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Insights from MAXCAP: Reinvigorating the Enlargement Process and Strengthening the EU's Integration Capacity

Mar 02, 2016

MAXCAP final conference in The Hague

MAXCAP final conference in The Hague

Public Round Table at Leiden University, Campus The Hague

Public Round Table at Leiden University, Campus The Hague

In April 2013, the FP7-research project MAXCAP (“Maximizing the Integration Capacity of the European Union”) was launched at the Center for European Integration at Freie Universität Berlin. KFG director Tanja A. Börzel is MAXCAP’s coordinator. After almost three years of intensive research, the consortium presented its major findings at MAXCAP’s final conference in The Hague, Netherlands, on January 22-23, 2016. MAXCAP’s key questions are: Has widening of the European Union (EU) come at the cost of deepening, as many policy-makers, media, and academic commentators had initially assumed prior to the ‘big bang’ enlargement of 2004 and 2007? How effective has the EU been in fostering democracy, the rule of law, and socio-economic development in the new member states and current candidate countries, and what needs to be done to maximize its integration capacity?

In this report, we would like to share our major findings with the KFG community.

Let us start with the good news about enlargement. First, MAXCAP finds that the EU’s political system has not suffered from enlargement. The political integration of the Central and Eastern European countries (CEEC) has not thwarted the institutional reform of the EU; nor has it disrupted the EU’s capacity to make decisions, establish binding rules, and implement them effectively. To the contrary, enlargement has had a rather limited impact on the production of legislation and on the duration of the decision-making process. Second, Eastern enlargement has not deepened economic divergence between ‘old’ and ‘new’ members. The EU did not leave developmental outcomes of economic integration to the power of the market. As a consequence of increased political and economic interdependence, the EU, and particularly the European Commission, developed pre-accession capacities and tools to anticipate and alleviate major negative developmental consequences of rule transfer. These capacities have helped to bring in the fledgling market economies from Central and Eastern Europe afloat into the strongest regional market in the globe, and to turn their markets into important export destinations and production platforms for EU insiders.

That said, three bad (or at least sobering) pieces of news stand out. First, notwithstanding the above-mentioned successes, the public perception is divided on further enlargement. In the Netherlands and Germany, MAXCAP research found both idealistic and supportive discourses, which refer to enlargement enhancing the EU’s global role and the EU as a community of democratic values, as well as more skeptical views, which reveal that citizens would like to be more informed and involved in enlargement decisions and steps. In new member states and EU candidate countries, the view that enlargement should bring improved governance is coupled with disappointment with national politicians’ delivery on their promises. The EU is therefore well advised to better inform the public in the member states about the rationale and progress of the ongoing enlargement, while in the candidate countries, civil society participation in the negotiations should be strengthened.

Second, while economic collapse of the CEEC was avoided, large sections of their societies could not benefit from economic integration. During the Eastern enlargement, the EU did not develop more active pre-accession policies that aimed at improving the match between the requirements of implementing the uniform EU rules and local developmental needs at the level of sectors or territorial units. Further, MAXCAP research reveals that the EU has weak post-accession capacity to anticipate and alleviate developmental gridlocks in these countries. Structural funds do not help to reduce developmental disparities; they serve more as free rents in the hands of central governments. In the ‘new’ as well as in some of the ‘old’ member states, a growth of economic nationalism and deteriorating democratic quality signals the weakness of the EU’s strategy to manage competitive asymmetries in the long term.

Third, political institutional change in the CEEC is not necessarily set in stone. The EU has only limited ability to ‘lock-in’ political change and prevent backsliding. In the absence of supportive domestic coalitions, weaknesses of democratic quality and governance capacity are difficult to redress in accession negotiations or by post-accession sanctioning. The mere transfer of rule of law institutions during accession negotiations is not sufficient to ensure effective implementation after accession. MAXCAP’s research on accession negotiations with current candidates suggests that the EU still tends to over-emphasize judicial independence without concomitant measures to strengthen checks and balances between the executive, legislature, and judiciary. Cases where domestic improvements in the rule of law have been achieved suggest that the EU can only foster change together with civil society and in the context of broad societal mobilization.

These findings point towards important avenues for further research. The study of socio-economic aspects of EU integration, such as examining the effects of political and economic integration on social inclusion and cohesion, should gain importance. There have certainly been groups of ‘losers’ of EU integration and the achieved convergence has come at a price for social cohesion within countries. It is necessary to explore whether this has more to do with globalization than EU integration, and what the EU can do to improve hitherto uneven social and economic cohesion. Addressing the needs of ‘losers’ of integration as well as ensuring better communication with EU citizens will also counter populist narratives on enlargement, which currently predominate in the public discourse especially in Western Europe.

For more information on MAXCAP as well as our various events and publications please click here.

Authors: The Maxcap Team