels, 15 years after CEE states first began their ‘return to Europe’.

The EU’s enthusiasm for extending regulation into all spheres of life is a familiar target for western Eurosceptics; in the east, it has come as an unpleasant surprise. Enlarging the single market has involved the regulation of goods and services as diverse as cheese and taxi cabs. So extensive was the list of products banned under EU standards that in Hungary some began to spread the rumour that all sweets made with poppy seeds would be outlawed (3). Even Western businesses are losing their enthusiasm for setting up in Eastern Europe, when they realise that they will have to face as much EU-imposed red tape as already exists in current member states. In the words of an influential report by the Economist Intelligence Unit: ‘The EU is as likely to export throttling regulation to accession countries as it is stable business conditions.’ (4)

Even more far-reaching are the new measures for democracy. No longer satisfied with ‘free and fair elections’, the EU has demanded that new member states meet the criterion of ‘good governance’, which includes a complete overhaul of state bureaucracies and the launching of various civil society initiatives. Rather than empower CEE governments, such intervention has meant policies were judged not in terms of their domestic relevance and impact, but on their approximation to EU standards.

In foreign policy, Poland had initially considered its close relations with the Ukraine an important contribution to European security (5). However, due to immigration fears in Western Europe, it was forced to seal its border with the Ukraine in 1997. Political relations with the Ukraine soured, and cross-border trade fell by 30 per cent (6). With such results, anti-EU sentiment grew in CEE states as the date for membership approached.

Having policy formulated and judged by EU experts has weakened the domestic political sphere of candidate states. National politicians have sought their legitimacy in the EU Commission’s progress reports, and have buried social conflicts under promises of a prosperous future inside the EU. This has encouraged domestic populations to look to EU membership as the panacea to local problems while at the same time fuelling cynicism and disillusionment with domestic politics.

This mixture of hope and cynicism was evident in the results of the referenda in 2003 on EU membership, which were marked by the paradox of overwhelming support for EU membership combined with a poor turnout. In Hungary, 89.6 per cent voted ‘Yes’, but the turnout was only 45.62 per cent; in Slovakia, a ‘Yes’ vote of over 90 per cent came on the back of a 52.2 per cent turnout. In Poland, apathy was prevented from invalidating the referendum only by the intervention of the Pope, who declared to the country, ‘Europe needs Poland, and Poland needs Europe’ (7).

EU enlargement has left CEE populations divided. Some businesses hope to gain from membership, as do students and the most qualified. But a vast number have simply abandoned the political mainstream altogether, turning either to apathy or political extremism. In Poland today, the post-communist Democratic Left Alliance has virtually collapsed, with the prime minister Leszek Miller resigning as promised on 2 May. This has left the populist party, Self Defence, led by Andrzej Lepper, topping opinion polls. In Slovakia, recent presidential elections saw a run-off between former prime minister Vladimiar Meciar and his long-time lieutenant, Ivan Gasparovic, both men issuing from the same family of Slovakian right-wing nationalist populism.

To believe that such tensions will disappear after 1 May is to misunderstand the way the EU operates. Through the accession process, the EU has exported its model of governance by regulation to the candidate states. This fuels the combination of apathy and populism, which is in turn used as a justification for even greater control from Brussels. Citing the popularity of figures such as Lepper or Meciar, the New York Times has warned that ‘Central European nations still lack the strong institutions that can compel authoritarian-minded politicians to act like democrats’ (8) – a claim that serves to bolster the EU’s role in domestic policy-making and weaken further domestic institutions.

1 May 2004 might be remembered as a ‘return to Europe’, but not a Europe that was worth joining.

Chris Bickerton works in Geneva for a Swiss government project on border security in the Balkans. In October 2004 he will start a PhD in international politics, at Nuffield College, Oxford. The views expressed here are his own, and not those of the Swiss government.

(1) Speech given by Romano Prodi to the European Parliament, October 2002

(2) RFE/Radio Liberty Newsline Vol 8, No. 71, Part 2, 16 April 2004; ‘In From the Cold’, Ed Vulliamy, Observer, 11 April 2004

(3) ‘East Europeans Wait for EU Growth Pains to Pass’, John Darnton, International Herald Tribune, 4 February 2004

(4) Europe Enlarged: Understanding the Impact, Economist Intelligence Unit, 2003, p11

(5) Through close cross-border ties, and cooperation with CIS political elites, Poland saw itself as a bridge between the EU and Russia and the CIS countries

(6) ‘The Sharp Edges of Europe: Extending Schengen Eastwards’, Heather Grabbe, International Affairs 76 (3), 2000

(7) ‘Apathy Threatens Poland’s EU Poll’, Ian Traynor, Guardian, 7 June 2003

(8) ‘Europe’s New Demagogues’, New York Times, 10 April 2004

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Topics Politics


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