• Silvia Naydenova

The Implications of the European Union’s East-West Divide for the Future of European Integrations?

Many would consider the European Union’s enlargement policy as one of its most successful initiatives. The enlargement towards Eastern Europe is economically, politically and strategically of utmost importance for the future of the European Union. However, as efficient and valuable the policy may be, there still persists a wide economic and democratic divide between the Eastern and Western states within the EU. The history of this divide began after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union and its power projection, when the post-communist countries embraced liberal democracy and turned their gaze to the new alternative that would hopefully offer them economic development, political integration, security and a new European identity. After their accession to the European Union, most countries have experienced significant progress. However, individual member states in Eastern Europe have still not been able to reach Western states’ level of social and economic development. This study will begin with the analysis of this divide between East and West in Europe with emphasis on its history and on the current literature debate on the matter, which revolves around whether the enlargement has brought Eastern and Western Europe closer regarding economic and political development. The research will ultimately aim at finding the unrevealed reason for why, for example, a country like Bulgaria, who has been a member of the European Union since 2007, is still one of the Union’s weakest and most vulnerable nations. By taking the form of a case-study of Bulgaria, the study explores the factors that determine the country’s main reasons for trailing behind in certain aspects. In this sense, the central thesis of the research paper will revolve around the argument that because of the neglect of these essential factors, the European Union has not been able to develop a proper integration strategy for Bulgaria and Eastern Europe, which contributes to the fact that these vulnerabilities are becoming a huge drawback for the continuing integration of the European Union as a whole.

First and foremost, to understand the importance of European integration, we must define some of its core values and principles. These values have an essential role in guiding the European Union in its pursuit of closer cooperation in a more prominent political, social and economic union of diverse actors. It is explicitly stated in the Common Provisions of The Lisbon Treaty, that the European Union “shall promote economic, social and territorial cohesion, and solidarity among Member states.”[1] Such aims include growth, stability and the establishment of an internal market, which must bring sustainable development and progress. Moreover, the Union also strives for achieving freedom, security, and justice in all its Member states. Provided the European Institutions works towards the establishment of these values across the whole of the Union, then integration is guaranteed. However, if these Institutions stray from this path, for reasons that will be further explained, integration begins to suffer, creating implications for the entirety of the Union.

From the establishment of the European Union onwards, there have been various challenges to European Integration, although now they are increasingly hindering this process. Scholarship on the matter analyses these challenges as crises of the European Union. Two crises are particularly influential in the history of EU integration. The Eurozone crisis is believed to have triggered this ‘age of crises,’ while the Migration crisis was seen as the most influential.[2] By joining the European Union, the East was expecting a flow of money, which would present opportunities for development. However ‘the fact that CEE states were required to contribute to bailouts to countries where wages were higher and pension entitlements more generous provoked howls of discontent’.[3] This, in turn, contributed to the rise of cleavages between member states and the consequent rise of Euroscepticism and Populism, which were directed primarily at the failure of the Union to address these crises. Although Euroscepticism was a trend that began as early as the Maastricht Treaty,[4] it was intensified by the Migration crisis, which was the EU’s most detrimental crisis, because it challenged its external borders as a whole as well as its solidarity and willingness to cooperate. The inability of the EU to adequately address these crises, and its uneven resolve, have led to the undermining of integration and solidarity, to the highlighting of the differences between countries and to the establishment of divides along Member states in the European Union.[5]

Although there are various distinctions between Member states, this research piece will focus specifically on the East-West divide, in regards to economic and democratic development, and its implications on the process of integration and its future. The history of this divide began, again, with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, leaving many of the Eastern Countries, which had in search of new alternatives to their old communist rule. This alternative proved to be liberal democracy. On one hand, the European Union offered them prosperity and stability and the opportunity to reach the level of development of countries such as Germany, France and the UK.[6] Moreover, by the late 1990’s, the Union itself ‘had become quite ambitious on the world stage and made strong commitments to revitalize the Western Balkans’.[7] In essence, it is essential to highlight the reason for which Easter European countries decided to join the EU because this will help to later accent the fact that these countries have not benefited as much as the other parts of Europe, as they had expected to.

