The Politics and Government of the EU: The European Union Community Political Process

The Politics and Government of the EU: The European Union Community Political Process


The European Union (EU) is perceived as a community of pan-European democracies in international relations parlance. EU enlargement is a process of gradual and formal horizontal institutionalisation of organisational rules and norms. The enlargement political process that allows for incorporation of other members in the EU community is an important aspect. The turning point of EU enlargement is the end of Cold war in the 1980s with the collapse of Berlin Wall that witnessed the reunification of East and West Germany into one entity and the collapse of Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991.

The precursor of the EU was the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) with Austria, Finland and Sweden as founder members in 1973. Other countries that joined the EU were Hungary, Estonia, Czech Republic, Latvia, Poland, Slovenia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Cyprus and Malta with Malta and Cyprus acceding to EU in 2004.

The 2004/2007 enlargement was followed by 2013 enlargement that witnessed the accession of Iceland and Croatia into EU with other countries in the Western Balkan such as Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey as possible candidates for accession. Countries in Europe are attracted to joining the EU because of the many benefits including migration issues, free movement of people and labour, agricultural subsidies and structural funds to member countries.

At the beginning the EU was exclusively a western European organisation but has transformed itself into a pan-European institution with a focus on EU politics and policy-making process for the entire continent of Europe. In other words, the constant process of EU enlargement has had far-reaching implications for the political shape of Europe, politics, institutional set-up and major policy-making process. These have been reflected in tough intra-EU accession negotiations over budget, EU policies, agricultural policies, politics policies, environmental policies, energy policies and representation of members in the EU institutions.

Keywords: Accession, Enlargement, politics, European Union, Policy process.


The process of enlargement of (EU) has been constant with the inclusion of the post-communist states in the East and Central Europe following the end of Cold War and collapse of the Berlin Wall. The eastern enlargement marked important milestone in re-unifying parts of the European continent (Vermeersch, 2006). The constant process of eastern enlargements further included Romania in 2007, which was followed by Croatia in 2013 (Epstein & Jacoby, 2014). The eastern enlargement was seen as reunification in what had been perceived as a divided Europe for many years during the Cold War.

This paper will first examine extent and ways in which the constant process of enlargement has impacted on the EU politics and policy process by reviewing the existing literature on EU enlargement. Secondly, the paper will examine the extent and ways the process of enlargement has helped in overcoming division of the European continent. Thirdly, the paper will look at the ability of the EU in triggering liberal democratic reforms, which cannot be overestimated, more specifically in countries with authoritarian and illiberal governments resulting into spread of democracy.

This paper reveals how the EU institutions are constrained when it comes to sanctioning democratic ‘backsliding’ in EU member countries after their entry into the EU community. Nonetheless, there has been no widespread deterioration of democracy among new member countries and, albeit limited, the EU’s constant ability in influencing domestic politics and policy changes in joining states through democratic and human rights conditionality remains surprisingly durable.

The paper then focuses on the attitude to enlargement among the citizens and member countries, more specifically, ‘enlargement fatigue’ signs as member states become reluctant in accepting additional new countries into the EU community of nations and how these has affected EU politics and policy-making process. These negative attitudes may be stemming from impact of enlargement, more precisely, the eastern enlargement on the EU in key areas of EU politics and policy-making process capacity.

The earlier enlargements was received positively compared to eastern enlargement that has led to current aversion partly explained as governments’ responses in EU institutions on delayed process of taking-in new members because of perceived anti-immigration and cultural threat sentiments permeating in the public opinion. Incremental reforms have continued to be implemented in candidate countries as they move closer into EU membership while enlargement continue to remain a key issue on EU’s politics and policy-making process agenda.

