Backsliding as new transboundary crisis for the European Union

August 18, 2015

TransCrisis blog post by Martin Lodge and Nick Sitter

Crisis management is usually associated with urgency: immediate actions are called for to respond to fast-moving and escalating problems. However, recent years have given rise to a new type of crisis for the European Union (EU). This new, more chronic, type of crisis which goes to the heart of the EU is that of backsliding.

Backsliding defines the noticeable tendency among EU member states to challenge common institutions and Treaty-based commitments. These attempts at ‘cheating’ on earlier EU commitments are of a different quality to the long-diagnosed transposition deficits that are said to have stifled the Single Market. Backsliding represents a direct challenge to the normative commitments of EU membership, especially in areas of human and political rights as well as principles of good governance. In other words, backsliding is about the perception that some member states’ policy measures designed to address (potentially transboundary) crises run counter to the constitutional and legal commitments they signed up to when joining the EU.

The last half-decade has offered a sufficiently large number of cases of backsliding to suggest that this phenomenon is becoming increasingly prominent. States have attracted serious criticism because their laws, policies or executive actions (usually adopted in the name of coping with an acute crisis) are said to counteract the intentions of earlier EU-related commitments. Particular examples that have attracted prominent media coverage and strong words from the European Commission includes France’s ‘voluntary return’ of Roma in 2010, Italy’s subsequent proposal to expel EU citizens from other countries if they could not support themselves, and Prime Ministers Victor Ponta’s (2012) and Viktor Orbán’s (since 2010, ongoing) backsliding on democratic institutions. Other recurrent issues include corruption and the credibility of neighbours’ and applicant states’ commitments to EU rules and values.

Backsliding has two major characteristics, which often, but not always, combine to exacerbate the problem. First, in a number cases, national responses to crises – and these are often crises with a trans-boundary dimension, such as migration or economic crises – involve policy tools and initiatives that are in some way incompatible with the EU’s rules and values. Second, these measures are explicitly formulated as a deliberate challenge to the EU regime, brought forward by parties and governments that see an assertion of sovereignty and an opportunity to stand up against ‘Brussels’ as a value in and of itself. Consequently, backsliding produces a new form of institutional crisis in that it involves the purposeful erosion of EU institutions.

Continue reading the post at the TransCrisis blog.