The stability and forwardness of the integration process are crucial for the unity of Europe. European Institutions must work towards the economic, democratic and social development of the European Union. However, in the presentation of literature and evidence we are about to see that, although Eastern Europe has somewhat evolved, there is still a deep divide between Eastern and Western Europe. This study will concentrate on the missing puzzle pieces of the integration process, which very few scholars consider and to prove how detrimental this is to the European Union as a whole. Precisely because the European Institutions do not recognize specific issues in Eastern European countries, or have recognized them, but do not address them correctly, the divide will become even more problematic, leading to a stagnation of the integration process.

Bulgaria and Romania are called the ‘laggards of EU enlargement’, because of their inability to reach the level of development of the wealthier West. [8] They were accepted into the European Union in 2007 as part of the second wave of the EU’s fifth enlargement, despite grave problems with the rule of law, organized crime and the fight against corruption.[9] These are serious problems of democratic and governmental capacity building that should be addressed properly and made sure they are complied with and effective, in order for the integration to be successful. However, the reality is not such. According to Ganev, after Bulgaria and Romania entered the EU the problem with corruption became even more severe:

‘First, the situation in Bulgaria—one of the least corrupt countries in 2007—deteriorated dramatically: in 2010 there was more corruption there than before. Second, Romania has seen no improvement since it gained full membership. Finally—and this is the most important tendency—the trajectory followed by Bulgaria and Romania is strikingly at odds with the regional trend. Apart from Croatia (which was “cleaner” in 2010 than Bulgaria and Romania), all other counties in Southeastern Europe seem to be making progress as they combat corruption’.[10]

Other scholars have focused on this problem from the point of view of governmental and institutional capacity. According to the thorough research of Börzel and Schimmelfennig, there is a clear gap in political development and governance effectiveness between old member states, which have the highest scores, and the post-Soviet, Central European and South-east European states, while specifically Bulgaria and Romania are ‘catching up but still trailing behind and showing some tendencies of slowing down in their reform efforts – if not sliding back after they joined the EU in 2007’.[11] The reasons for this are various, but the literature on the matter has concentrated on a few.

One of the reasons for the failure of these countries lies in their history. Here Dimitrova argues that post-communist states are weak states because after the changes of the 1990s they were left to transition from communism, while the old member states had a long history of liberal democracy.[12] The way democracy was constructed, specifically in Bulgaria, did not leave much room for the establishment of independent institutions, because the rule was almost immediately seized by private interests that have been pulling strings behind the curtains to this day.[13] Despite trying to implement various policies for governance effectiveness, what hinders the process, even more, is not just the weak institutional setup, but also that by nature the EU cannot sanction undemocratic practices and policies. This implies that if European Institutions can only implement specific unified policies for the whole Union, while failing to consider specific problems in each country, then there will be no systemic change.

In the case of Bulgaria, corruption and organized crime are the two most significant issues. While the European Institutions have tried to prescribe the formation of an independent judiciary system and anti-corruption laws and practices, the problem remains, because ‘in an environment of institutional corruption, anti-corruption agencies are permanently engulfed in political conflict, seldom impartial, and always threatened by politicians’ or private interests (be that business or mafia).[14] This problem is also focused on by the Center for the Study of Democracy in Bulgaria, whose research provides valuable insight on these problems. The research highlights that not only Bulgaria, but most Eastern European Countries have worked hard to achieve progress, especially in their institutional environment prior to accession, but after they joined the European Union, they left their enthusiasm to reform way behind. The Commission for the Prevention and Combating of Corruption and the Centre for Prevention and Countering Corruption and Organised Crime are the two main agencies established in order to assure compliance with EU law on corruption. However, both experienced problems with capacity, lack of human and financial recourses, lack of expertise, lack of coordination with other institutions and government and inability to correctly implement strategies for battling corruption, and thus lack of results and no progress.[15]

