In this episode of the Liberal Europe Podcast, Leszek Jażdżewski (Fundacja Liberté!) welcomes Eli Gateva, a Departmental Lecturer in European Union Politics at the Department of Politics and International Relations of the University of Oxford, a specialist in EU politics, East and Southeast Europe, EU enlargement and conditionality. They talk about democratic backsliding and why does it matter for the EU, the issue with Bulgaria and Romania, EU tools to address democratic backsliding among its members, and whether the EU is capable of using its tools more effectively to prevent it.
Leszek Jażdżewski (LJ): What is democratic backsliding and why does it matter for the European Union? What tools does the EU have to address this issue among its members?
Eli Gateva (EG): Surprisingly, there is no agreement in the literature on how ‘democratic backsliding’ should be defined. However, there is a broader agreement that, unlike previous cases of democratic decline, a democratic backsliding more recently involves essentially attempts by leaders (who have been democratically elected) to concentrate more and more power by weakening a number of different democratic institutions and, in essence, removing democratic checks and balances on their power.
Initially, there were not as many tools that the European Union had to look into this matter. There was Article 7 – which is also known as ‘the nuclear option’ – which provided the possibility of excluding a member from having a vote in the European Council. However, because it requires unanimity, it recently has transpired that this option is not a particularly viable instrument for the EU to reverse democratic backsliding.
Over the last 5-6 years, we have seen the development of a number of different tools – including the introduction of the Rule of Law Reports, which provides a monitoring instrument. It is applied to all EU member states. There is also the so-called ‘rule of law conditionality’ by means of which a link has been established between basic EU funding and ensuring that member states comply with the rule of law and democracy.
There has been, of course, the exception of Bulgaria and Romania, where the European Commission has been monitoring developments in the area of justice reforms and the fight against corruption since their accession in 2007. There have also been other frameworks – including the ‘Rule of Law Framework’.
Over the last decade, we have clearly seen the mushrooming of different initiatives and instruments at the European level.
LJ: What is the issue with Romania and Bulgaria about?
EG: Bulgaria and Romania are very interesting cases. Somehow, the literature has neglected them when we look at the broader debates about democratic backsliding. Developments in Bulgaria and Romania have been broadly defined with regard to unfinished business. So, when they became member states in the European Union, there was an understanding that more work needs to be done in particular areas – precisely, regarding the independence and effectiveness of the judiciary, a fight against corruption, and, in the case of Bulgaria, the fight against organized crime.
This is why what used to be pre-accession monitoring was extended and applied for the very first time to existing EU member states, thus de facto creating second-class membership. Therefore, both Bulgaria and Romania continue to be very rigorously scrutinized even after accession with the aim to achieve the same standards as other EU member states.
LJ: Does this special treatment work? Did the European Union achieve its goals in this regard?
EG: It is the question of benchmarks – namely, what would you like to have achieved with this instrument? In this case, the European Commission declared (in 2019 in the case of Bulgaria, and in November 2022 in the case of Romania) that both countries satisfactorily meet the benchmark that was set at their accession, so they can now lift the special mechanism which has been put in place for the two countries.
The question is how ambitious you are in terms of interpreting what benchmarks were set to achieve? Do we have an efficient, effective, and independent judiciary in both cases? Has the fight against corruption been successful? I would argue that both countries still have more work to do. But this is not an exclusive matter only for Bulgaria and Romania. With the publication of the ‘Rule of Law Reports’, we have seen that there are issues in all EU member states.
LJ: How did the new members affect the perception of the enlargement process as a whole?
EG: This has been a common theme for a number of years now. I still find it surprising that even though it has been ten years since their accession, we still talk about them as ‘new member states’. The contribution of Eastern European states to European integration has recently been challenged. This was the case in 2007, when Bulgaria and Romania joined – there was this argument that they would give a bad name to EU enlargement policy, which is going to have a crucial impact on the prospects of further enlargement with Western Balkans. Now, there are similar arguments about the impact of the issues with the rule of law in Hungary and Poland on further enlargement of the European Union.
Even though it is an easy argument to make, I would argue against it – precisely because there is now quite a lot of conclusive evidence and examples that it is not just a question about how consolidated your democracy is. Both old and new democracies can backslide – the question is how the EU can deal with these challenges and issues after accession. This is much more important than raising issues of concern about how successful they were before accession. For instance, Hungary was the front-runner of the eastern enlargement, it was declared a success story. Since then, unfortunately, these developments have been reversed.
