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Editor’s Note: This article was written by former ADV author and editor-in-chief Iva Kopraleva.

Europeanization, most commonly defined as the domestic impact of the European Union (EU), is an important notion in the field of European Studies. The rationale behind this idea is that through a number of stimuli including financial aid, deeper economic integration and, most notably, the prospect of accession the EU can influence the internal development of a certain state and prompt reforms in different spheres. Understandably, most of the research in this area is focused on countries which are not yet members of the Union. It would be interesting, however, to dedicate some attention to a state already part of the EU because there the most important leverage the Union has at its disposal, namely the possibility for accession, is no longer available.

Bulgaria is an interesting case study in this regard because even though it became a member of the Union in 2007 its accession came with strings attached. To give a few examples, a Monitoring Mechanism was created in order to follow the country’s progress with the reforms that the Union required. Moreover, despite the fact that normally EU citizens can work in whichever EU country they choose, to this date Bulgarians do not have free access to the labour market of some EU member-states. Therefore it would be logical to ask: Why does the EU (and some EU member-states) impose these restraints before Bulgaria’s membership?

Well, the most obvious answer would be that the EU attempts to employ Europeanization strategies even after accession. This is, of course, true to a certain extent for all member-states since the binding legislation adopted by the EU institutions is followed by all of them. But one has to keep in mind that in the case of Bulgaria the problems are substantial and the needed reforms go a lot further than adopting the new EU laws. Moreover, there were certain controversies on whether or not Bulgaria has advanced enough with the reforms to form part of the Union. Therefore, since accession no longer played a role as a bargaining chip, the EU put in place the aforementioned measures and mechanisms in order to assure that Bulgaria continued with its internal reforms.

As it turns out, these measures did not completely achieve their goals. The most problematic spheres such as the justice system, healthcare, education, etc. remain below the standards of the EU. There have undoubtedly been some improvements but they did not comply with the high expectations. At the same time the Union loses more and more of its leverage when it comes to domestic change in Bulgaria. The Monitoring Mechanism is still in place but the Union can no longer impose sanctions through it. Moreover, the restrictions for Bulgarians to work freely in some EU countries will be lifted by the end of the year. One of the few mechanisms which remain is the freezing of the European funds from which Bulgaria benefits but this measure is extreme and moreover could arguably delay the reforms even further.

Therefore, we can conclude that Europeanization as a top-down approach is no longer effective in Bulgaria since the country is already a member-state and the EU does not have enough leverage to prompt internal reforms in this way. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the Union is powerless and incapable of influencing the domestic situation.

There is another force which can provoke the desired effects apart from Europeanization, namely a well-developed civil society which is willing and able to influence the political elites and further the internal reforms. In addition to trying to have a direct impact on the Bulgarian politics the EU can also focus its efforts in fostering this civil society and in this way rely on a bottom-up approach. In addition, in the second case the change will come as a result from the demands of the citizens which will arguably make it stable and non-superficial. 

Image source: investmentsbg.com