The False Promise of Europeanization

Central Europe and the Balkans expose the failures of European integration.

By , an associate professor at the University of Sarajevo’s Faculty of Political Sciences.
Vucic and Merkel, each behind a podium, smile at one another. The German flag can be seen behind Merkel.
Vucic and Merkel, each behind a podium, smile at one another. The German flag can be seen behind Merkel.
Then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic address a joint press conference following their talks at the German Chancellery in Berlin on Feb. 27, 2018. Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Image

When I was studying for my master’s degree back in 2005-2006 at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, I remember one concept that stood out: Europeanization. This was a year after the European Union expanded to include 10 new members, primarily in Central and Eastern Europe. It was the Big Bang of EU enlargement, and there was much optimism then about the EU and its rising potential in Europe and beyond. 

What Europeanization basically meant was that the process of European integration would change the societies and politics of countries that sought to join the club as well as lead to more open, liberal, and democratic societies. The idea was that candidates for EU membership would strive to adopt EU standards and values, such as individual freedoms, representative democracy, equality, rule of law, respect for human rights, and absence of discrimination of any kind. 

This was also taken to mean that the politics of EU candidates and new member states would become significantly less corrupt, less nationalistic, more cooperative, and more civil. There was even the notion of a Europeanization spillover—that EU standards and norms would spread beyond those countries seeking immediate membership.

When I was studying for my master’s degree back in 2005-2006 at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, I remember one concept that stood out: Europeanization. This was a year after the European Union expanded to include 10 new members, primarily in Central and Eastern Europe. It was the Big Bang of EU enlargement, and there was much optimism then about the EU and its rising potential in Europe and beyond. 

What Europeanization basically meant was that the process of European integration would change the societies and politics of countries that sought to join the club as well as lead to more open, liberal, and democratic societies. The idea was that candidates for EU membership would strive to adopt EU standards and values, such as individual freedoms, representative democracy, equality, rule of law, respect for human rights, and absence of discrimination of any kind. 

This was also taken to mean that the politics of EU candidates and new member states would become significantly less corrupt, less nationalistic, more cooperative, and more civil. There was even the notion of a Europeanization spillover—that EU standards and norms would spread beyond those countries seeking immediate membership.

Europeanization was not just an idea. It had become a mantra. When Croatia joined the EU in 2013, I vividly remember politicians, pundits, and academics in my home country of Bosnia and Herzegovina talking up Europeanization and how our next-door neighbor’s progress would be beneficial for our country as well. Few back then questioned the degree to which Europeanization has a real impact and whether the process is irreversible. 

In fact, Europeanization quickly proved itself reversible. When the 2015 migration crisis struck Europe, old prejudices came to the fore. The four Central European states that make up the Visegrad Group—the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary—turned to illiberal politics. Anti-immigrant sentiment became widespread in countries that were only transit routes for immigrants seeking a brighter future in Western Europe. 

The migrant crisis emboldened nationalist forces, and xenophobic fears surfaced in ways that took many by surprise. Politicians in Visegrad Group countries with otherwise marginal Muslim populations started expressing more frequent Islamophobic statements. The arrival of migrants in transit led some to claim that they were at the helm of protecting Europe’s cultural identity. There was also the internal return to more conservative policies. 

What was shaping up in Central Europe became a textbook example of what American journalist Fareed Zakaria had written about back in 1997 when he popularized the term “illiberal democracies” to describe a rising trend in international politics. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban quickly became the poster child for illiberal democracies, symbolizing all the vices Europeanization was supposed to have erased. In fact, only a decade after his country joined the EU, Orban had established himself as an antidote to the much-touted process of Europeanization.

The Visegrad Group, foremost among them Hungary, showed that political culture had not been transformed into the more liberal and less nationalistic one predicted by Europeanization. Once in the EU, new member states were no longer under pressure to reform and transform their political culture. Brussels’s leverage had an impact on candidate countries but not much on those that had joined the EU. For instance, as Hungary sought EU membership, the country made significant strides in reforms and was ranked a “free country” in 2005. Yet 16 years later, Hungary fell back to a “partly free” country in the 2021 Freedom House report. 

Central European countries also failed to abide by EU decisions once in the club. Along with the Czech Republic and Poland, Hungary was found to have broken EU law when it refused to take in its quota of asylum-seekers at the peak of the migrant crisis.

The shift to a reverse-Europeanization is not only evident in Central Europe. 

Enter Croatian President Zoran Milanovic. Croatia joined the EU in 2013 in what was then a major foreign-policy achievement for the country and what was widely assumed to be a boon for other Yugoslav successor states. Many in the region hoped that Croatia’s accession would not only transform the country but also lead to a Europeanization spillover effect. Perhaps nowhere was this hope greater than in Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Yet today, almost a decade after accession, Croatia’s leader is vying for the title of most controversial leader in the Balkans, generating scandals and tension in the region almost daily. He referred to Bosnia as “big shit,” minimized the Srebrenica genocide, and stated in racist terms that to become a “civil state,” Bosnia “needed first soap and then perfume.” 

For months now, Milanovic has been laser-focused on interfering in Bosnia’s internal politics. In essence, he is exerting pressure on Bosniak politicians to undertake electoral law reform. However, most analysts agree that the model for reform pushed by Zagreb and supported by the hard-line leader of Bosnian Croats, Dragan Covic, would only further cement ethnic division in the already deeply divided country. In fact, Croatia’s direct interference in Bosnia’s politics is now far more pronounced than was the case before Croatia joined the EU. In other words, the country’s accession to the EU failed to induce more productive relations with its neighbor. 

Serbia is another case where the promises of Europeanization have failed to materialize. The country made strides toward greater integration with the EU over the past decade. Serbia was awarded candidate status in 2012 and started negotiations in 2014. Yet as the country progressed on the EU front, there was a parallel shift to authoritarianism. 

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s consolidation of power is now all but complete—in 2021, Freedom House listed Serbia as a “partly free” country. Vucic has managed to centralize power both in his party and the country over the past decade to an extent not seen since the days of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic and has firmly established control over the government, security apparatus, and media. Under his watch, genocide denial and the glorification of convicted war criminals are rampant. His close links with Russia and China also call into question his pro-Western commitments. 

Although Europeanization was a hope for the former communist bloc a decade and a half ago, it turned out to be a hollow mantra. Not only did new EU member states backpedal on Europeanization but politics in many of these countries are back to business as usual with an illiberal twist. 

What trends in Central Europe and the Balkans show are that Europeanization is a reversible process. In the end, political cultures in both regions were significantly shaped by communism, and it is doubtful whether membership in the EU can quickly and fundamentally alter a decadeslong legacy.

Hamza Karcic is an associate professor at the University of Sarajevo’s Faculty of Political Sciences. Twitter: @KarcicHamza

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