How and to what extent have European ideas transformed the political-administrative institutions in the candidate countries in the East? Which conditions work to mitigate and undermine the impact of the European Union (EU) in these contexts? Research on post-communist transformations, by and large, holds EU enlargement as a successful attempt of institutional transfer in the candidate countries. However, while the EU proved to be successful in the first wave of enlargement in the East, we know much less about its effects in “borderline” cases that lack the will and/or the capacity to pursue required reforms, thus posing a real challenge to EU enlargement strategy. The paper aims to trace the effects of enlargement in challenging domestic environments focusing on public administration reform in post-communist Albania. Differently from the classic Europeanization literature, the bottom-up approach used here, seeks to bring to the fore the crucial role of domestic agency to download and sometimes mitigate European transfers in the national arena. Evidence from the case study shows that governing actors have used EU enlargement as a means to further their strategic goals – they have preferred to talk the talk of reform in order to reap the benefits associated with EU integration and broader external assistance, but also resist implementation of new rules that curtail the political control of the state and the ongoing system of spoils built throughout the post-communist transition. The EU’s broad thresholds on administrative reform and the weak association between monitoring of progress and rewards have left ample space for the governing actors to merely pay lip service to the EU prescriptions, while getting full control of a politicized administration.