The convergence-divergence debate started and peaked in the 1990s on the question of the endpoint of political and economic change primarily in a subset of politically significant transition countries situated in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). The tone of this debate during the 1990s was very often normative/prescriptive, which is understandable given the adjacency with the ideologically loaded period that preceded it. The issue was whether countries in transition converged towards a model of market-based liberal democracies or whether change was much more country- or region-specific, thus leading to diverging (or non-converging) patterns of transformation.
The contributions in the Special Issue revisited and evaluated but also updated and expanded the convergence-divergence debate beyond the 1990s and the CEECs, by taking stock of the differential patterns of transition in Europe’s ‘near neighbourhood’ and by exploring the interplay between external and domestic causal factors that underlie and determine these patterns.
In antithesis to ‘monocausal’ approaches or artificially bound explanations that seek domestic-only or external-only determinants of transformation outcomes, the Special Issue took a more pragmatic approach that allowed room for more complex patterns and explanations. When considered collectively, the main conclusion of the contributions to the Special Issue is that the record of convergence and non-convergence is mixed and that external determinants may carry more weight in some countries than others and the same is true for domestic determinants, legacies, and initial conditions.
Empowered by empirical hindsight and theoretical oversight, we are now in position to offer a more nuanced and empirically grounded account and explanation of the transitional phenomenon and complex patterns of convergence. Following the accession to the EU of ten CEEC countries, a general impression was created that the prospect of membership has the potential to completely alter domestic realities in favour of international integration and reform. After all, Bulgaria and Romania became EU members in 2007, despite the fact that the two states were considered as unlikely to enter only a few years before, for reasons ranging from their late start on the path of reform to the historical legacies of the period of Ottoman rule that differentiated the two Black Sea countries from their Visegrad counterparts. Yet, this general impression appears problematic when considered in relation to the current state of the relations between the EU and its ‘near neighbourhood’ for at least two fundamental reasons. First, the challenges faced by the states of the Western Balkans are qualitatively different than those encountered by Bulgaria and Romania, neither of which faced war or the need for state-building. Secondly, the two Black Sea countries largely acceded to the EU in order to converge faster and more intensely with the rest of the European family. This is unlikely to happen with any of the current or hopeful candidates. Another valuable conclusion from the various contributions in the Special Issue concerns the change of external dynamics in the two regions and the rise of competing or alternative centres of influence. Throughout the 1990s, the EU was the undisputed protagonist in Europe and as a result the integration framework it proposed, for all practical purposes, was the ‘only game in town’. This situation appears to have changed considerably two decades after the start of the transition process. This change is partly due to EU’s own saturation and need for inward reflection following the massive intake of ten post-communist states as its members. But this change is also due to the fact Russia for the first time since the fall of communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union appears to have the ability, and therefore the choice, to impact adversely the process of institutional and normative convergence towards Europe. This is partly due to the country’s resurgence (for example when looking at the Western Balkans) but also partly due to the fact that the game is now closer to Russia’s home turf, where its influence can be felt in more pronounced ways. The analyses on Moldova and Ukraine, but also Serbia, propose a number of ways through which Russian political, economic and energy leverage impacts the efforts of its neighbours to converge towards or integrate with their western pole.
Return to Genscher’s ‘three concentric cycle’ model?
The Western Balkans and Western CIS are on clearly separate policy tracks. The policy track of the latter consists of the European Neighbourhood Policy as the overarching policy framework (see Chira and Verdun, and Melnykovska and Schweickert in this Issue), whereas the former are on a clear path to eventual membership (see Anastassakis and Bastian). Yet the EU and its current member states are clearly not as eager to open the gates, certainly not before the countries are fully ready for accession.
With these policy tracks in mind, what is the right frame of reference within which to perceive the processes of convergence and divergence that have been described through the contributions in this special issue? One way of considering these processes is by focusing on the reform efforts of the aspiring members (Western Balkan) or aspiring candidates (Western CIS).
Another way that might be worth considering is by looking at the side of the gatekeepers (alias EU member states) and considering a, largely forgotten today, model of integration that first surfaced in the early 1990s, when the enlargement of the EU in post-communist and post-Soviet counties was still debated and full membership through enlargement was only one option (of several) of associating with the CEE countries. Besides membership, other alternatives discussed at the time included Mitterrand’s proposal of a confederation, Volker Ruhe’s EPC membership and Andriessen’s affiliate membership (Smith 1999).
The alternative which is of interest here was promoted in the fall of 1989 by the German minister of foreign affairs Hans Dietrich Genscher, at the special meeting between the Commission and the foreign ministers of the member states (14-15 October 1989). That alternative model called for the creation of three ‘concentric circles’: the EC, EFTA linked by the European Economic Area (EEA), and Eastern Europe. Reflecting a risk-aversion from the Community’s perspective, the plan envisaged that the countries could eventually join the core but only after joining EFTA or the European Economic Area, i.e. moving from one concentric circle to the next1, in order to ensure their (and the EU’s) readiness for membership, even if the preparatory stage would be extremely lengthy. In Genscher’s three concentric circle model for a new Ostpolitik for the Community, the republics of the former Soviet Union remained outside this scheme, or could perhaps be imagined as the ‘fourth concentric circle’, with no hope of membership.
Genscher’s scheme was revised de facto after the collapse of the Soviet Union in two respects: first, through the transfer of the Baltics from the fourth to the third concentric circle, and second through the, relatively speaking, rapid accession of the entire block of 10 CEECs to the EU core. But today’s reality for the Balkans and Western CIS appears to be very close to the originally conceived model. In the case of the Western Balkans, the European Union is willing to commit politically, economically and institutionally but in a rather risk-averse manner. Have today’s Western Balkans, then, become EU’s ‘third concentric circle’? And where should the Western CIS EU hopefuls be placed in this model? Are they located in the fourth concentric circle or will some of them, such as Moldova or Ukraine, be able to move to the third circle? Importantly, what does this placement tell us about the patterns of convergence towards EU norms and rules in the future?
Whatever the answer to these questions, one thing that the contributions reflect with certainty is that no new EU member states will enter the EU in order to converge and reform faster, as happened in the case of the laggards among the CEECs, but only because they have done so. That conclusion appears to hold true both for current candidates in the Western Balkans and hopeful candidates in the Western CIS.
1 Email: George.email@example.com
1 This discussion unfolds in Smith (1999: 90, 111).