EU Outliers: The Limitations of the EU in Reforming Illiberal Democracy in Bulgaria and Romania

Author Abigail Adams examines the primary obstacles to EU accession that faced Romania and Bulgaria, as well as the difficulties in maintaining EU standards that both countries have faced since 2007, and offers prescriptions on how to develop more successful EU accession processes.

(Photo by Erich Westendarp via

Abigail Adams


Since 1989, eleven post-communist states have acceded to the European Union. According to Aneta Spendzharova and Milada Vachudova, the eight post-communist states to join the EU in 2004 (Czech Republic, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia) were “on average indistinguishable from the EU’s old member states on measures of political rights and civil liberties” within a year of their accession.[1] Slow but steady economic growth accompanied reform in these areas. In 2007, two more post-communist states, Bulgaria and Romania, joined the EU. Not unlike the 2004 post-communist enlargement states, EU membership helped stabilize democratic institutions in Bulgaria and Romania, and protected civil liberties such as open elections and free speech.[2] However, for nearly a decade following accession, both states have struggled to meet EU standards, particularly in regards to anti-corruption and rule of law. In 2016, the EU announced it would finally end special monitoring of Romania by 2019. Bulgaria’s progress, however, continues to stall.

Bulgaria’s and Romania’s difficulty transitioning to the EU can be pinpointed to two major factors: illiberal democracy[3] and weakness in EU conditionality. First, despite sharing a communist past with many of the 2004 enlargement states, the domestic political and economic evolution of Bulgaria and Romania has been different. While the 2004 states became liberal democracies, the absence of political opposition and a period of partial economic reform facilitated Bulgaria’s and Romania’s evolution into illiberal democratic states. Second, EU conditionality in the EU’s pre- and post-accession policies towards these states has been problematic. Multiple factors – including a divergence in values, low credibility, and enlargement fatigue – have weakened EU conditionality and demotivated Bulgaria and Romania from achieving durable reform. Moreover, inadequate rule of law erodes the legitimacy of the Bulgarian and Romanian governments and remains a persistent barrier to political and economic reform today.

 I. Illiberal Democracy

Unlike the post-communist 2004 enlargement, Bulgaria and Romania evolved into illiberal democratic states. This is attributable to the absence of a strong, organized political opposition in 1989 and, consequently, the communist party’s continued hold on power and undermining of political and economic reforms throughout the 1990s.

There was no organized opposition to the communist regimes in Bulgaria and Romania in 1989. Under the oppressive regime of Romanian dictator Nicolai Ceausescu, the formation of opposition groups was nearly impossible.[4] While a number of Bulgarian civic groups unified under the Union of Democratic Forces in 1989, the alliance was highly unstable and collapsed by 1992 giving way to rule by the unreformed communist successor party, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). The weakness of the opposition in both states subsequently “created a political vacuum at the moment of regime change” rather than a political transition to democracy, organized by politicians subscribing to liberal democratic values.[5] Unlike the 2004 enlargement states, whose first free elections were won by democratic opposition movements, the BSP and the Democratic National Salvation Front (later known as the Party of Social Democracy, or PDSR) won the first free elections in Bulgaria and Romania respectively. Old communist elites maintained their grasp on state power, and organized the transition to democracy, undermining political and economic reform along the way.[6]  In particular, the BSP and PDSR encouraged public fear of capitalist reforms, and instead pursued partial economic reforms. According to Spendzharova and Vachudova, partial reform “enriched the elite and entrenched networks of corruption while prolonging the economic hardships of the average citizen” throughout the 1990s.[7] In particular, efforts to privatize industry “opened the window of opportunity” for the wealthy or “those who were well-connected and did not hesitate to bribe the authorities.” With such “easy access to state property” national elites privatized industry directly to themselves.[8] In Romania, 1,000 of Romania’s 1,500 private firms were owned by former communist elites by 1995.[9] Privatization in Bulgaria was an even slower process than in Romania, but was likewise the product of “former communist officials feathering their own nests.”[10] In 1996, the state still controlled 85 percent of industrial production in Bulgaria.[11] This is a stark contrast to the 2004 enlargement states, whose private sectors and their contributions to national GDP, grew rapidly throughout the early 1990s.[12]

