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Five Questions on the State of Democracy in Europe

May 08, 2024
Anna Meyerrose

Anna Meyerrose

The enlargement of the European Union (EU) has been instrumental in promoting democracy in formerly authoritarian regions of Europe. But in recent years, the EU has struggled to deal with democratic backsliding among its newer member states. Anna Meyerrose, assistant professor at Arizona State’s School of Politics and Global Studies, is a member of the IGCC network of scholars working on illiberal regimes and international institutions. Her recent contribution to the Review of International Organizations outlines how democracy promotion efforts in the EU may inadvertently have adverse effects. This interview was conducted by IGCC research director Stephan Haggard, who co-leads IGCC’s project on illiberal regimes and global governance.

Over the last decade, the EU has been passive in the face of democratic backsliding among its members, notably Hungary. What is happening?

Eastern Europe’s dual transition to liberal democracy and the market economy was strongly supported by EU enlargement. The EU was dominated by democracies and held firm to democratic principles in accepting new members. 

In 2010, however, the Fidesz party, led by Viktor Orbán, won an outright majority in the Hungarian Parliament, which it holds to this day. Since then, Orbán has used this majority to systematically undermine democracy by introducing a new constitution that eliminated many checks on executive power and undermined press freedom. In 2020, an emergency law gave Orbán the power to rule by decree indefinitely. Orbán proclaimed that liberal democracy has failed in Hungary, advocating instead a form of illiberal democracy.

Similar developments occurred in Poland after the populist Law and Justice (PiS) party came to power in 2015. PiS attacked the high court, the prosecutor’s office, the media, and the civil service. The party’s efforts to delegitimize the judiciary raised serious concerns about the rule of law in Poland. 

While Hungary and Poland are the most extreme cases of backsliding to date, signs of democratic erosion also appear in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Greece, Croatia, and Slovenia. Democracy faces challenges in one-fifth of EU member states, despite a few encouraging developments, such as the recent Polish election, which rebuked PiS and elected a pro-democracy coalition government. 

Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary, in 2022. (Flickr)

In 1993, the EU introduced the Copenhagen criteria, which outline democratic conditions for membership, and the acquis communautaire, an extensive list of policy requirements that candidates must meet to join the EU. How does the EU encourage compliance?

In the 1990s, the EU began developing mechanisms to support democratic progress in Eastern Europe to prepare these states for eventual membership. The Copenhagen criteria outlined the political and economic conditions states must meet to qualify for EU membership, including having a stable democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and protections for minorities. The acquis is a 100,000-page document that outlines the precise policies, rules, and procedures that prospective members must implement. The prospect of membership and the economic benefits it entails were seen as powerful incentives for states to comply with the Copenhagen criteria and the acquis.

The EU also provided technical and financial support to help states meet these requirements. In the case of Hungary and Poland, the EU created a series of aid programs to build bureaucratic, administrative, and regulatory capabilities to help these states comply with the acquis. However, there was far less focus on developing democratic institutions to ensure commitment to the values outlined in the Copenhagen criteria.

Your piece makes the counterintuitive claim that democracy promotion efforts may backfire. Can you outline the logic? 

The conventional template for democratization argues for an effective state with a strong executive, as well as organizations for managing mass participation, representing citizens’ interests, and ensuring horizontal accountability—such as political parties and legislatures. Overemphasizing a strong state without sufficient attention to other critical democratic institutions can backfire. 

The EU’s approach reflects the traditional view of state building as democracy building. Most of its efforts to promote democracy focus on enforcing the acquis. The EU defines institution building largely in reference to administrative capacity, human resources, and management skills. It works primarily with executives and elites and contributes significantly less to developing checks and balances on executive power.

Ongoing cases of backsliding in the EU highlight that this approach has unintentionally contributed to the problem. Pre-accession preparations concentrate significant power in the executive branch. Moreover, executives are the primary intermediaries between their state and EU institutions, which they can exploit to domestic political ends. 

At the same time, the EU’s extensive membership requirements constrain states’ domestic policy options. Unable to appeal to voters based on core issues set at the EU level—particularly economic policies—politicians have increasingly emphasized identity politics and nationalism. This populist response erodes the strength of legislatures and political parties and allows opportunistic executives to consolidate power. 

Is this an EU-specific story? Or are similar dynamics occurring in other international organizations (IOs) as well? 

