Testing the limits – the politics of EU membership in CEE 20 years after accession


By Marcus How

Surveys indicate that local populations in EU-CEE remain broadly positive about EU membership. Apathy is high, however, and trust in national institutions remains low. Combined with ‘convergence fatigue’, these factors have created favourable conditions for populist forces, which have degraded the quality of institutions in numerous states. These forces are qualified in their Euroscepticism in that they favour EU membership for pragmatic reasons. Nevertheless, such attitudes will prove unsustainable in the long term, as the case of Hungary is now demonstrating.

2004 was among the most consequential years in the history of the European Union, as the number of its member states nearly doubled. In the space of a decade, those new EU states within Central and Eastern Europe (EU-CEE) had succeeded in aligning their formerly communist institutions with minimum EU standards. This had profound implications not only for the new member states themselves, but also for the bloc as a whole – and decisionmaking within it.

Twenty years on from May 1, 2004, with Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia having acceded to EU membership in the interim, the further integration of the new member states into the EU core has deepened, albeit unevenly. Of those within EU-CEE, six – a lower number than expected – have successfully adopted the euro, while the largest among them (Poland, Romania, Hungary, Czechia) have retained their local currencies. All member states have joined the Schengen area of free movement, apart from Romania and Bulgaria, which have only gained partial membership.

Local attitudes towards the EU, combined with the pace of integration, are of particular significance given that the bloc plans – provisionally – to expand further over the next decade to include the Western Balkan countries, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. Furthermore, EU-CEE has gained in importance amid geopolitical upheaval and economic development. Poland and Hungary have become, for different reasons, some of the most influential member states in the entire bloc. Even some small states have gained in profile, as Croatia and Lithuania have proven by emerging as energy gateways.


The only show in town

Of the CEE states that joined the EU between 2004 and 2013, nine held referendums, with support for accession averaging 79.3%. In relative terms, opposition was strongest in Estonia, Latvia and Croatia, where it garnered up to a third of the vote. Although the result indicated overwhelming support for membership, this belied the existence of a constituency that was apathetic. Indeed, average turnout was modest, with only 57.1% of the electorate voting, a share that fell to around 45% in both Hungary and Croatia.

Since then, Euroscepticism has entered the political mainstream of all the EU-CEE member states and is championed by major parties, but very few of them advocate a departure from the EU. This reflects not only the depth of the economic integration of these member states into the EU, but also the public support for continued membership, which has remained high.

The Eurobarometer survey, which is conducted regularly by the European Parliament, confirms positive attitudes across multiple categories. In the most recent survey, in autumn 2023, an average of 76.72% of respondents stated that EU membership had benefited their respective country, with Bulgaria being the only notable outlier, with only 57% believing this to be the case. The overall EU average was 72%.

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Another Eurobarometer category indicated that 58.5% of respondents regarded EU membership as positive, which was slightly below the EU average of 61%. Only 8.6% believed it was negative, with the remainder regarding it as neither positive nor negative. When asked about the importance of being an EU member state to their country, 63% of respondents felt it was important, as compared with the EU average of 67%. A further 12% believed the contrary, with the remainder expressing indifference. Meanwhile, optimism in the future of the EU ranked at 64%, although it had fallen from the 71% level of the 2007 survey.

While reflecting overall positivity, these indicators point towards increasing apathy. The Eurobarometer reveals that trust in the EU among EU-CEE populations has decreased, falling on average from a peak of 63% in 2007 to 49% in 2023. Yet, in as far as Euroscepticism is a factor in public opinion in EU-CEE member states, it manifests itself more as apathy towards than outright opposition to the EU. Thus, fundamental attitudes about EU membership among the electorates of most EU-CEE member states have not changed.


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This steadiness of opinion comes despite the multitude of crises that the region, along with the rest of the EU, has experienced over the past two decades, including: the 2008 financial crisis, which impacted EU-CEE states with local currencies with particular severity; the 2009-2012 euro area crisis; the 2015 migration crisis; the 2016 referendum on the departure of the UK from the EU; the 2020-2021 COVID-19 pandemic; and Russia’s invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in both 2014 and 2022.

In this sense, the eastern and southern enlargement of the EU may be deemed an unequivocal success. At the same time, however, it has not translated into greater confidence in national institutions. The Eurobarometer shows that the average level of trust in national governments in EU-CEE stood at just 31% in 2023, which is the same percentage as it was 2004. Trust in national parliaments was even lower, languishing at 26%.

Paradoxically, satisfaction with democracy – a core value of the EU – has recovered from a crisis experienced between 2010 and 2016 to reach 48% in 2023, up from 40% in 2004. This suggests that voters have more confidence in the potential of democratic governance, even as they regard their elected representatives as being unable to deliver. On the other hand, given that half of respondents still remain dissatisfied, this has evidently been a slow process of improving confidence.


Deceleration and backsliding

When the new member states joined the EU, the process of convergence was not complete. Its continuation was to be supported by cohesion funds and further reform, with the single market providing easy access to foreign multinationals, whose investments would result in higher tax revenues, employment and local expertise.

The World Governance Indicators (WGIs) of the World Bank indicate that the process of institutional convergence has stalled overall. The WGIs collate various indices of governance, which are broken down into six indicators: political stability and the absence of violence/terrorism; voice and accountability; regulatory quality; government effectiveness; control of corruption; and rule of law.

The average WGI score of the new member states, calculated according to the year of their respective accession, amounts to 70.18 out of 100. In 2022, their combined average was 70.36, indicating that there has been negligible improvement in overall institutional quality on the regional level. In contrast, the average score among the member states that joined the EU before 2004 was 84.7 in 2022.


