Blog: Democratic backsliding in the EU: accidents, coincidences or systemic crisis?
TransCrisis blog post by Nick Sitter, CPS research affiliate and SPP professor
The danger that one or more member states might give up on liberal democracy and slide back into authoritarianism has haunted the EU ever since its first institutions were designed more than 60 years ago. Only a quarter of the member states had more than 15 years of uninterrupted democracy at their time of joining. The original six members included two recent dictatorships and four countries they had invaded in 1940. Enlargements in the 1970s and 1980s brought in long-established and new democracies in equal numbers, one of whom (Spain in 1981) had experienced a (short-lived) coup d’état only five years prior to joining. The end of the Cold War opened the integration process to a few long-established neutral liberal democracies and many more former Warsaw Pact dictatorships.
The ECSC and the EEC were established to use supranational economic integration to protect peace, prosperity and democracy. The Six’ common commitment to liberal democracy, market economies and the rule of law was at the core of the new project in the 1950s. When EU leaders placed eastern enlargement firmly on the agenda in Copenhagen in June 1993, they stipulated that new member states must be liberal democracies, respect human rights, have a functioning market economy and be capable of implementing the acquis communautaire. More recently, however, academics, journalists and politicians have begun to ask whether some EU states are going back on these commitments. In the process they coined the term democratic backsliding.
The first warning signs that European democracies might go back on their commitments to democracy and the rule of law came at then end of the 1990s. In 1997, the Commission relegated Slovakia to the back of the membership queue on the grounds that under Vladimír Mečiar’s government, it did ‘not fulfil in a satisfying manner the political conditions set out by the European Council in Copenhagen, because of the instability of Slovakia’s institutions, their lack of rootedness in political life and the shortcomings in the functioning of its democracy’. But after changing government, Slovakia caught up and joined among the first wave of post-communist member states in 2004. The second case, two years later, was more difficult to handle: When, after the Austrian elections of October 1999, the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) joined the conservative Austria People’s Party (ÖVP) in government, the other 14 member states responded with a combination of bilateral boycotts of the Austrian government and the appointment of a committee of three ‘wise men’ to report on developments. The next autumn, upon the wise men’s recommendation, sanctions ended.
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