My focus in this paper is on the EU. However, in a related article, I find cross-national evidence that IOs that support democracy unintentionally contribute to backsliding in their member states. The mechanisms I outline within the EU have played out more broadly across IOs in the post-Cold War era. I explore these dynamics in my book.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Western policymakers reached a consensus that powerful international institutions would help to promote, protect, and consolidate liberal democracy. With liberal democracy ascendant, these IOs proliferated and were granted wider powers than their predecessors. Democracies joined at exceedingly high rates and became active, integrated members. Thirty years later, liberal democracy is in crisis in many of these same countries. My book asks what went wrong.

As IOs became more common, they gained unprecedented influence over domestic affairs. While this dynamic creates challenges for all types of democracies, the effects are particularly salient in newer democracies with underdeveloped institutions.

The EU is exceptional in terms of its level of integration and the power it has over policy within its member states, but it is not unique. By one measure, the average state in 2015 delegated roughly 205 policy matters to regional IOs. Furthermore, state executives represent their states in all types of IOs and have significant control over incoming financial resources from these organizations. This shifts the domestic balance of power in favor of executives. 

In the book, I compile data on 81 countries that entered the post-Cold War period as democracies. Cross-national tests show that increased membership in IOs over the last three decades makes democratic backsliding more likely in all democracies, with particularly strong effects evident in new ones. Additional tests confirm that membership in these organizations has increased executive power and limited states’ domestic policy spaces, resulting in rising support for populist and nationalist parties.

It seems like the EU has finally tried to address backsliding in Hungary and Poland more forcefully. How can the EU support democratic institutions without being accused of illegitimately interfering in the domestic politics of its member states? 

For over a decade, the EU’s response to backsliding was largely ineffective. Indeed, some have argued that the EU not only failed to address backsliding, but even helped to sustain illiberal regimes in Hungary and Poland through European-level party politics that shielded populist leaders, EU cohesion funds that financed them, and the ease with which disaffected citizens can emigrate from these countries. 

Over the last few years, the EU has adjusted its approach, with some success. After a decade of inaction, it has finally begun proceedings against Hungary and Poland for their violation of the liberal democratic requirements for membership. In the 2023 Polish elections, PiS lost its legislative majority to a pro-democracy coalition. While encouraging, the EU will need to make fundamental changes to its political and institutional structures to escape the “authoritarian equilibrium” it has found itself in. This requires adapting its democracy promotion practices while grappling with the trade-offs between greater integration and liberal democracy.

On the other hand, the EU has doubled down on its approach emphasizing election monitoring and executive capacity building in prospective member states, as reflected by its engagement with the Western Balkans. To guard against backsliding, the EU should devote more resources to institutional design in current and future member states. This could include providing greater technical support for domestic party organizations, civil society groups, and judiciaries, as well as identifying mechanisms to ensure EU financial resources are not susceptible to executive capture.

An even more fundamental question is how much authority the EU—and IOs more broadly—should have. While delegating policy decisions related to the economy, monetary policy, and immigration to EU-level institutions has spurred integration across Europe, this loss of sovereignty has undermined representative channels in EU member countries, and was foundational to the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU. 

My argument may seem to suggest that for liberal democracy to survive in Europe, states should reduce cross-border cooperation. However, my contention is not that integration and democracy are inherently incompatible. Rather, it is the extensive policy delegation characteristic of the EU since the early 1990s that challenges democratic institutions. Therefore, the solution is not for member states to turn inward, but rather for them to find ways to adapt EU policy structures to maintain the core representative functions of democracy.

To this end, the EU could follow the embedded liberalism model of international integration that prevailed after World War II, under which states expanded their levels of economic integration yet retained the freedom to regulate their economies, address social and employment needs, and implement voters’ preferred economic policies at home. 

While returning decisions related to monetary policy or the internal movement of people to member states would undermine some of the EU’s core mandates, there are still a range of other policy issues in which the EU could give more leeway to voters. This would benefit newer democracies where institutions outside the executive have not fully developed. 

Even in Europe’s most advanced democracies, mainstream parties are facing increasing electoral pressure from populists and extremists. Giving established parties the space to appeal to voters based on substantive fiscal policies may help them compete electorally with illiberal competitors who pose a threat to liberal democracy. 

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