Frank Schimmelfennig: The Europeanisation of Eastern Europe

Frank Schimmelfennig“Once a given issue area became subject of the EU’s conditionality, rule adoption increased dramatically and became a consistent feature across countries and issue areas.”


Frank Schimmelfennig is Professor of European Politics at the ETH Zurich’s Department of Social Sciences and Humanities. He previously held research and teaching posts in Tübingen, Darmstadt and Mannheim. He is particularly interested in international institutions, European integration, enlargement and democratisation.

In 2005 Frank Schimmelfennig published an influential volume, co-edited with Ulrich Sedelmeier, on “The Europeanization of Central and Eastern Europe”. While most commentators agree that the influence of the EU on accession countries is huge, it is less clear, argue Schimmelfennig and Sedelmeier, “to what extent and in which ways the EU exercises its influence on the accession countries”. This question is explored through a series of case studies by different authors, for which Schimmelfennig and Sedelmeier provide the theoretical framework.

Europeanisation is defined, simply, “as a process in which states adopt EU rules.” In their search for explanations of how and why it actually takes place, the authors examine three models:

First, the external incentives model, which “follows a logic of consequences and is driven by the external rewards and sanctions that the EU adds to the cost-benefit calculations of the rule-adopting state”;

Second, the social learning model, which emphasises the Central and East European countries’ identification with the EU and their acceptance of the legitimacy of the EU’s rules;

Third, the lesson-drawing model, according to which countries “adopt EU rules because they judge them as effective remedies to inherently domestic needs and policy challenges.”

The book finds that “while none of the three models … explains the Europeanization of Central and Eastern Europe entirely, the external incentives provided by the EU can largely account for the impact of the EU on candidate countries.”

According to this model, EU conditionality during the accession process can be understood as a strategy of reactive reinforcement by reward.

“The EU pays the reward if the target government complies with the conditions and withholds the reward if it fails to comply. It does not, however, intervene either coercively by inflicting extra costs (“reinforcement by punishment”) or supportively by offering extra benefits (“reinforcement by support”) to change the behaviour of the target government.”

A member state’s actual cost-benefit assessment is influenced by a number of factors: the determinacy of conditions, the size and speed of rewards, the credibility of threats and promises, and the level of adoption costs.

“In sum, according to the external incentives model, given a strategy of reinforcement by reward, conditionality will be most effective if rules and conditions are determinate; conditional rewards are certain, high and quickly disbursed; threats to withhold the reward are credible; adoption costs are small; and veto players are few.”

The book examines two major areas of EU conditionality: its impact on the accession countries’ democratic structures; and its impact on the countries’ adoption of EU legislation and policies. The evidence from the case studies suggests that, as far as democratic conditionality is concerned, the key variables are credible conditionality and adoption costs. Governments fearing that the implementation of EU rules will erode their domestic power base tend to be unresponsive to EU incentives. When it comes to what the authors call acquis conditionality, a credible membership perspective and the setting of EU rules as requirements for membership are key.

“We do observe some rule adoption even before the EU’s conditionality was spelled out, but it was patchy and selective. However, once a given issue area became subject of the EU’s conditionality, rule adoption increased dramatically and became a consistent feature across countries and issue areas.”

What makes the EU’s approach so powerful is that “once a credible membership perspective has been established, adoption costs in individual policy areas are discounted against the (aggregate) benefits of membership, rather than just the benefits in this particular policy area.”

  • Frank Schimmelfennig and Ulrich Sedelmeier, “Introduction: Conceptualizing the Europeanization of Central and Eastern Europe”, in: The Europeanization of Central and Eastern Europe, Cornell University Press, 2005, pp. 1-28.
  • Frank Schimmelfennig and Ulrich Sedelmeier, “Conclusions: The Impact of the EU on the Accession Countries”, in: The Europeanization of Central and Eastern Europe, Cornell University Press, 2005, pp. 210-228.
  • Frank Schimmelfennig, The EU, NATO and the Integration of Europe: Rules and Rhetoric, Cambridge University Press, 2003.
10 August 2009