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The EU’s seven year itch

The ‘seven year itch’ usually refers to married life rather than relations between member states in an enlarged European Union (EU). But it’s now seven years since the first post-communist states of Central and Eastern Europe became full EU members.

For some of these new members, life in the EU has been business-as-usual and they have smoothly integrated into the Union. Even so, concerns remain over their political stability and capacity to meet their obligations to the EU.

Recent events seem to support the sceptics. Hungary has made the news after the Orbán government enacted a law that contradicts the principles of a free media. Right-wing extremist attacks on the Roma minority in the village of Gyöngyöspata during Easter week cast further doubt on the entrenchment of Hungary’s democratic culture.

Yet, unless a major corruption scandal erupts, the capacity of Central and Eastern European states to implement EU laws and regulations receives little media attention. But we only need look at Greece and Italy to recognise the potentially disastrous consequences to the EU if states lack professional state administrations.

Accordingly, before accession, the EU emphasised the development of administrative capacity, in particular the establishment of professional, impartial and patronage-free civil services in Central and Eastern Europe. But the EU has no sanctions available if a new member state decides to roll back those reforms passed to please Brussels before accession. The management of public administration is the prerogative of member states. Post-accession investment in the professionalization of public administration has therefore largely depended on the good will of individual governments. That is where the problem lies.

I have extensive expertise researching this subject and in a recent  article for Governance examined the durability of EU civil service policy in Central and Eastern Europe after accession;  the article shows that the post-accession record has been remarkably mixed.

Good news comes from the Baltic States. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania largely continued pre-accession reforms. Despite major economic crisises in the aftermath of the Lehman collapse, they did not depart from a policy of respect for the professional ethos of public administration.

Latvia was hit hardest by the crisis. The economy contracted by 18 per cent and in 2009 the government’s budget deficit reached 10 per cent of GDP. Salary cuts ranging from 30 to 50 per cent, staff cuts and recruitment freezes were unavoidable. Yet the professional independence of the civil service was left untouched, as governing parties resisted the temptation to appoint their supporters to civil service jobs. This approach contributed to Latvia’s economic recovery, which started last year.

Signs of post-accession backsliding have been more evident in the four Visegrad countries. In the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland, the professional independence of the civil service was challenged shortly after accession. Independent civil service agencies were abolished. Party interference with staffing decisions reached deep into the administration. If, in Poland the situation was stabilised during the Tusk government, the same cannot be said about Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

Tight party control of public administration has also remained the preferred approach of successive Hungarian governments.  Initially, the centre-left Gyurcsány regime embarked on an ambitious programme to increase the efficiency of the public sector. Private sector managers were brought in to turn around government as if it were a business. But the rhetoric of reform had little effect. It rather helped to disguise the insertion of cronies and political affiliates into public administration.

The party-ization of the state has become worse since the centre-right Fidesz government under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán came to office in 2010. Such an approach to governance is unlikely to improve state efficiency but instead breed public sector corruption.

The fifth enlargement towards Central and Eastern Europe has provided many lessons for the EU. One of these concerns the importance of governance reform. The external policy of the EU and in particular the enlargement strategy towards the Western Balkans will have to attach greater importance to such reform. Moreover, the EU might have to consider the application of post-accession financial support and monitoring instruments in order to provide incentives for investment in public administration professionalization beyond the date of accession. After all, challenges for the EU are not limited to the future of the Euro and the Schengen Agreement.

Even the best laws won’t work if they are not effectively implemented.

Jan-Hinrik Meyer-Sahling

Published inEastern EuropeEUEuropean Politics

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