Eastern Europe Goes South

Disappearing Democracy in the EU’s Newest Members

Regression to the mean: unveiling a bust of Hungary’s one-time ruler Miklos Horthy, 2013. Laszlo Balogh / Courtesy Reuters

Europeans love to celebrate anniversaries, especially those commemorating a terrible past overcome. This year will offer many such moments, marking as it will 100 years since the outbreak of World War I, 75 years since the beginning of World War II, and, most uplifting of all, a quarter century since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Such milestones are bound to make everyone feel good about European unity.

But another important anniversary is less likely to be celebrated, precisely because it would put a damper on those good feelings. Ten years ago, eight eastern European states joined the European Union, followed by Bulgaria and Romania three years later. Europe seemed to have overcome not just Cold War divisions but also deeper historical differences. The EU had brought East and West together, consolidating the fragile democracies that had emerged from the fall of communism.

Today, however, this supposed triumph is in serious doubt. Democracy is struggling: nearly all the countries that joined the EU during the last decade are experiencing profound political crises. And as western European leaders call for restrictions on free movement across the continent, new rifts are opening up. Instead of stoking the resentment of ordinary eastern Europeans seeking a better life in the west, EU leaders should learn from the mistakes of accession and enforce clearer boundaries on what political elites can get away with once their countries have joined the EU.


In 2004, observers hailed the EU’s “transformative power” and “invisible hand” for profoundly changing countries from within. Whereas the United States had bet on brutal military interventions to promote democracy, most recently in Afghanistan and Iraq, the EU had used ever-so-soft power to achieve the same end in its region, extending offers of membership that no country could refuse. Once governments gave in to the union’s power to attract, the wonders of EU conditionality -- making a country’s entry to the club and, perhaps most important, the disbursement of EU subsidies dependent on its compliance with

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