Therefore, becoming a member does not signify a point of no return when it comes to democratic consolidation. It is important that the EU has mechanisms to monitor developments in all member states and pay attention to new challenges to democracy.
LJ: Until recently, there seemed to be a broad agreement that the European Union is effective in enforcing the changes (in the areas of legislation, for instance) when it comes to the candidate countries. However, we do not see it materialize in the case of Western Balkans. Do these states not have a clear perspective for joining? Or is it an issue typical for the states that joined in on that wave of enlargement process?
EG: It is important to reflect how countries were measured and evaluated back in 2004 and 2007 versus the current approach that the European Commission has adopted toward Western Balkans. In terms of the 2004 enlargement, the focus was on adoption of legislation and the establishment of various institutions. Currently, the position of the EU has changed – they require not only adoption of specific legislation and establishment of institutions, but also they are asking for a track record of implementation and there is also an insistence on EU irreversible reforms. Therefore, the demands that we have and the means to evaluate them are much more challenging, which is an important aspect when we compare the 2004 and 2007 enlargement with the ongoing enlargement round. We need to be mindful not to compare pears and apples.
Clearly, also the scale and the scope of challenges are very different – not only as the EU becomes more demanding and rigorous in its approach, but also because the countries in Western Balkans are facing a set of unique and difficult challenges. This does not mean that the European Union is not going to have an impact in the longer term, but, unfortunately, over the last decade, very little has improved. Many have argued that the fact that the EU has been ambivalent about the perspectives of Western Balkans has not helped the situation very much.
LJ: Are there any challenges that the EU faces in regard to the so-called ‘old member states’? Why is there no discussion about it? Are there no problems whatsoever? Or are we dealing with a different kind of treatment for the ‘old’ and ‘new’ member states’?
EG: There are different challenges that the countries are facing and experiencing at various points in time. In some cases, not enough attention has been paid if we talk about the fight against corruption and the impact it is having on the EU budget and the functioning of the European Union. When the EU published its first – and only – EU-wide anti-corruption report, there was an acknowledgement that all member states are having issues when it comes to fighting corruption. This finding has an impact on the taxpayers’ contribution to the European budget.
I do not think that this is an exclusively Eastern European problem, because there have been concerns about the developments, for instance, in Malta. In Italy – one of the founding members of the European Union – there has been a number of various issues. Greece is now attracting quite a lot of attention for a number of different challenges. It is, therefore, not fair to look only at the developments in Central and Eastern Europe.
LJ: Does the EU need new tools to approach the democratic backsliding? Or should it use the existing ones more efficiently?
EG: At the moment, there is a broad consensus that the EU’s toolbox is complete. The question is how effective, coherent, and consistent the European Union is in terms of implementing and using the tools that it has. Here, we also need to be aware that in many cases this requires political backing from national leaders – and this has been a constant issue, particularly in the developments regarding Hungary and Poland (how willing the heads of state are to sanction, in some cases, and to use a full range of EU tools and instruments).
LJ: From a political perspective, to what extent can we see EU interventions having adversarial effect on the behavior of member states?
EG: It is possible that some of the EU’s interventions might have had unintended consequences. Essentially, the question is about what is at stake? What is the European Union trying to protect? Is it about a general quality of democracy in specific member states? Or are we talking about a defunctioning of European integration and the future of the European project? These are important questions that have been recently asked, given the fact that some countries have used their veto power to block crucial decisions regarding EU foreign policy and the allocation of the European budget. These issues are very closely interlinked, making it very difficult to focus on one particular aspect in terms of justifying the course of action.
However, based on my conversations with various EU and national officials, I would also like to stress that most of them view it as an instrument of providing opportunities for support, rather than of sanctioning or punishing someone. Essentially, when you have a member state, all national officials work together on a regular basis, so you do not want to alienate or make it more difficult to reach an agreement on common solutions. This is why it is important – it is a way that makes it possible to work together rather than antagonize each other.
LJ: So, coming back to the title of our conversation: does the EU matter?
EG: It does matter – in many different ways. It is important not to think about the European Union merely as a toolbox of different options but to highlight the importance that the EU membership has in terms of empowering different domestic actors. When we look at the developments in the area of democratic reforms, there is very little that the European Union can do – external interventions are particularly limited. It is ultimately domestic leaders who can drive and deliver reforms in their respective member states. Therefore, the extent to which the EU can empower or constrain various domestic actors matters for success for democratic reforms.
The podcast was recorded on March 13, 2023.
Find out more about the guest: www.politics.ox.ac.uk/person/eli-gateva
This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of it.