Is the European Commission a credible guardian of the values? A revisionist account of the Copenhagen political criteria during the Big Bang enlargement

Ronald Janse*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


During the Big Bang enlargement (1997–2004) the European Commission was responsible for preparing 10 countries from Central and Eastern Europe for membership of the European Union. To achieve this aim, the Commission had to explain the meaning of the Copenhagen political criteria, which required candidate countries to achieve “stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities.” Academic analysis has delivered a negative verdict on whether the Commission succeeded in explaining to candidates what the political criteria meant. This received wisdom undermines the credibility of the Commission’s current efforts to safeguard the values vis-à-vis Poland and Hungary. But was the Commission’s work really so deficient? This article looks back at the Commission’s view on the meaning of the Copenhagen political criteria during the preaccession period. It concludes that while the Commission’s work was far from flawless, it articulated a clear vision on the core meaning of the political accession criteria, and strongly criticized policies which have become the hallmark of Poland’s and Hungary’s current illiberal governments. The current policies of Hungary and Poland can and should be assessed in terms of the commitments made to the Copenhagen political criteria during pre-accession.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)43-65
Number of pages23
JournalInternational Journal of Constitutional Law
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2019


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