Power Asymmetry Revisited: Reconciling
EU Foreign Policy Goals & Enlargement Conditionally in the Western Balkans

Uppsala Studies on Eastern Europe No. 110


By: Jessica Giandomenico
February 2015
Uppsala University
Distributed by Coronet Books
ISBN: 9789155487041
124 Pages
$52.50 Paper original


The EU is assumed to have a strong top-down transformative power over the states applying for membership. This leverage is based on a power asymmetry where the applicant states want to join the EU more than the EU wants to enlarge, and that the applicant states gain more than the member states from the enlargement.This thesis criticises the assumption of a strong top-down power over EU applicant states. There is growing evidence that this power asymmetry is not as strong as initially assumed. A historical institutionalist approach is used to explain how the power is weakened through the design of the conditionality and the management of the enlargement policy. The first study shows how the member states are locked up in a path dependent pattern where their capacity to act is limited. Lock-in effects narrow down the options to act for the EU member states, giving priority to political considerations over technical standards and thus limits its transformative power.

In addition to that the EU has demonstrated a strategic interest in the Western Balkans, further undermining the power asymmetry. The second study demonstrates how the EU has limited capacity to influence the implementation of the conditionality, leaving much room for interpretation to the domestic actors. The design of the EU conditionality, with its focus on formal structures and rules, is not adequate to address also the desired normative transformation of the applicant states. The EU can provoke formal changes, but layers of the old structures and habits remain beyond the reach of the EU’s transformative power. Together these two studies demonstrate that the EU’s assumed top-down control over applicant states has some built-in weaknesses both at the Brussels level and in the applicant states, and that those weaknesses affect the transformative power of the EU. The tendency to give priority to political considerations over strict conditionality, in combination with limited scope of the conditionality, demonstrate that the power asymmetry is not that asymmetric, and that the EU does not have the institutional capacity to be the normative power and change agent it strives to be.