As illiberal democracies, Bulgaria and Romania were far less prepared than the 2004 enlargement states to meet the demands of EU accession when they applied to join the EU in 1995 and 1997 respectively. Despite the fact that their applications were submitted at the same time as the 2004 enlargement states, Bulgaria and Romania did not begin pre-accession negotiations until 2000 due to slow progress in reform.[13] The BSP’s “monopoly of the information received by most voters in the countryside” and censorship of the media allowed it to suppress the fractious opposition. By 1997, the BSP’s “spectacular” corruption and partial economic reform bankrupted the country and sent it into recession.[14] In Romania, the PDSR’s propaganda machine and “vast communist networks” allowed it to become the only communist successor party to have uninterrupted rule between 1989 and 1996.[15] By the time EU pre-accession policy began to stabilize both states’ democratic institutions and improve civil rights, the damage wrought by illiberal values and corruption under the communist successor parties already entrenched themselves in the Bulgarian and Romanian governments.

II. EU Policy

The effectiveness of EU policy in creating and sustaining reform in Bulgaria and Romania depends on conditionality. According to Bernard Steunenberg and Antoaneta Dimitrova, EU conditionality is the “exchange between the EU and a candidate country in which the EU offers the candidate a (realistic) prospect of EU membership, if the candidate implements a wide range of (EU driven) domestic reforms.”[16] This creates a “carrot and stick approach” with both positive and negative leverage. If a candidate fails “to progress with reforms” the EU may withdraw the offer of accession or its benefits, or slow down the process as punishment.[17] Conversely, reform is rewarded with progress in the accession process, and eventually, membership.

EU policy towards Bulgaria and Romania has existed in two forms since 2000: the acquis communitaire and the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM). The acquis is an extensive body of EU laws and regulations which candidate states must adopt in order to progress in the accession process.[18] In 2007, following their accession to the EU, Bulgaria and Romania became the first EU states to exist under the CVM. Developed within the framework of Bulgaria’s and Romania’s accession treaties in 2006, the CVM gives the EU special monitoring of Romania and Bulgaria until the states reach the EU’s benchmarks for rule of law. However, EU conditionality under the acquis and the CVM have struggled to create sustainable, long-term reforms in Bulgaria and Romania. This is due to the divergence in values between the EU and the Bulgarian and Romanian governments, the absence of credibility in EU leverage, and EU enlargement fatigue. As a result of these problems, Bulgaria and Romania not only acceded to the EU prematurely, but they have been able to circumvent critical rule of law reforms. 

Divergence in Values

First, EU conditionality was weakened by the divergence in values between the EU and the illiberal regimes established Bulgaria and Romania at the time of the pre-accession negotiations. This was problematic considering that EU conditionality assumes that both parties – the EU and candidate state – are working towards a common vision for Europe. As noted in the previous section, the national elite in Bulgaria and Romania drew much of their power from patronage politics and partial economic reforms. While the ideal of a unified Europe may have been shared by Bulgarian and Romanian leadership, the pro-democratic ideals espoused in the acquis were not necessarily embraced by crooked politicians or oligarchs in either country. As Vachudova describes, the Bulgarian and Romanian governments “were savvy at playing it both ways.” On the international stage “they acted like liberal Western reformers” but at home they implemented “domestic policies that were at loggerheads with liberal democracy, ethnic tolerance, and economic reform.”[19] In Romania, President and PDSR member, Ion Illiescu was a “master at presenting himself as a Western reformer to the…electorate” despite lacking an “ideological affinity for Western liberal democracy.”[20] Despite leading Romania to a Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU in 1991 and an Association Agreement with the EU in 1993, his regime was famous for attacks against minority groups and censorship.[21] According to Simeon Mitropolitski, the President of Bulgaria from 2002 to 2012 and BSP politician, Georgi Parvanov, is also exemplary of this contradiction. While he claimed the EU a “guarantor” for peace in Europe and praised it as means of reforming Bulgarian government, he proposed an amendment months before the 2009 parliamentary election which would have undercut the opposition’s representation in parliament – a policy highly inconsistent with the EU’s expectations for representative democracy.[22]