Literature Review

The constant of enlargement has not crippled EU’s potential in devising new policies and conflict-solving process capacity as noted by Wallace (2007). The impact of various EU enlargements starting from 1973 EFTA and up to 2007 affected EU politics and reduced the speed of policy process as elaborated in a study by Hertz and Leuffen (2011). However, Best and Settembri (2008) in a study have demonstrated the increased policy making process after the eastern enlargement. This increased policy making process in EU has seen a reversal in the quality of innovative legislation characterised with less debates in the EU institutions and increased negotiations behind closed-door meetings between European Parliament and the Council according to findings by Settembri (2007).

The many smaller and poorer countries those that are agriculturally-based in the post-communist states that acceded into the EU were expected to bring in diversity in preferences leading to vote contestations in EU Parliament and Council of Ministers on the basis of east-west ideology in comparison to a time before eastern enlargement that had no basis according to study by Naurin and Wallace (2008). There have been numerous concerns regarding race-to-the-bottom policy-making process in fields such as environment policy, consumer protection policy, climate policy, energy security policy, agriculture and so forth (Kvist, 2004).

Tsardanidis and Stavridis (2005) fronted what is known as the ‘Europeanised Policy” on the impact of enlargement to EU politics and policy-making process, a study that was also supported by Bӧrzel (2002). The member countries have the opportunity of shaping EU politics and policy through projection of preferences or uploading while at the same time, the same countries are being shaped by the same EU-level pressures.

Princen (2011) studied the impact on the policy-making process by the enlargement and pointed out the challenges agenda-setters in EU continuously face. Copsey and Pamorksa (2010), similarly, have revealed influence exerted by member states that depends on relative fixed political power, which comprises the size of a state’s population and economic power, among other variable factors that may include coalition-building skills, policy preferences, administrative ability, persuasive advocacy, receptiveness of other EU member states and domestic political strength. The work of Kingdon (2003) on consensus and coalition building among EU member states and institutions, policy coordination and generation of well-developed proposals is a complimentary work that had been covered by Copsey and Pamorksa (2010). The evidence of Bulgaria and Poland membership in 2004 and 2007 respectively helped to shape energy policy through leadership and norm advocacy in EU institutions as revealed by   Bjӧrkdahl (2008).

Krislov, Ehlerman, Weiler (1986) studied the impact of fifth EU enlargement on the policy-making process known as substantive lourdeur, more specifically, the negative impact on legislative quality. The Luxembourg Compromise of 1966[2] gave rise to decisional malaise, a situation described by substantive lourdeur concept. Simmel (1902) explained the contextual attribution of EU enlargement which is relevant to sociological theories on group size that revealed a relationship between increases in size of group that inversely affects its behaviour and the group outcomes. It was observed by Hackman and Vidmar (1970), Hare (1952) and Olson (1965) the efficiency of the small groups when compared to large groups. Furthermore, larger groups are inherently characterised by conflicts and coordination issues and the need for more time in completing their designated assignments (Hackman & Vidmar, 1970; Hare, 1952; Devine, 2001).  In other words, a large number of members in a group have the possibility of impacting negatively on the quality and efficiency of the performance of the group. Therefore, the constant process of EU enlargement will lead to negative impact on the efficiency of and quality of its politics and policy-making process.

Enlargement impact on spread of democracy in Europe

For those countries that joined EU in the years of 2004/2007, there was unprecedented shift in EU politics and policy-making process. The most notable change is EU’s conditionality on accession of new members into its community predicated on certain democratic and human rights conditions (Dangerfield et al., 2006). However, the impact is more pronounced in regard to politics and policy-making process. The EU continues to apply political conditions for new and old members in regard to liberal democratic principles to ensure the member countries practice liberal democracy. The constant process of enlargement impacted on EU politics and policy process by influencing democratic space through lock-in of democratic changes in countries that did not practice liberal democracy (Bandelj, Finley, & Radu, 2015).

The constant process of enlargement has impacted on EU politics and policy process by enacting political and policy sanctions for new countries backsliding after accession into EU. The policy process pronounced in Article 7 of EU Treaty permits the European Council into taking stern measures against member countries violating EU’s liberal democratic principle persistently and adversely, to the extent of undermining the democratic principles of EU. However, a limitation is the requirement of majority votes in European Parliament and European Council in using Article 7 as espoused, which is extremely demanding.

