Heather Grabbe: The EU’s transformative power

“The attraction of accession proved to be more powerful than other goals.”

Heather Grabbe has been working on EU enlargement for more then a decade, moving between academia and practice. She was deputy director of the Centre for European Reform, a London-based think tank focusing on European issues, and a research fellow at the Royal Institute for International Affairs (Chatham House) in London, the European University Institute in Florence, the European Union Institute for Security Studies in Paris and the Centre for International Relations in Warsaw. She also taught at the London School of Economics. From 2004 to early 2009 she was a senior adviser to EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, responsible for the Balkans and Turkey. Since February 2009 she leads the Brussels office of the Open Society Institute and is director of EU affairs for the Soros network.

Heather Grabbe was one of the first academics to look in detail at the actual workings of the accession process – the changes taking place in countries that aspired to become EU members and the tools the EU was using to bring about reform.

In 1999, in the midst of the reorganisation of the pre-accession process (which would eventually lead to the launch of new pre-accession tools like ISPA and Sapard), Grabbe published a paper on the new “accession partnerships” and their implications for EU conditionality in Central and Eastern Europe. In “A Partnership for Accession?” she wrote:

“The criteria applied to CEE have changed as the EU’s very general Copenhagen conditions have been elaborated and interpreted in several stages, resulting in an increasingly detailed policy agenda for applicants.”

In a 2001 article Grabbe analysed the tools used by the EU to effect change through conditionality and the accession process:

  • Models (legislative and institutional templates): the requirement for legal transposition of the EU acquis, often requiring modifications of existing or the creation of new institutions.
  • Money (aid and technical assistance): primarily pre-accession funds (ISPA, Sapard, and Phare) intended to develop institutional capacity, to handle large transfers and to increase familiarity with EU procedures, both nationally and regionally.
  • Benchmarking and monitoring: accession partnerships and regular reports published by the European Commission on each applicant’s progress in different fields. This public monitoring process “could be used by other actors – both domestic and external – to judge the progress of politicians and officials. The Regular Reports became a focus of interest for both the domestic and international media each year. Both voters and foreign investors paid attention to what the EU said about progress in key areas like privatisation and financial sector regulation.”
  • Advice and twinning: a wide range of policy advice through technical assistance and special twinning projects.
  • Gate-keeping: the EU’s most powerful conditionality tool is granting or withholding access to different stages in the accession process, among them: privileged trade access and additional aid; the signing of an association agreement; the opening of negotiations; the opening and closing of individual chapters; and the signing of the accession treaty.

Much of Grabbe’s thinking is brought together in The EU’s Transformative Power, her 2006 book. As the title suggests, Grabbe’s understanding of the EU’s soft power does not lie solely in its power of attraction (as Nye’s original definition of soft power would suggest), but in specific tools developed to bring about transformation.

The EU’s transformative power is potentially colossal, argues Grabbe.

“Through the accession process, the EU can directly affect policy, institutional development, and the capacity of the state. The EU’s influence is most readily identifiable where it advocates particular policy and institutional preferences.”

Grabbe claims that – because of the “diffuseness” of its influence and the uncertainties of the accession process itself – EU soft power was not used in Central and Eastern Europe to the fullest possible extent. She does not deny the EU’s huge influence on the post-communist states during the accession process, however. “The attraction of accession proved to be more powerful than other goals,” she writes.

Grabbe also maintains that Europeanisation becomes embedded in domestic policies and institutions long before accession. In most of the new entrants, Europeanisation – by way of adaptation guided by EU legislative and institutional templates – began several years before the opening of accession negotiations.

“For Hungary, some regulatory alignment started even under communism in the 1980s, but Bulgaria started alignment in earnest only around 1997.”

The question of the strong variations in the reform trajectories of Europe’s post-communist countries is explored in more detail by Milada Anna Vachudova.

Last updated: 22 February 2010