The divergence in values between the EU and the Bulgarian and Romanian ruling elite was worsened by the acquis’ failure to ensure government accountability in implementing reform. Particularly damning was the EU’s emphasis on “formal compliance,” or the legislative adoption of acquis compliant policies rather than the implementation of policy in the long-term.[23] This enabled illiberal regimes to avoid implementing the policies mandated by the acquis which challenged their corrupt political and economic policies, and other sources of power. The most compelling evidence of the Bulgarian and Romanian governments’ long-term non-compliance with acquis policies are the “letters of formal notice” – letters warning of an infringement upon EU rules – which were issued in the year following Bulgaria’s and Romania’s accession. Between 2007 and 2008, Bulgaria received over 80 letters on a wide spectrum of policy issues, and Romania received a great deal more, with 45 letters on environmental concerns alone.[24] While Bulgaria and Romania passed the necessary laws to accede to the union, they did not necessarily implement them successfully prior to, or following accession.

Low Credibility

Additionally, EU conditionality was weakened by low credibility. To ensure that candidate states are motivated to progress with reform, EU conditionality requires that the threat of punishment for non-compliance is credible. However, this was not the case with Bulgaria and Romania. In particular, there were reasons for Bulgaria and Romania to perceive accession as inevitable, effectively demotivating them from pursuing reform. First, this was due to the geopolitical circumstances of Europe. In 1997, Bulgaria and Romania offered “unconditional assistance” to NATO on the Kosovo crisis, in terms of “logistical support” and “permission to use their airspace.”[25] According to Stephen Katsikas, this “provided the political will in the West” to overlook certain illiberal policies and begin serious accession talks. While European leaders were hesitant to proceed with accession initially, appreciation for Bulgaria and Romanian cooperation in Kosovo helped the European leaders change their tune: British Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed support for an offer of EU membership to Bulgaria and Romania as early as 1999.[26]

Second, as consolation for being left out of the 2004 enlargement, Bulgaria and Romania’s accession date of January 2007, was set in 2003. Consequently, Bulgaria’s and Romania’s progress in the final years of the pre-accession process slowed significantly. A study by Stuenenberg and Dimitrova, based on game theory, argues that once the EU sets an accession date for a prospective member is set, the acquis “loses its effectiveness,” leading to further “potential problems with the transposition of EU directives just before and after accession.”[27] Accordingly, both Bulgaria and Romania acceded on time in January 2007 despite the 2006 EU Commission stating that both countries were at high risk for “jeopardizing” their ability to meet EU standards post-accession.[28]

The low credibility of EU conditionality has continued in the post-accession process under the CVM. With the prize of EU membership no longer an available bargaining chip, the EU must rely on supranational pressure to compel Bulgaria and Romania into compliance.[29] Most notably, CVM compliance promises eventual participation in the EU’s Schengen Zone – a perk of EU membership which was withheld from Bulgaria and Romania upon their accession.[30] Negative incentives include “freezing EU funds” and fines for EU law violations. However, these incentives are not nearly as compelling as was the original prospect of EU membership.[31] As a result, progress under the CVM has been limited.

