A Neoliberal Trojan Horse? The New EU Member States and Their Influence on EU Social Policy
December 1, 2004
Staff-prepared summary of the EES Seminar with Darina Malova, Russian-Eurasian Scholar in Residence, Department of Political Science, Colorado College.

Over the last few years, Slovakia, like other EU applicants, put forward a very rigorous liberal reform program that more closely resembles US values than those of Europe. For example, taxes were decreased to attract foreign investment, which further eroded the communist-era social safety net. Darina Malova discussed how these reforms and values will influence the EU, now that Slovakia and other postcommunist countries of Eastern Europe have become members.

The new member states succeeded in gaining admission into the EU by adopting liberal policies that were widely unpopular. The peculiarities of the political party scene as well as weak civil society development allowed the elite to make decisions at the governmental level with little or no consensus building with the population. In Slovakia, politics is an elite process in which important decisions are made by a small circle of people. Despite electoral turn-overs, the same personalities tend to stay in power, which concentrates political power in a stable group. The elite does not rely on the electorate for its tenure, and therefore does not need to be responsive to the wishes of the public.

This arrangement is helped by the general weakness of civil society. Labor unions in Slovakia are very weak, even in comparison with other East European countries. With few NGOs or unions with which to negotiate, the government feels free to adopt policies without the burden of consensus building. The result has been dynamic economic growth, which helped Slovakia meet the demands of EU accession. However, these reforms were adopted independently from the wishes of the electorate, which has led to a wide gap between the technocratic elite that adopted the policies and the electorate that has suffered from the loss of social programs.

Similarly, the EU launched a liberal reform strategy, the so-called Lisbon Strategy, in 2000. Since its adoption, it has been met with resistance from the EU-15's electorates, which place a high value on social programs. But with the entrance of ten liberally-minded countries from East Europe and the election of a strongly conservative European Parliament, the Lisbon Strategy has a better chance of being implemented, and thus helping to spur economic growth on the continent. But, Malova argues, the Slovak example shows that it will come at the price of government responsiveness to its electorate and consensus-building—lending further credence to the EU's democratic deficit.