A climate of optimism? EU policy-making, political science and the democratization of Central and Eastern Europe (2000–2015)

Lise Esther Herman, James Dawson, Aurelia Ananda

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Democratic erosion in the EU’s Central and Eastern European (CEE) member states has confounded EU policy-makers. In this paper, we investigate the assumptions behind the climate of optimism about CEE democratization that prevailed in EU decision-making before and after the 5th and 6th enlargements, and the extent to which political science participated in this intellectual climate. Based on a qualitative analysis of EU decision-making in the early twenty-first century and a quantitative analysis of 500 randomly sampled papers published between 2000 and 2015, we find that both policy makers and the most influential research in political science shared a bias towards optimism structured by common assumptions: A procedural understanding of democracy, a rational institutionalist belief in the EU’s capacity to bring these procedures about with the use of incentives and the related assumption that sociocultural dimensions of democracy would eventually follow institutions. We argue that these common assumptions help to explain both the EU’s failure to pre-empt and respond proportionately to democratic erosion, and the failure of our discipline to check that optimism.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)(In-Press)
Number of pages23
JournalComparative European Politics
Early online date16 Sept 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 16 Sept 2023

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  • European Union
  • Political Science
  • Central and Eastern Europe
  • Democratization
  • Democratic backsliding
  • Enlargement

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)

Institute themes

  • Governance, Leadership and Trust
  • Equality and Inclusion
  • Social Movements and Contentious Politics


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