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Wade Jacoby: EU accession as emulation

“Social science techniques for understanding such complex process are underdeveloped.”


Wade Jacoby is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University in Provo, a small city at Utah Lake in the United States. Jacoby specialises in international institutions with a special focus on institutional transfer. He has worked extensively on Germany, where he was visiting professor in 2005 (in Bonn) and on Eastern Europe.

In his 2004 book The Enlargement of the European Union and NATO, Jacoby sought to explain institutional change in accession countries. The book, in his words, was an attempt to “link the process of change to a synthesis of major institutional theory traditions”.

Jacoby’s key term is “emulation”, which he describes as “a variety of related processes that have in common the fact that elites in one country use formal institutions and practices from abroad to refashion their own rules or organisations”. Jacoby’s “theory of emulation” sits at the junction of “three widely used bodies of institutionalist theory – rational choice, historical and sociological.”

Jacoby tries to answer two questions: first, through which processes do elites attempt emulation? And second, what are the outcomes of the CEE countries’ efforts to emulate Western Europe?

In doing so, he identifies four different modes of emulation, each of them a factor of (a) the degree of external pressure and (b) the degree of faithfulness in replication.

First, according to Jacoby, there are “copies”, the “voluntary and reasonably faithful spread of institutions from one place to another”. These are rather rare.

The second mode of emulation is through “templates”: “Some CEE elites voluntarily looked to Western Europe for general templates in which they used the West European model more as a loose approximation than a detailed blueprint.”

Third, there are “thresholds“, minimum – albeit rigorously enforced – standards for institutional change set by the EU (or NATO).

“Both the EU and NATO long tried to minimize mandates of precise institutional outcomes. At times this reluctance reflected a lack of internal consensus among members or deference to the sovereignty of CEE states. In part, however, IO [International Organisation] officials also were wary of a checklist approach, because for several years, each IO had an internal consensus against a rapid enlargement. Some officials worried that if they gave precise targets to CEE reformers, they would come under more pressure to admit CEE states if those targets were met.”

And fourth, there are “patches”, explicit requirements “often involving specific legal texts to be incorporated en bloc into national law.”

Given the high number of non-negotiable EU directives and policy prescriptions that accession countries have to incorporate into their national legislation, the concept of “emulation” – and Jacoby’s distinction between different modes thereof – might be a useful analytical tool.

However, the real value of this conceptual framework rests on whether and how it helps to answer Jacoby’s second and more interesting question: What comes out of these efforts of emulation? The result varies. “In some cases,” says Jacoby, “we will see emulation feeding into a robust ‘politics as usual’, while in other cases emulation will create policy areas almost de novo.” He proposes four “labels” for such outcomes, all of them a factor of the “density of rules” and the “density of actors”. These are “open struggle” (high density of rules/high density of actors), “scaffolding” (high density of rules/low density of actors), “homesteading” (low density of rules/low density of actors), and “continuous learning” (low density of rules/high density of actors).

Equipped with such a model, Jacoby looks at five policy areas – agriculture, regional policy, consumer protection, health care and civilian control of the military – in a number of countries and examines the modes of emulation and outcomes in each case. His “theory of emulation”, however, points to no clear conclusion. “Institutional theories add more by synthesis and juxtaposition than in isolation”, Jacoby writes.

“Emulation is both hard to do and hard to describe. It is hard to do because elites must do more than simply copy best practices. Rather, they must understand how attractive foreign models actually work, agree with other actors on the desirability of emulating them, and be able to execute their plans.”

There is also no pattern of relationships between his “modes of emulation” and “labels” of outcomes.

“Unfortunately, the major macrosociological and political science research tradition … has a markedly difficult time with these complexities since it blends out uncertainty and disagreement in favor of tracking the spread of highly stylized models and generally ignores the implementation phase altogether.”

Two hundred pages into Jacoby’s book, this makes for rather disappointing reading for those who expected more tangible answers.  Jacoby, in his conclusions, acknowledges the limits of his research tools.

“In closing, two things are plain to see. First, Eastern Europeans have looked West for inspiration and tried to emulate some of the things they saw. Second, social science techniques for understanding such complex process are underdeveloped.”

  • Wade Jacoby, The Enlargement of the European Union and NATO. Ordering from the Menu in Central Europe, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2004.