Assessing EU enlargement capacity: effective conditionality, resilient institutions, and skeptical publics

Antoaneta Dimitrova (Leiden University) & Frank Schimmelfennig (ETH Zurich)
Antoaneta Dimitrova (Leiden University) & Frank Schimmelfennig (ETH Zurich)

By Antoaneta Dimitrova and Frank Schimmelfennig

In 2004 and 2007, the EU admitted 12 new member states in its biggest and most controversial enlargement to date – accompanied by ‘enlargement fatigue’ and warnings by commentators and policy-makers that the EU was about to overreach the limits of its integration capacity. Current nationalist-authoritarian tendencies, ongoing problems of corruption, and stern opposition against a common refugee policy in several new member states appear to vindicate the sceptics.

In our JEPP special issue on “European Union Enlargement and Integration Capacity”, we present a systematic and broad-based evaluation of the Eastern enlargement based on the collaborative FP7 research project ‘Maximizing the Integration Capacity of the European Union’ (MAXCAP). In contrast to the widespread scepticism, our results show that the EU’s integration capacity has been strong. Credible accession conditionality and pre-accession assistance have had a positive impact on democracy, governance capacity, and economic transformation in the candidate countries. After accession, EU institutions have proven resilient. Eastern enlargement has not had systematic negative effects on the legislative capacity of the EU or its legal system. It has not led to a deterioration of compliance with and implementation of EU law either; the initial differentiated integration of the new member states has returned to normal levels quickly.

This generally positive assessment stands in stark contrast with the increasing public opposition to future EU enlargements the reasons of which we also explore in our special issue. One of the less known sources of public opposition that we identify is the lack of communication and political debate about the last enlargement between EU leaders and their citizens, especially in the older member states. Public opposition, however, undermines the credibility of the EU’s accession conditionality, which is crucial if the EU is going to have a positive impact on its neighbouring countries in the future. The other deficit of EU integration capacity we point out is the absence of credible political conditionality vis-à-vis member states.