Enlargement Fatigue

The final problem with EU conditionality towards Bulgaria and Romania is the behavior of the EU itself. Political and economic hardships over the course of the last decade have worn out many European leaders’ enthusiasm to solve the problems of its weakest members. The financial costs of the 2004 enlargement, supporting the post-communist states’ transition to democracy and free market economics, exacted a substantial financial burden on Western Europe. Even more frustrating for many Europeans was the influx of cheap migrant labor which many perceived to be taking jobs from domestic workers. This triggered enlargement fatigue in both the public and Brussels.[32] In 2008, the Euro Crisis and economic recession significantly decreased public confidence in the capacity of EU institutions to solve the union’s financial problems.[33]

Bulgaria’s and Romania’s floundering under the CVM eroded public confidence in EU institutions further. Consequently, it is unsurprising that many Europeans have grown “Eurosceptic” – increasingly pessimistic regarding the future of its newest members and the union as a whole. In 2012, a study showed that since 2007, “the number of pessimists regarding the future of the EU doubled.”[34] Nationalism has grown hand in hand with Euroscepticism, and fuels Western Europe’s long-held stigmas against its easternmost members. In January 2014, much of Western Europe did not warmly welcome lifted labor restrictions for Bulgarians and Romanians in nine countries, concerned that “an invasion of poor migrants” would come to take jobs and benefits as many Europeans perceived they had in 2004.[35] This is unfortunate since, unlike many disillusioned Western Europeans (and some illiberal leaders in Bulgaria and Romania), the Bulgarian and Romanian publics on the whole enthusiastically support EU representatives and the reforms – albeit, few – that the institution triggered.[36] As The Economist notes, one reason Bulgaria’s and Romania’s situation has become “so vexing is that” the Bulgarian and Romanian people “are learning to follow [EU] rules just as” the rest of the EU has “begun to mistrust them.”[37] This is not only another example of the discrepancy in values between Western Europeans and the 2007 enlargement states. Increasing enlargement fatigue, Euroscepticism, and nationalism have made Western Europeans less enthusiastic about seeking to correct the Union’s problems as a whole, let alone trying to solve the continued stagnation of its two poorest states.


Bulgaria’s and Romania’s difficulty transitioning to EU standards can be blamed on both domestic political and economic challenges as well as the EU itself. Lacking a viable political opposition to the old communist regime in 1989, Bulgaria and Romania evolved into illiberal democracies with pervasive corruption issues. Worse, corruption persisted in Bulgaria and Romania even as both states adopted policies consistent with the acquis communitaire and were monitored by the EU under the CVM. EU policy failed to account for the divergence in values between the illiberal regimes of these states and EU political and economic goals, which allowed illiberal leaders to prevent the long-term implementation of adopted reforms. EU conditionality’s threat to punish both states for falling short in the pre-accession and post-accession processes were weakened by a firm accession date, and pre-mature accession. Enlargement fatigue, coupled with increasing Euroscepticism and nationalism, has weakened the EU’s political will to correct Bulgaria’s and Romania’s lagging efforts at reform.

While Sofia and Bucharest continue to frustrate Brussels, it is clear that their situation is a lesson learned for the union. In 2014, Croatia acceded to the EU as its twenty-eighth member. Much like Romania and Bulgaria, Croatia faced significant political, economic, and rule of law reform challenges as a former territory within communist Yugoslavia; however, the European Commission ensured that the accession process applied to Croatia was more rigorous than that of any previous accession. Unlike the accession of Bulgaria and Romania, Croatia faced far greater focus and strictness on improving the quality of the judiciary and rule of law.[38] This strategy paid off. Much to the dismay of Bulgaria and Romania, Croatia was admitted to the EU without the CVM.[39] Bulgaria and Romania were effectively surpassed in achievement by their younger sibling, but they should not be ostracized for being the EU’s outliers. Instead, Bulgaria and Romania should serve as a rallying cry to Brussels to change its attitude towards it easternmost members and adapt the accession processes to lend a stricter, but stronger, helping hand to its most politically and economically vulnerable candidates and members.