The importance of the impact of process enlargement attributed to EU politics and policy areas has been underpinned by the findings that EU’s new member countries have been outperforming other post-communist states targeted by the EU political conditionality. These surprising politics and policy-making process reforms can be attributed to an increase in exposure of ruling elites and citizens to the western countries through enhanced travel and work opportunities leading to higher expectations from their own state governments’ performance.

In Romania, democracy breaches included use of emergency ordinances in removing constitutional checks on impeachment procedure and weakening of powers of the constitutional court. The impact of these changes meant that EU had to intervene, which it did. In the case of Hungary, the centre-right party groups and governments sitting in European Parliament were vehemently opposed to the use of Article 7 against the government of Hungary. With this threat, the EU was not able to challenge broader underlying democratic problems facing Hungary, with the EU Commission resorting to making incremental changes touching on isolated issues based on EU law using infringement procedures in achieving compliance. By contrast, Romanian government complied comprehensively and swiftly with EU institutional demands in redressing breaches of liberal democratic principles.

The Politics and Government of the EU: The European Union Community Political Process
The Politics and Government of the EU: The European Union Community Political Process

Enlargement Fatigue in EU

There are negative attitudes within public opinion and among members of the EU towards the process of enlargement after the first eastern enlargement in 2004. The accession treaties into EU membership have been distinctly made unfavourable to new candidate members since 1993, a policy process within the sitting members of EU. This was in-turn informed by hostility against enlargement among EU citizens, which was more pronounced in countries such as Austria, France and Germany, which are among the old member countries with the exception of Spain (Dimiter et al., 2014).

There is open policy against accession of Albania and Turkey into the EU membership. For example, in France, constitutional changes were made in 2005 that made it compulsory in holding a referendum before authorising further EU enlargements or an endorsement demand of three-fifths of majority in two houses of parliament during a meeting in congress, which again impacts on the EU politics and policy-making process. Politicians in Austria and Germany have in particular argued against accession negotiations with Turkey, instead proposing a ‘privileged partnership’ which ignores the Turkey’s already privileged partnership with EU.

The ‘enlargement fatigue’ that has characterised member nation governments in the EU since 2007 after the successful accession of Bulgaria and Romania perhaps explains the failure surrounding Constitutional Treaty[3] and uncertainty in ratifying Treaty of Lisbon.[4] These emerging issues could explain the Commission’s reluctance in accelerating ongoing enlargement process. More tellingly, after Albania and Montenegro submitted their formal EU membership applications in 2009 and 2008 respectively, a number of member states such as The Netherlands and Germany embarked on unprecedented step of blocking Council’s request for Commission’s opinions on the applications. In addition, the Commission’s recommendations for granting Albania official status as a candidate state were opposed by several countries in the EU Council.

Negative impact of hostilities towards enlargements has not affected countries in South-East Europe where progress towards memberships is ongoing with exceptions of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Turkey in which accession negotiations have since stalled. The stalled Turkey’s accession negotiations have been attributed to failure by the government in recognising Republic of Cyprus and recent restrictions on the civil liberties by AKP government[5]. Croatia joined the EU in 2013, while Serbia and Montenegro accession negotiations are ongoing. Macedonia obtained candidate-status and awaiting a veto by Greece.

The prevailing ‘enlargement fatigue’ has seen a renewed emphasis on ‘absorption capacity’ of the EU as part of the key requirement before further enlargement. This requirement criterion was listed in 1993 by Copenhagen European Council.[6] It is perceived as a controversial requirement since it is outside the scope of the new candidate country and can easily be used as an instrument by reluctant member countries in stalling enlargement. The EU’s absorption capacity was not a factor in 2004 enlargement, however, the Commission made attempts to define it in clearer as well as more functional terms – the notion of ‘absorption capacity as entailing: the impact of enlargements on EU’s budget and the ability of the EU to implement its common policies and its effectiveness and accountability in terms of decision-making.

