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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

The EU is in the Middle of Redefining Itself

Article by: Isabella Ritchie

Does Geopolitical Power Require Normative Sacrifice?

Since its formation, the European Union has been considered as one of the driving forces for the adoption of democratic values in its near abroad and beyond. Its diligent enforcement of liberal norms has not only changed the political landscape of the countries within the EU, but have since spread beyond its borders. The main means by which the EU has been able to expand its soft power is through the so-called European Enlargement Project, which we will expand on below. However, in recent years we have seen major shifts in the global political landscape and we are now in a world of hegemonic rivalry. Russia and China are now strong geopolitical powers and their influence is growing, particularly within Europe. These factors have forced the EU to change how it interacts with potential and current member states by continuing to overlook actions which are not consistent with democratic values. This response has shown how the EU is no longer strictly concerned with normative convergence, but with somewhat ulterior geopolitical incentives. The identity of the EU as we have come to know it, might shift from a normative to a hard power political one.

The EU as a ‘Soft Power’

In politics, the word “power is most frequently used to describe the ability of an individual, organization, or state to exert control over another in its favor . This may either be through coercive or co-optive means. Coercive power, also known as ‘hard’ power, being, for example,  military force or economic sanctions. Co-optive, or ‘soft’ power, however, persuades through attraction and by convincing others to adopt shared principles. Throughout the latter of the 20th and early 21st century, the EU was considered one of, if not the leading, global soft power because of the way in which it transformed the political landscape of Europe. For example, the EU changed the global narrative surrounding the death penalty. The EU was able to reinforce the impetus for democratic change that had been left by the cold war through its enlargement project. Adherence to the principles of the European Convention on Human Rights, became a prerequisite to joining. Consequently, the legal abolition of the death penalty was also a requirement. Although this was slow process which took many years, today the only country in Europe to still have the death penalty is Belarus. This abolitionist stance contributed to the EU being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012.

European Enlargement

One of the main ways in which the EU has been able to grow its power over the last few decades is through its enlargement project. . Following the end of the Cold War the EU began working with former communist countries, such as Romania, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria, to help them reform their political systems to be consistent with liberal values such as democracy, respect for human dignity, and the rule of law. States were able to achieve their membership by adhering to strict EU conditionality policies which, if met, aimed to demonstrate their commitment to these values and forming a common political culture within Europe. Although compliance is often accompanied by great costs, the EU attracts states to comply with conditionality through incentives. These incentives are wide-reaching across areas of security, economy and society. They have tangible benefits for citizens as well as governments such as entering the European single market which ensures free movement of goods, services, and people.

An example of the ways in which the EU attempted to incentivize the Western Balkans to maintain their commitments to the accession process was through the COVAX initiative. The initiative promised to deploy vaccines, tests, and treatments across the Western Balkans, guaranteeing equitable access. However, the EU failed to live up to this promise and it was devastatingly slow at deploying vaccines to the region. This was critically damaging to not only the EU’s reputation as a democratic body, but also undermined the credibility of its short-term, tangible incentives. This left room for Russia and China to further strengthen their roles within the region through their own gestures of vaccine diplomacy.

Growing Power from the East

Over the last decade, Russia and China have significantly increased their presence as international superpowers. This has been particularly noticeable within Europe where both countries have been increasing economic investment and political support. For example, Russia has been able to expand its sphere of influence through its historical relationship with Serbia. Serbia, currently in the second stage of the EU accession process, has strong cultural affiliations with Russia due to their shared history. Russia has been able to leverage this in its favor. For example, Russia opened a Russian TV Channel in Serbia in 2015 which has facilitated the proliferation of anti-EU sentiment. Russia has also provided long-term support for Serbia in the UN over Serbia’s historical dispute with Kosovo. It is therefore unsurprising that Serbia has failed to impose sanctions on Russian energy on a number of occasions despite the fact a condition of membership accession is alignment with EU foreign and security policy.

China, Hungary and State Capture

For many years there has been an observed decline in democratic standards and increased state capture across many EU potential and current member states. This includes areas such as freedom of the press, the rule of the law, and free and fair elections with private interests becoming synonymous with political processes. In 2020, Varieties of Democracy Project and Freedom House declared that Hungary was officially no longer a democracy, but rather an ‘electoral autocracy’, meaning that the EU officially has a non-democratic member state. China, whose affinity with Europe is far more recent, has been able to utilize this democratic decline to increase its presence; countries in state capture are less likely to scrutinize China’s own democratic shortcomings. Hungary has been keen to encourage investments and support from China, including infrastructural development under the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. In return, Hungary’s relationship with the EU has been soured further and Hungary has even backed China on a number of issues within Brussels. Sadly, it is in the Western Balkans where this decline has been the most severe. While many states were progressing on the path to becoming functioning democracies, much of this has since been backtracked. This has become known as democratic backsliding.

A Blind Eye

When China and Russia are able to undermine the incentives offered by the EU it poses a direct threat to the attraction of not only joining the EU and complying with the conditionalities of membership, but of continuing to comply once membership has been achieved. Therefore, the EU has a strong interest in defending itself from geopolitical competition in order to maintain its power position within Europe. This has forced the EU to take a geopolitical approach in order to rebalance the benefits of compliance in their favor. It has strategically chosen to overlook the democratic shortcomings in certain countries over such geopolitical interests.

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