Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 06/2008

From a Recipient of Aid Towards an Independent Actor: The Impacts of EU Integration on Estonia's Civil Society

January 2002

Finnish Institute for International Affairs


In recent scholarly and political debates, civil society has often been considered one of the weakest, if not the weakest aspect of democracy in the Central and Eastern European countries (CEECs). Although the Eastern EU applicant states have been fairly successful in establishing democratic institutions and formal procedures, all of them suffer from political apathy and alienation of the citizens, low public trust in state authorities, and general dissatisfaction with the functioning of democracy – even though democracy is valued in principle. In the face of these problems, activation of a sphere of civic initiative and organisation is seen by many analysts as one important means for improving the quality of democracy. Support to the development of civil society has also been an increasingly important aspect of EU policy aimed at strengthening democracy in the Eastern candidate countries. In addition to supporting civic activity in general, the EU has in recent years started to pay attention to the involvement of civil society in the Eastern enlargement process. It has been underlined that in order to guarantee the legitimacy and effectiveness of integration, citizens and nongovernmental actors should play a stronger role in the candidate countries’ preparations for EU accession.

So far there is little research on the connections between the development of civil society and integration into the EU of the CEECs. This paper develops a theoretical framework for studying how integration into the EU shapes civil society in the Eastern applicant countries. It aims at conceptualising and assessing not only the EU policies aimed at supporting civic activity, but also the indirect and unintended implications of integration for civil society. In other words, I seek to uncover different mechanisms by which the overall process of integrating into the EU conditions and steers the development of civil society in the applicant countries. I argue that in order to account for the effects of integration, it is important to look at how EU policy interacts with domestic conditions and choices, and how EU norms become appropriated to the domestic context.

The paper emphasises that it is not sufficient to ask whether civil society can play a stronger role in integration, but we have to specify what is meant by a ‘stronger role’ and study what kind of civil society is promoted by integration. This will raise important normative questions concerning different models and functions of civil society. In particular, since EU integration is a state-led process, I will pay attention to the relation between civil society and the state as it is constructed in the context of integration.