Abigail Adams is a second-year Master of Arts Candidate at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) where she is concentrating in Russian and Eurasian Studies. She is also a member of the Rising Experts Program at the Center for Global Interests in Washington, DC. Prior to her enrollment at SAIS, Ms. Adams worked for four years on Capitol Hill. First, she served as a Staff Assistant for Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut during his time as a U.S. Representative, and later as Mr. Murphy’s Legislative Aide upon his election to the U.S. Senate in 2012. Ms. Adams holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA.


[1] Aneta Spendzharova and Milada Vachudova, “Catching Up? Consolidating Liberal Democracy in Bulgaria and Romania after EU Accession,” West European Politics 35, No. 1 (January 2012): 39.

[2] Stefanos Katsikas, “Bulgaria and Romania at Europe’s Edge,” Current History 113, No. 761 (March 2014): 122.

[3] Illiberal democracy is generally defined as a political system in which citizens do not possess the full civil liberties, political enfranchisement, and economic empowerment of an open democratic state.

[4] Katsikas, 39-40.

[5] Milada Anna Vachudova, Europe Undivided: Democracy, Leverage and Integration After Communism (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 37; 45.

[6] Ibid., 37-38; Elizabeth Bakke, “Party systems since 1989,” in Central and Southeast European Politics since 1989, ed. Sabrina Ramet (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 71.

[7] Spendzharova and Vachudova, “Catching Up?,” 47.

[8] Ivan T. Berand, From the Soviet Bloc to European Union: The Economic and Social Transformation of Central and Eastern Europe since 1973 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 203.

[9] Geoffrey Swain and Nigel Swain, Eastern Europe since 1945 (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, Inc., 1993, 1998), 219.

[10] Ibid., 223.

[11] Sabrina F. Ramet and F. Peter Wagner, “Post-socialist models of rule” Central and Southeast European Politics since 1989, ed. Sabrina Ramet (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 22.

[12] Ibid., 22-23.

[13] Berand, 89-90.

[14] Vachudova, 46; 155.

[15] Ibid., 41.

[16] Bernard Steunenberg and Antoaneta Dimitrova, “Compliance in the EU Enlargement Process: The Limits of Conditionality,” European Integration Online Papers 11 (2007): 2-3.

[17] Ibid., 2-3.

[18] Berand, 89.

[19] Vachudova, 151.

[20] Ibid., 152.

[21] Ibid., 152-153.

[22] Simeon Mitropolitski, “Balkan Politicians, Mostly Immune to EU Integration,” Romanian Political Science Review 14, No. 4 (2014): 372.

[23] Vachudova, 151.

[24] Florian Trauner, “Post-accession compliance with EU law in Bulgaria and Romania: A comparative perspective,” European Integration Online Papers 13, No. 2 (2009): 8.

[25] Katsikas, “Bulgaria and Romania,” 119.

[26] Ibid., 119.

[27] Bernard Steunenberg and Antoaneta Dimitrova (2009) quoted in Trauner, “Post-accession compliance,” 2-3.

[28] Trauner, “Post-accession compliance,” 5.

[29] Svet Derderyan, “The effects of the European Union on corruption control in central and eastern Europe before and after accession,” ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, (Order No. 3703760, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2015), iv.

[30] Spendzharova and Vachudova, “Catching Up?,” 47-48.

[31] Ibid., 47.

[32] Katsikas, “Bulgaria and Romania,” 119.

[33] Monica Condruz-Basescu, “Euroscepticism Across Europe: Drivers and Challenges,” European Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies 6, No. 2 (December 2014): 56.

[34] Condruz-Basescu, “Euroscepticism,” 56.

[35] Dan Bilefsky, “E.U. Labor Market Opens for Romanians and Bulgarians,” The New York Times, January 1, 2014, accessed April 10, 2016,

[36] “A lighter shade of grey,” The Economist, March 17, 2012, accessed April 10, 2016,

[37] Ibid.

[38] Alan Riley, “Croatia and the E.U.” The New York Times, June 28, 2013, accessed April 10, 2016,

[39] Ibid.


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The SAIS Review