The Double Puzzle of EU Enlargement

How should we conceive of the EU's collective decision to expand towards Central and Eastern Europe? This paper analyses the process and finds that rationalist and constructivist approaches both have something to offer; while pursuit of self-interest may predominate, decision-making is played out within a framework of perceived consensus and need for legitimacy.

ARENA Working Paper 15/1999 (html)

Frank Schimmelfenning

This paper addressed the decision of the European Union to expand to Central and Eastern Europe; it asks, more prudently, why the EU opened accession negotiations with five Central and Eastern European countries in March 1998. The analysis is guided by the current “great debate” between rationalist and sociological or constructivist approaches to the study of international institutions. I argue that, in the perspective of this theoretical debate, the decision of the EU to expand to the East confronts us with a double puzzle: On the one hand, the decision-making outcome, the opening of accession negotiations with CEE countries, is puzzling for rationalist theory, as Eastern enlargement cannot be accounted for by way of a rationalist cost-benefit analysis by the EU member states. On the other hand, the decision-making process that led to the opening of accession negotiations is a puzzle for sociological institutionalism, as it is difficult to see the appropriate or taken-for-granted behavior that sociological theories would let us expect. Instead, the preferences and the behavior of the main political actors in the EU system correspond much better with rationalist assumptions. Thus, the problem is to explain how a process predominantly characterized by rational action resulted in a normatively determined outcome. We four ourselves within a familiar vein for social scientists, tracing a causal line between “private vices” and “public virtues”. As a solution to the double puzzle, I propose “rhetorical action” as an intervening mechanism between egoistic preferences and normative collective outcomes. Rhetorical action is the strategic use of arguments; in an intersubjectively structured environment, rational political actors need legitimacy and must take into account common values and norms but manipulate them through the strategic use of arguments. Thereby they are able to modify the collective outcome that would have resulted from constellations of interests and power alone.

Tags: enlargement, legitimacy, national interest, joint decision making
Published Nov. 9, 2010 10:52 AM