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Copenhagen criteria: a model for reproducing policy success

Authors: Hannah Janzen, Greg Davis, and Marcel Brons

When it comes to public policy, one of the biggest challenges is learning from successes. How do we replicate a successful policy? To do so, one needs to account for different contexts and cultures.

Doing this is an exercise in positive public administration. Douglas et al propose that the study of public administration should not be viewed as ‘championing’ a single model. Instead, policies should be critically analyzed, and the positive patterns should be learned. We completely agree with that. By learning these positive patterns, countries can see what works for them and what has worked for other countries, and try to introduce these new changes for a more successful public governance.

A great example of successful policy transfer is the Copenhagen criteria. These are a set of criteria for prospective EU member states, to be met before a country is allowed into the EU. The criteria create a set of political, social and economic standards that the EU deems important for keeping democracy. For example, countries must protect human rights and minorities, and follow the rule of law (Hillion,2014). Schimmelfennig & Sedelmeier (2004) call the Copenhagen criteria a policy of conditionality. Eastern European countries are eager to join the EU - or afraid to be excluded from it - and therefore incentivized to meet the criteria. Thus, they are encouraged to establish a democracy that is up to Western European standards, but are given the freedom to do so on their own terms.

The policy of conditionality can be considered a success. It fulfils one of the meta-criteria for successful policy, as mentioned by Douglas et al.: meaningful public contribution. The policy adds value, in that it helped establish democracies in the 11 EU member states of Central and Eastern Europe. The democracies that have been implemented in Eastern Europe have, in many cases, provided economic and political stability, as well as individual freedoms. Freedom House considers 10 of them to be fully “free”(Freedom House, 2019). Slovakia has benefited tremendously from its democratic transition, as the common goal of becoming an EU member held the fragmented political parties together. Slovakia also benefited from establishing closer ties to Western nations, as reforms led to higher quality of life for citizens (Pop-Eleches, 2007). Despite taking on the fateful task of reproducing policy success, the policy of conditionality has successfully implemented democracy in Eastern Europe, thanks to the EU giving countries the freedom to do it their own way.

That said, the policy of conditionality doesn’t always work. Countries with little desire to join the EU are not susceptible to conditionality. Belarus has instead maintained close ties to Russia since its independence in 1991 (Žulys, 2015). Turkey is torn between a modernising pro-Western elite and a conservative, religious populace (Faucompret & Konings, 2008). In both countries, there is no broadly held desire to join the EU, while the possibility of exclusion from the EU isn’t much of a threat. As a result, Belarus and Turkey remain dictatorships.

Another meta-criterium for policy success in Douglas et al. is sustainability.4 In this case: does the policy of conditionality establish stable, durable democracies? Eastern European democracies are still very young, so it’s difficult to point out positive cases of sustainability. Some examples like Estonia and Latvia, pioneers in e-democracy, could be considered sustainable( Manguele, 2016). These governments have developed their own area of expertise, making them not only followers but also leaders in global democracy. However, sustainability is questionable in other countries. Poland’s PiS and Hungary’s Fidesz governments are corroding the rule of law in their respective countries, just 15 years after their EU accession. Hungary in particular has been tumbling down the Freedom House ranks since Orbán assumed office, even dipping into “partly free” territory in this year’s report. 5

Despite these reservations, the Eastern European members of the EU have made significant steps towards democracy. Taking into account Douglas et al’s meta-criteria, it is clear that the EU has successfully produced a set of standards to reproduce the benefits of democracy. The Copenhagen criteria and their voluntary nature are a good example for those seeking to recreate successful policy.

References Douglas, ‘t Hart, and Van Erp., Towards Positive Public Administration: A Manifesto


Douglas, ‘t Hart, Van Erp, Searching for successful governance: A Heuristic assessment tool


Faucompret, E., & Konings, J. (2008, July 9). Turkish Accession to the EU: Satisfying the Copenhagen Criteria.


Freedom House (2019). Freedom in the World Countries. Retrieved from: https://freedomhouse.org/report/countries-world-freedom-2019


Hillion, Christophe, The Copenhagen Criteria and Their Progeny (March 6, 2014). C. Hillion (ed), EU enlargement (Oxford, Hart Publishing, 2004). https://ssrn.com/abstract=2405368


Mangule, I. (2016). E-democracy in action: case studies from Estonia, Latvia and Finland. Retrieved from https://www.kogu.ee/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/E-democracy-in-Action_case-studies-from-Estonia-Latvia-Finland_2016.pdf


Pop-Eleches, G. (2007). Between Historical Legacies and the Promise of Western Integration: Democratic Conditionality after Communism. East European Politics and Societies, 21(1), 142–161. https://doi.org/10.1177/0888325406297126


Schimmelfennig, F., & Sedelmeier, U. (2004). Governance by conditionality: EU rule transfer to the candidate countries of central and eastern europe. Journal of European Public Policy, 11(4), 661-679. doi:10.1080/1350176042000248089


Žulys, A. (2015). Towards a Union State of Russia and Belarus. Retrieved from http://lfpr.lt/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/LFPR-15-16-Zulys.pdf

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This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No694266)