Organised crime is an issue that Bulgaria has found extremely difficult to tackle. One of the problems is the difficulty in gathering evidence on organized crime, however, according to recent data, there is a decrease in certain markets of organized crime and increase in others. For example: ‘The market for illegal cigarettes and the volume of organized VAT fraud exhibit a significant drop, while at the same time the markets for illegal fuels and cannabis enjoy a noticeable rise. The domestic market for sexual services also displays a significant increase in turnover’.[16] Due to systemic corruption, and as we have seen also the inability of the anti-corruption agencies and the government as a whole to recognize the seriousness of this problem and to resolve it efficiently, the interests of the illegal markets of organized crime will continue to impede public policy and respectively the European Institution’s desire to foster efficient governmental and democratic capacity in Bulgaria successfully.

Another issue in Bulgaria, which is potentially very harmful to the state, is the demographic crisis. According to the most recent report by Eurostat, while the EU population on average has increased by 13 million from 2007 to 2017, a significant number of countries have had a considerable decrease in population, among which Bulgaria and Romania with a decrease of around 4 million. [17] Bulgaria also has less than the average birth rate of 1,6 for Europe, a higher percentage of aging population, a higher percentage of old working age population in comparison to young working population and one of the highest death rates in comparison to Europe.[18] Although Bulgaria has developed economically, it is still the country with the second lowest minimum wage. [19] Though confusing at first, these numbers show a trend that is very devastating for Bulgaria. With the decrease in working population, young people are struggling to compensate in order to make up for the increase in both pensions and pensioners. At the same time, more and more people are leaving the country to move to Central or Western Europe in order to benefit from better working conditions and education, thus aggravating the aforementioned problems. This internal migration is benefiting Bulgarians, but also increasing sentiment against them from the European Union: ‘the result was political wildfire. Scare stories about millions of Bulgarians and Romanians moving to richer countries in northern Europe spread rapidly, creating hysteria especially in the British press’.[20]

The public has witnesses all of the issues. People are increasingly aware of corruption, organized crime, demographic problems, economic struggles and more and have developed less and less trust in the national government, institutions, and the European Union.[21] People increasingly do not believe in the institutions and their capacity to resolve these problems, which on its own undermines the democratic process and the effectiveness of the civil society, meaning that problems in Bulgaria are deepening and widening at the same time, which in turn creates various obstacles for the implementation of European Union policies.

Drawing from different literature concerning the topic we can see various opinions. Some scholars increasingly believe, and to an extent, it is true, that the ‘laggards of EU integration’ have been successful in achieving the level of development of Western Countries and that there has been ‘substantial convergence between individual NMS economies and the OMS average’ to the extent that some have even surpassed it.[22] However, by a deeper investigation of the literature, we observe one drawback to their work, but this drawback is central to understanding the argument of why integration in Bulgaria has not brought as many benefits as to Western countries. This drawback is that they neglect the point of view that there are other also major problems. If we only take into consideration economic development, we will never be able to understand the reason behind the sliding back of countries like Romania and Bulgaria. As Börzel and Schimmelfennig have highlighted, strengthening democracy and governance effectiveness are central goals of the EU.[23] The main argument in this research is that the EU fails to address these problems for one simple reason – that it does not consider the fundamental differences between countries. Each member of the European Union has various difficulties: economic, political, governmental, institutional, problems stemming from nationalism and identity, from public opinion, from internal conflicts or relations with neighbouring countries. Before accession into the European Union, European Institutions begin to address these differences with a policy that target specifically those vulnerabilities, nevertheless, after that the policy becomes unified. Having a unified policy however doesn’t mean that those differences are no longer to be confronted and dealt with because we can undoubtedly see that if these differences and vulnerabilities are not tackled in time, and systematically, they will become issues of the whole of the European Union.