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This stagnation belies the very considerable backsliding that has occurred in member states. The strongest backsliding has been seen in Hungary, whose average score plummeted from 78.4 in 2004 to 62.65 in 2022. Nonetheless, other EU-CEE member states have also registered declines over their respective periods of membership, including Slovakia, Slovenia and Bulgaria. Meanwhile, Poland increased its score from 65.5 to 76.88 between 2004 and 2015, before regressing to 66 by 2022.

There have been some consistent success stories, however, with Czechia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania registering scores that have steadily increased overall. While this has kept the overall performance of the region stable, it masks the extent of the deteriorations registered in many of the other EU-CEE member states.


Chicken or egg?

It is difficult to assess whether public attitudes in EU-CEE towards the EU and national governance are a product or a cause of this developmental stagnation. At the very least, electorates continue to distrust their national representatives, who are regarded as not having delivered. Indeed, many member states in the region have experienced upheaval in their domestic politics, with party-political landscapes being redrawn as new ideological divisions have emerged.

This has destroyed or altered the post-communist status quo, and it has occurred in all EU-CEE states in the region in some form or other. Existing parties have either evolved or otherwise been supplanted by newcomers, with 83 new parties – or an average of 7.5 per state – having secured parliamentary representation in the combined period since EU accession. Of those, 32 have served in government, and eight of these have succeeded in securing the prime ministership.

In some countries, fresh forces even monopolised power – at least for a time and to varying degrees. And this happened in states that consequently registered the sharpest declines in their WGI scores. These include Hungary, with the Fidesz party of Viktor Orbán (1998-2002, 2010-present); Poland, with the Law and Justice party of Jaroslaw Kaczyński (2005-2007, 2015-2023); Slovakia, with the Smer party of Robert Fico (2006-2010, 2012-2020, 2023-present); and Bulgaria, with the GERB party of Boyko Borisov (2009-2013, 2014-2021, 2023-present). Although these parties differ in many ways, they have nonetheless proved themselves to be illiberal, nationalist and Eurosceptic, as well as interventionist and/or oligarchic.

On paper, these parties were born out of the widespread disaffection that accompanied the painful compromises demanded by the post-communist transition, which sparked social upheaval. These compromises were not only material but cultural and as much a consequence of the loss of people as of livelihoods. Indeed, the combined population of the region shrunk from 110.8 million to 105.9 million between 1989 and 2023, a decrease of 5%. Rates of birth have not kept pace with those of death, falling by an average of 34%, from 14 per 1,000 people in 1989 to 9.3 by 2021. 2 This trend was exacerbated by high rates of emigration, later enabled by the free movement of people within the EU, with most of the EU-CEE states posting negative or stagnant net migration figures for much of the same period.

Thus, a sense of insecurity grew directly from the prerogatives of EU membership, which were implemented by national politicians whose sincerity was doubted. This resulted in a constituency characterised by ambivalence or apathy towards the outcomes of EU membership. These sentiments were harnessed by populist parties, which championed nationhood and tradition as counterpoints to the EU prerogatives of liberalisation in the context of globalisation. Ironically, this occurred even as these parties, upon securing power, actually oversaw the deeper integration of their countries into the European political economy. Their status as hubs for foreign direct investment grew. Meanwhile, ‘reform fatigue’ was being exploited in what was a shift from the pre-accession period, when nationalists and liberals had complementary goals.

These ideological differences have also provided cover for cruder struggles to control state institutions and the distribution of resources. Most political factions have engaged in these struggles, but the illiberal tendencies of the populists have entailed attempts at centralisation and state capture, which have resulted in the gradual divergence from EU norms in some EU-CEE member states. This has occurred even as populations have remained overwhelmingly, if passively, supportive of EU membership – and as the populist clientele has been handsomely profiting from the single market and cohesion funds.


Point of no return?

Although the chronic crisis of confidence in national politicians is not limited to EU-CEE, the region is one of its hotbeds and has become a laboratory for illiberal populism. This has resulted in a major challenge to the EU, which has become an adversary of multiple illiberal governments even as they do not question the principle of membership in the bloc. The backsliding by the governments of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczyński necessitated the development of instruments to monitor and sanction abuses of EU law. These have included annual rule of law reports as well as the conditionality mechanism, which may suspend cohesion funds. In both instances, this mechanism was triggered pending remedial action.

However, it is unlikely that these actions will suffice on their own. The Orbán government acceded to EU demands to take action to address its institutional backsliding, but this amounts to little more than formalistic tinkering. The key issue is not so much the divergence of institutions as of values. This may become palpable in other strategic areas, such as foreign and security policy, as the Orbán government’s veto of EU aid for Ukraine and opposition to sanctions on Russia have shown. Thus, illiberal governments in the EU-CEE have proven that cohabitation with Brussels is possible for a time, but ultimately unsustainable. This would be the case even if the EU shifted towards a confederative as opposed to supranational model of governance, as the institutional divergences between member states could imperil the trust necessary for the functioning of key EU institutions. In such a climate, the question is less about the extent of popular support for EU membership in the region and more about whether it will be rendered meaningless altogether by quiet divergence.

Surveys indicate that the local populations in EU-CEE remain broadly positive about EU membership. Apathy is high, however, and trust in national institutions remains low. Combined with ‘convergence fatigue’, these factors have created favourable conditions for populist forces, which have degraded the quality of institutions in numerous states. These forces are qualified in their Euroscepticism in that they favour EU membership for pragmatic reasons. Nevertheless, such attitudes will prove unsustainable in the long term, as the case of Hungary is now demonstrating.

This article was first published in the latest monthly report of the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies (wiiw).

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