Bohinj, Slovenia
Bohinj, Slovenia

Member State Building

On 1 October 2004, the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, arrived in Skopje to hand the Macedonian prime minister a book-length document containing over 1,400 questions about his country. This was the European Union's formal response to Macedonia's application for EU membership submitted in March 2004. Most of the questions were detailed and highly technical, such as the following:

"Provide flowcharts/organigrammes outlining levels of competencies and showing management lines to describe the structure and organisation of the services in charge of food safety. The division of competencies and the links between central, regional and local level should appear clearly (degree of decentralisation/devolution of competence should be defined)."

The issues covered ranged from consumer protection to prison management, from agricultural policy to the organization of the judiciary. Macedonia's Department of European Integration, a new government institution run by young deputy prime minister Radmila Sekerinska, was put in charge of mobilizing hundreds of civil servants across all ministries and public agencies to prepare responses that would run to many thousands of pages.

Some of the questions had never before been asked in Macedonia. Institutional islands within a highly fragmented administration suddenly found themselves forced to articulate their role and justify their existence. In effect, the EU asked for an X-ray of the Macedonian state.

Such are the unspectacular beginnings of member-state building. Romani Prodi's visit to Skopje was overshadowed by a bitter dispute over a controversial referendum on decentralization, which was stirring the embers of ethnic tension. Preoccupied with the country's shrinking economy and spiraling unemployment, few Macedonians saw Prodi's delivery of the EU questionnaire as a life-changing event.

Yet if Macedonia follows the path of other candidate countries, the alliance between the European Commission and progressive reformers in government will bring about a slow but unrelenting transformation of the state. After many months of work assembling this virtual X-ray, the Macedonian prime minister will travel to Brussels and hand it to Romano Prodi's successor, Jose Manuel Durao Barroso. Upon review of that document, the EU will decide whether Macedonia is formally accepted as a candidate for accession. The initial questionnaire is thus the starting point for the formal negotiations that will slowly but surely transform the Macedonian state. Many years later, if everything goes according to plan and precedent, a very different Macedonia will become a new member of the European Union.

What enables member-state building to succeed? Conceptually, it is helpful to break down the transformation into three broad categories: an administrative revolution, a process of social and economic convergence, and a shift in the substance and processes of democratic governance.

The administrative revolution begins with joint teams of national officials and European Commission staff gauging the country's laws, policies, and institutional structures against the 31 chapters of the acquis communautaire — the EU's legislation, policies, and standards. Adopting and implementing the acquis requires undertaking a comprehensive reassessment of the role of government, reforming old policies, and extending the state into new fields of activity. It entails reviewing the functions of government institutions, rationalizing existing structures, and creating new ones. It also involves drafting a great deal of new legislation to implement European norms and the rules of the single market. The Commission offers technical assistance, typically by pairing officials from EU member states with counterpart institutions in candidate countries. There is a rigorous annual review of progress, which is made public in a hard-hitting Commission report. Within a few years, very few stones in the structure of public administration will have been left unturned.

The second element of member-state building is economic and social convergence — that is, catching up with the EU standards of living. One of the Union's core values is cohesion, or as the Maastricht Treaty puts it, "reducing disparities between the levels of development of the various regions." The regional and rural development policies created to assist the EU's poorer areas consume the lion's share of its budget. Upon granting a country formal candidate status, the EU boosts a country's capacity to absorb these policies by immediately increasing the amount of aid (for example, funds for Croatia will double once that country is accepted as a candidate). Even more importantly, the nature of EU assistance changes profoundly, as it focuses on supporting a long-term process of convergence.

Each candidate country in previous enlargement rounds has been required to assess thoroughly its level of competitiveness in agriculture and industry and to analyze the constraints that it faces in these sectors. It has to identify its current situation, state where it would like to be in seven years, and then describe in detail the programs and instruments needed to achieve that goal.

This required countries to prepare multiyear strategies in a whole range of areas — agriculture and rural development, transportation, environment, and the like — and compile these into a National Development Plan (NDP). Perhaps uniquely in the field of development aid, the NDP functioned both as the national strategy and as the programming document for EU assistance, which was offered according to the principle of "additionality" — that is, had to supplement, not replace, national resources.

Preparing an NDP was a serious undertaking. Given the sums of money involved, the stakes were extremely high. The Bulgarian NDP for 2003 – 2006, for example, outlined a public-investment program of €2.5 billion, of which EU grants comprised €1.38 billion. Because so much EU money was involved, the Commission had a powerful incentive to ensure that the policy framework is rigorous and implementable. EU agencies provided advice and technical assistance, and EU funds were released only when the Commission certifies that the appropriate national institutions functioned effectively. This careful and elaborate process significantly upgraded the quality of national development policy.

The third and last element of the member-state building model is a change in the nature of the political process itself, flowing from the combined effects of the administrative revolution and the revitalization of national development policy. The administrative reforms require governments to reconstruct the vertical and horizontal links among different public agencies and levels of government, creating a more coherent and comprehensive administration. The NDP requires them to institute mechanisms for continuous dialogue with social partners — private business, farmers, trade unions, and other civil society actors — thereby creating not just a framework but also a blueprint for policy making.

In countries with little tradition of providing services to private farmers or social protection for vulnerable citizens, this is a profound change. It means that citizens and social groups who in the past barely interacted with the state become participants in a consultative democratic process.