EU and NATO Enlargement and the Populist Backlash Thesis

Many argue that EU and NATO enlargement produced a populist backlash in Europe. Evidence suggests otherwise.
Hilary Appel presents during a REDS Seminar hosted by the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law and The Europe Center. Hilary Appel presents during a REDS Seminar hosted by the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law and The Europe Center.

How have EU (European Union) accession and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) enlargement affected commitments to liberalism in EU countries? Claremont McKenna College Professor of Government Hilary Appel presented findings from her research on this question at a Rethinking European Development and Security (REDS) seminar, cosponsored by CDDRL, The Europe Center, and the Hoover Institution.

Appel’s talk addressed the rise of Euroscepticism, illiberalism, and economic nationalism, as expressed by populist leaders in Eastern Europe over the last decade. Whereas many assume these trends have emerged in response to EU accession and NATO enlargement, her research suggests otherwise.

As NATO and the EU extended conditional membership invitations to Eastern European countries in the 1990s, many saw these steps as opportunities for advancing liberal governance. Appel highlighted the intrusive nature of the conditions imposed on these countries in that context. Specifically, that they were required to cede policy autonomy, rewrite laws to meet EU standards, and submit to bureaucratic monitoring. 

Some have argued that the invasive nature of this process has generated domestic backlash in these countries and, as a result, a declining commitment to liberal policy, as evidenced by the growing Eurosceptic and illiberal rhetoric of populist leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. Appel’s research pushes back on this argument.

Her talk cited public opinion data showing that peaks in Euroscepticism occurred primarily in the 2010s and not during either EU accession processes. Furthermore, she added, anti-liberal sentiment does not seem to run deep in public opinion polls, even though many populist leaders continue to use Brussels as a “punching bag” for policy failures.

The rise of populism, according to Appel, coincided with a climate in which the EU was ineffective in penalizing member states for violating previously agreed upon conditions and norms. The initial success of some populist leaders who openly rejected liberal policies and values, she explains, has demonstrated that there was no real consequence for subverting EU guidelines. Thus, other politicians followed suit, embracing populist rhetoric and policies. Put simply, the assumption that EU accession would constrain leaders of new member states (and lock them in a path of liberalization) proved misguided. 

Using the war in Ukraine as a lens for assessing the strength of EU and NATO alliances, Appel finds that alliance in Europe is stronger than expected, and the war has led to a renewed appreciation of NATO. That said, the war has not necessarily caused the electorate to turn away from Eurosceptic leaders. The war has also shifted EU priorities to the extent that condemnation of illiberalism has been put on the back burner for countries like Poland largely due to their instrumental support in aiding Ukrainian refugees.

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