In order to prove the importance of the East-West divide and its implication on the future on the integration process for the whole of the European Union, this study focused on providing an in-depth analysis of the principal reasons for such a divergence. The study began with the concept of European integration and its primary goals and the explanation of the East-West divide, which was a starting point to developing a point of view that this divide is essential to the European Union and its further integration. The research paper also emphasized the differences of opinion in literature in terms considering the view whether the Eastern countries have been able to reach the levels of development of the Western countries and, more importantly, whether this divide is in reality transcended. By giving clear examples from Bulgaria about issues such as corruption, organized crime, and the demographic crisis, the opinion was developed that these factors are paramount to understanding the drawbacks of European integration. Thus, it is more than clear that it should be a key objective for the European Union to develop an integration strategy that would not merely unite member states on the basis of all-inclusive policies but would also recognize the inherent differences between countries and their various stages of development. Acknowledging these differentiations is the first step to building a smarter strategy of integration, one that would not lead to more divide.


Center for the Study of Democracy, ‘Bulgarian Organised Crime Threat Assessment’ (Sofia, 2018)

Center for the Study of Democracy, ‘Evaluating governance and corruption risks in Bulgaria’ (Sofia, 2017)

Dimitrova, A. ‘The new member states of the EU in the aftermath of enlargement: do new European rules remain empty shells?’, Journal of European Public Policy, 17:1 (2010) pp.137-148

Dinan, D, Nugent, N., Paterson, W.E. ‘A Multi-dimensional Crisis’, in The European Union in Crisis, edited by Desmond Dinan, Neill Nugent and William E. Paterson (London, Palgrave, 2017), pp. 1-15

European Commission, ‘White paper on the future of Europe’ (Brussels, European Commission, 2017) pp.15-24

European Council, ‘Consolidated versions of the treaty on European union and the treaty on the functioning of the European union (Official Journal of the European Union, 2016/C 202/01)

Eurostat, ‘Key figures on Europe’ (Luxembourg, Publications Office of the European Union, 2018)

Gallup International Bulgaria, ‘Confidence in Main Institutions and Political Figures’. Available at: http://www.gallupinternational.bg/bg/%D0%9F%D1%83%D0%B1%D0%BB%D0%B8%D0%BA%D0%B0%D1%86%D0%B8%D0%B8/2017/402-Confidence-in-Main-Institutions-%D0%90nd-Political-Figures [Accessed on 09 November 2018]

Ganev, I. ‘Post-Accession Hooliganism: Democratic Governance in Bulgaria and Romania after 2007’, East European Politics and Societies and Cultures, 17 (2013) pp.26-44

Grabbe, H. ‘Six Lessons of Enlargement Ten Years On: The EU’s Transformative Power in Retrospect and Prospect’, Journal of Common Market Studies, 52 (2014) pp.40-56

Houghton, T. ‘Central and Easter Europe: The sacrifices of solidarity, The Discomforts of Diversity and the Vexations of Vulnerabilities’, The European Union in Crisis, edited by Desmond Dinan, Neill Nugent and William E. Paterson (London, Palgrave, 2017), pp.253-268

Langbein, J., ‘European Union Governance towards the Eastern Neigbourhood: Transcending or Redrawing Europe’s East–West Divide?’, Journal of Common Market Studies, 52 (2014) pp.157-174

Mungiu-Pippidi, A. ‘The legacies of 1989. The transformative power of Europe revisited’, Journal of Democracy, 25 (2014) pp.20–32

Schimmelfennig, F., Börzel, T. ‘Coming together or drifting apart? The EU’s political integration capacity in Eastern Europe’, Journal of European Public Policy, 24 (2017) pp.278-296

Usherwood, S., Startin, N. ‘Euroscepticism as a Persistent Phenomenon’, Journal of Common Market Studies, 51 (2013), pp. 1-16

Vachudova, M.A. ‘EU Leverage and National Interests in the Balkans: The Puzzles of Enlargement Ten Years On’, Journal of Common Market Studies, 52 (2014) pp.121-138

World Bank Open Data, World Development Indicators: Population dynamics. Available at: http://wdi.worldbank.org/table/2.1 [Accessed 09 November 2018].