This theme explores political leadership at the national level in response to transboundary crises. It investigates the causal links between transboundary crisis management and ‘backsliding’, as well as the policy options and tools for managing backsliding. It aims to
- Investigate and map the nature of backsliding – both in terms of democracy and the acquis communautaire
- Analyse the reasons for backsliding – particularly the extent to which it constitutes a response to transboundary crisis management
- Consider the capacity of EU leaders to address the issue of backsliding and explore policy options.
The financial crisis has offered national politicians a chance to mobilise their national electoral support to oppose European integration. This opposition is not just about the future direction of the European Union; it is also about the existing status quo. As a result, we can observe ‘backsliding’ in terms of national commitment to the Treaty acquis as well as broader constitutional safeguards. This represents, in itself, a crisis for political leadership in the European Union, as it undermines the central pillars on which European integration rests. The research investigates patterns of ‘backsliding’ at the national level in the context of the financial crisis, analyses the causes of this by comparing selected cases, and explores the implications of backsliding and possible means of addressing this. The investigation addresses both the acquis and the Copenhagen Criteria for membership, and focuses particularly on constitutional safeguards and independent institutions, corruption and corruption control, and equal opportunities.
The danger that domestic political and economic developments may put a member state on a course that clashes with the core values of the EU is nothing new (think of the ‘Empty Chair’ crisis in the 1960s, the ‘Mad Cow’ crisis in the 1990s and the political crisis precipitated by the FPÖ joining the Austrian government in 2000). In more recent years, these one-off issues have begun to resemble a pattern, to the extent that a concept is required to analyse this: we speak of backsliding. The term backsliding encompasses both political developments that threaten the EU’s core values (notably democracy and human rights) and policy developments that challenge the coherence of the acquis communautaire.
Several member states have put in place political, economic or administrative arrangements that clash with both the spirit and the letter of the law in the EU. In 2012 the European Commission criticized both Romania’s Victor Ponta and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán for endangering democratic governance. Commission President Barroso was explicit: “There are concerns about the quality of democracy in Hungary.” Elsewhere, the French and Italian governments drew considerable criticism for their handling of Roma communities (by deportation and demolition of camps respectively) in 2010. All in all, we can observe an increasing range of informal practices aimed at the creative implementation or simply non-implementation of EU law.
The key research question concerns how and to what extent the crisis and the response it draws from national leaders exacerbates democratic and/or acquis backsliding. Recent crises have presented an opportunity for national politicians to mobilise electoral support by adopting a range of harder and softer types of opposition to European integration. This opposition is not merely about the future of the EU, but also concerns existing policies. Consequently, at the same time as the EU can be a source of rule-based governance, the combination of a) national responses to the crises that jar with EU rules, and b) political rhetoric that lays the blame for present predicaments squarely with the EU, opens the door for backsliding in terms of the acquis. This can happen through:
- Weakening independent institutions: To the extent that leaders of national governments invoke a crisis to limit media freedom, restrict the power of independent regulators and politicise the judiciary or central banks, this may constitute backsliding in terms of the broader constitutional safeguards of democracy that all EU member states are committed to as a prerequisite for membership (cf. the Copenhagen Criteria for the recent rounds of enlargement). A range of national measures on all three counts have drawn criticism from the Commission and the European Parliament.
- Corruption and corruption control: To the extent that the economic crisis has merited extraordinary measures, it has provided an opportunity for national leaders in office to alter public procurement practices in ways that might affect both the level and type of corruption. Likewise, it has provided an opportunity for changing anti-corruption legislation.
Theme co-ordinator: Nick Sitter, CEU
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Nick Sitter (CEU) reflects on the phenomena of ‘backsliding’ among member states and how departures from the acquis and the Copenhagen criteria may have wider implications for the legitimacy of the EU.
Nick Sitter (CEU) questions whether ‘backsliding’ exists how it matters for EU transboundary crisis management.
Nick Sitter (CEU) discusses the policy implications for backsliding in the European Union.
Agnes Batory (CEU) summarises the research findings on backsliding.