Europeanisation and Democratic Regression in Southeast Europe: Reflections on a Research Agenda

by Natasha Wunsch


In the wake of the integration of ten Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries into the European Union (EU), EU enlargement was hailed as the most successful tool for external democracy promotion (Dimitrova and Pridham 2004; Schimmelfennig and Scholtz 2008; Vachudova 2005). As long as the expected reward was sufficiently attractive, the domestic political costs for adaptation low, and the membership promise credible, it was expected that the perspective of enlargement coupled with EU conditionality would readily result in democratic change (Schimmelfennig 2007).

A decade later, none of these three conditions holds true for the current round of candidate countries, and democratisation there is stagnating at best, when it is not outright regressing. What is more, the image of the CEE region as a success story of rapid democratic consolidation (Merkel 2008) is also crumbling.

Since the rise to power of Viktor Orban in 2010 and his open defence of ‘illiberal democracy’ in Hungary, the signs of democratic regression have been multiplying across Europe’s East. Analysts have observed the ‘hollowing’ and ‘backsliding’ of democracy among the CEE democracies (Greskovits 2015) and the spread of authoritarian tendencies in the Western Balkans (WB) region. For EU scholars and those interested in post-communist democratisation, the simultaneous crisis of democracy in both member and candidate states poses a number of challenging questions.

First, it signals the reversibility of democratic consolidation. Transitologists originally described democratisation as a linear process, proceeding from initial liberalisation, through transition, on to full democratic consolidation and a political system where democracy would represent the ‘only game in town’ (Linz and Stepan 1996: 5). The transition phase has long been recognized as one of instability and potential stagnation, giving rise to debates on ‘hybrid’ (Diamond 2002) and ‘grey zone regimes’ (Carothers 2002) that would durably combine features of democracy and autocracy. Consolidation, in contrast, has been viewed as an end point and, in the context of EU enlargement, an indicator of a country’s readiness for full integration into the democratic community of member states (Merkel 2008; Cirtautas and Schimmelfennig 2010).

The observed deconsolidation of democratic regimes (see Foa and Mounk 2017) in Europe’s East calls into question this understanding. It thereby shakes the very foundations on which the EU enlargement process is built. If democratic reforms undertaken during EU accession negotiations prove to be reversible, what remains of the ‘democracy through integration’ model (Dimitrova and Pridham 2004) that has guided the EU’s engagement with its candidate countries? Has the EU’s conditionality-based approach reached a turning point after the 2004/2007 enlargement round (see Epstein and Sedelmeier 2008)? How may democracy promotion achieve more resilient results?

Second, democratic backsliding opens the question of the relative weight of international vs. domestic factors in explaining democratisation and its reversal. Over time, there has been an increasing acknowledgement of the importance of the international dimension in explaining democratisation outcomes (Whitehead 1996; Pridham et al. 1997). Yet, signs of democratic regression among the EU’s Eastern members and candidate countries suggest that evaluations of the EU’s ability to bring about lasting democratic change may have been overly optimistic. Whereas the membership perspective may have initially overridden the concerns of reluctant domestic elites and compensated for unfavourable structural conditions, these domestic factors now operate largely unconstrained.

Following two decades of striking EU success in fostering democracy through its enlargement policy, are we now assisting a natural reassertion of domestic forces that reveal the incomplete internal transformation of CEE countries into full-fledged liberal democracies? But how can we explain that democratic backsliding is occurring precisely in the countries that were formerly frontrunners in the EU accession process (Hungary, Poland), democratising largely independently from EU pressures (Vachudova 2005)? And what does this imply for the EU’s ability to counter signs of democratic deconsolidation?

Finally, the current deterioration of democratic standards in CEE and WB poses the question of the comparability of deconsolidation processes in the two regions. Are the same factors driving the rise of illiberal tendencies in both member and candidate states? Is there any systematic variation regarding the role and weight of the EU in explaining democratic regression in CEE and WB? How can we explain the wide variance in degree and even presence of democratic backsliding across these two regions? At a more abstract level, paraphrasing Tilly (2007: 73): Are there any necessary or sufficient conditions for (de-)democratisation that can be deducted from the study of deconsolidation in Europe’s East?

The rise of illiberal tendencies across Europe’s East has cast doubt on some of the core assumptions of democratisation theory and the EU’s enlargement policy. Answering these questions will not only improve our understanding of processes of democratisation and their reversal. It will also offer concrete suggestions on how to recalibrate the EU’s enlargement policy in order to keep illiberal tendencies in check and foster sustainable democratic change both inside the EU and in its neighbourhood.


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  • Title picture: EU Balkan enlargement (authors: maix¿?, Danleycock. Wikimedia Commons. Licence: CC BY-SA 2.5).

Dr. Natasha Wunsch is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the European Politics Group at ETH Zurich. She is a member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) and has collaborated with several European think tanks, including the … see more.


Wunsch, Natasha: “Europeanisation and Democratic Regression in Southeast Europe: Reflections on a Research Agenda”; in: Globalising Southeastern Europe (29.03.2017); URL:

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