The European Union, the Balkans and Turkey: Can "Soft Power" Bring Stability and Democracy?
October 14, 2003
Staff-prepared summary of the East European Studies discussion with Milada Vachudova, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill

Analysts on this side of the Atlantic are often skeptical of the abilities of the EU's "soft power" approach to influencing policy outside its borders. In defense of soft power, Milada Vachudova presented evidence that the EU more than any other international actor has had a great impact in domestic reform in East European accession countries. Momentous change has occurred in the last five years due to the effective use of conditionality by the EU.

Vachudova stressed three factors that have enabled the EU to utilize soft power effectively: the clear benefits of membership, the meritocratic process of enlargement based on a transparent set of requirements, and the credible promise of enlargement. The enlargement process has been characterized by asymmetric interdependence, in which candidate countries do not negotiate membership in traditional ways, but freely adopt reforms dictated by the EU. In so doing, the EU is able to maintain control of the goals of reform, while allowing individual countries to adjust the pace and method of reform according to their national democratic systems, legal traditions and special circumstances.

The results of EU conditionality have been overwhelmingly positive. Between 1994 and 1999, political and economic levels in the region have converged significantly. Domestically, the enlargement process introduced an unprecedented level of transparency because it required governments to make public large amounts of information about its function. This succeeded in making political systems in the region more competitive while providing a focal point for cooperation between rival political groups and thus moderating extremist elements. As a result the EU helped bring reformers to power in East Europe, which has translated into fast paced political and economic development.

As the EU continues its enlargement to the Balkans, Vachudova contends that it must tweak its strategy in order to adjust to the special circumstances of the region. First, because EU accession is still a long-term goal in this region both because of regional problems and because the EU may find it difficult to keep up the rapid pace of enlargement it will be necessary for the EU to establish a system of intermediary rewards in order to compel these countries to cooperate. Vachudova proposes two examples of medium-term rewards: reduced farm product trade restrictions and visa-free travel regimes. Moreover, these countries will need more help in meeting the requirements for EU membership. Vachudova stresses that this must not result in the loosening of requirements, because meritocracy has been an important element of the success of EU conditionality.

Finally, in order to avoid the inconsistent and ineffective strategy of the EU's protracted enlargement to Turkey which was initiated 20 years ago with little progress the EU must make its intentions clear in the Balkans. Without the clear promise of future membership, the EU will lose its grip on compelling this troubled region to commit to reforms.