Elites in Eastern Europe are ambivalent to EU enlargement

Local elites in post-communist accession countries have a limited knowledge of the EU and were not engaged in the accession process, according to new research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

“Local officials, business people, the media and the cultural intelligentsia feel that the accession process is relevant only to national decision-makers and has little to do with them,” says Dr. Jim Hughes of London School of Economics, who led the project, which is part of the extensive One Europe or Several? Programme. “The gap between the pro-Europe views of the national elites and the increasingly Euro-ambivalent attitudes among local elites and public opinion could have a negative effect on implementing the agreed conditions of EU membership,” he says.

The research, which is one of the largest studies of elites in Eastern Europe undertaken by UK academics, included 446 interviews about attitudes to economic and political transition and to the EU and NATO in ’second’ cities in Hungary, Romania, Poland, Slovenia and Estonia, as well as in Russia and Ukraine. In addition, the researchers conducted 30 interviews with officials in the Enlargement and Regional directorates of the European Commission.

The researchers also examined how the EU’s conditions of membership relative to institution building at a regional level and to the human rights of minorities were being translated into policy in the accession states. “The protection of minorities is a clear case of double standards,” says Jim Hughes. “The Commission has demanded higher standards among accession countries than in the Member States. Our findings show that EU conditions on regional policy and minority protection have not yet resulted in new political strategies or effective implementation of laws in the countries covered by our study. This demonstrates the weakness of EU conditionality in these key areas.”

One of the most startling findings of the research was that, unlike their national governments, key opinion formers outside the capital cities were largely unaware of the immense financial gains that most regions in the accession countries will receive from EU regional support. Despite the fact that some of the regions covered had already received substantial EU aid, most local opinion-makers identified the economic and security dimensions of the Union as being important and ranked the structural funds and subsidiarity relatively low down when asked what the EU meant to them.

“The exclusion of sub-national elites from the negotiation process, and their lack of knowledge and ambivalent attitudes towards the EU could have a far-reaching effect on their commitment to the implementation of EU legislation once the candidates become member states of the EU, especially as regards agriculture, regional development and the environment,” warns Jim Hughes.

The research also highlights some general problems in the work of the Commission, such as its ’top-down’ approach to policy, tension between the approaches of various directorates, and to the inconsistencies and lack of transparency in its work. “The Commission seems to rely on a ’trickle down’ effect to communicate the meaning of enlargement, when what is needed is pro-active interaction from the bottom-up in building European integration,” says Jim Hughes. “The virtual exclusion of sub-national elites from the process of integration may strengthen the growing euroscepticism in the CEECs.’

For further information contact:

Dr. Claire Gordon, home: 020-8748-8146, work: 020-7955-7538, mobile: 07985-704246 or email C.E.Gordon@lse.ac.uk or Lesley Lilley, Rachel Blackford or Anna Hinds on 01-79-341-3119, 41-3126 or
41-3122.

Media Contact

Anna Hinds ESRC

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