The impact of enlargement on decision-making in EU

The structural differences in a number of candidate countries joining the EU posed challenges on the policy-making process of EU in implementing common policies to a certain extent.  For example, the dramatic rise of the number of member states joining the EU in 2004 rose from fifteen to twenty-five while the increase between 2007 and 2013 was only one on the eastern enlargement, which affected functioning of EU. The increase in membership had a negative impact on the capacity of the Council of Ministers to legislate, given the increase in heterogeneity of preferences by member states thus effectively thwarting effective policy-making process in areas that would have required unanimous and explicit agreement.

The blockade or gridlock threatened policy-making process in other areas because of the Council’s traditional practice of aiming for consensus-building in policy-making process even where the Council’s formal rules permits qualified majority voting (Wallace, 2007). The additional member states to the EU institutional policy-making structures from Eastern Europe in addition to Cyprus and Malta were largely expected to present a new front of conflict in EU politics, that is, in the context of New versus the Old EU member countries that formed coalitions with shared political beliefs (Sabatier & Weible, 2007).

In regard to the increasing enlargement that brought in newcomers, the impact on the EU policy-making process resulted in policies such as reduction in greenhouse gas emissions EU policy under Directive 2009/29/EC and promotion of renewable energies under Directive 2009/28/EC.  The discussions in the EU among member countries in regard to greenhouse gas emissions resulted into reduction of carbon dioxide emissions that was espoused in the revision of Emissions Trading Systems. The 2009/29/EC was a revised policy update of Directive 2003/87/EC, which had fronted decentralised policy instrument giving member states room for allocating emission allowances that was now nullified by providing a centralised, pan-European scheme, which led to harmonisation of rules called governance u-turn.

The addition of more members of European Parliament and Commissioners from the new member countries into these EU institutions that were originally meant for six member countries had the possibility of impeding effective internal working relationship and affecting the efficient allocation of tasks, processes, which are largely political and policy-making in nature. The enlargement in 2004 and again in 2007 meant that there were more participants in the Council’s policy-making process that would lead to decrease in speed of policy-making even when the quantity of output remained the same.

Labour migration and corruption control

One particular impact of enlargement on the EU politics and policy process is the creation of CVM[7] that was meant to help the EU regularly monitor issues such as labour migration, reforms in the judiciary, fight against organised crime and corruption control in new member countries, more specifically in the context of Bulgaria and Romania. These issues were not initially part of the EU law but are as a result of enlargement and the Commission restricted itself to monitoring Bulgaria and Romania using CVM sanctions. Corruption problems and reforming of the judiciary have been perceived widely in Romania and Bulgaria compared to other member countries in the EU and is believed to be worse in candidate states in Western Balkans (Spendzharova & Vachudova, 2012).

To an extent, the current attitudes towards enlargement impact on immigration policy process in which concerns about migration of labour from poorer eastern member countries led to old member countries reserving the right in accession treaties in suspending free movement of labour for a period of up to seven years long after accession. A case in point is the United Kingdom (UK) that limited free movement of labour after 2004 enlargement. [8] After the accession of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007, the UK government chose to close its labour market for a maximum of seven years due to hostile reaction from its citizens, which eventually culminated into Brexit vote in 2016. The success of Eurosceptic Independence Party of UK  in elections to European Parliament in 2014, that was attributed partly to its public concerns regarding immigration appeals from the new member states of EU and further inclusion of main parties that eventually campaigned for the exit of Britain from EU in 2016 had their grievances in ‘enlargement fatigue’.


To a large extent, the process of enlargement on the EU had made positive contributions in reducing the gap in democracy between eastern and western Europe beyond the role of locking-in the endogenous democratic reforms. The functioning of EU in regard to politics and policy making process has been impacted by the constant process of enlargement. The ‘enlargement fatigue’ signs present serious challenges inherent in structural difficulties in new candidate countries for the EU.

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