SciELO - Scientific Electronic Library Online

vol.24 special issuePopulist Discourse and the Remaking of the Political Opposition in VenezuelaParty Political Discourse on Foreign Policy in Brazil and Uruguay (2003-2014) author indexsubject indexarticles search
Home Pagealphabetic serial listing  

Services on Demand



Related links


Revista Uruguaya de Ciencia Política

Print version ISSN 0797-9789On-line version ISSN 1688-499X

Rev. Urug. Cienc. Polít. vol.24 no.spe Montevideo July 2015


Leveraging Tools: Integrating Discourse and Ideas into the Analysis of EU Enlargement of the Western Balkans

Aprovechando las herramientas: Integrar discurso e ideas en el análisis de la ampliación de los Balcanes Occidentales a la UE

Luke T. Hartman1*

Abstract: Recent efforts to develop Discursive Institutionalism’s (DI) analytical toolkit have produced useful, well-organized instruments that help researchers decode challenging empirical puzzles and synthesize vast amounts of empirical data into digestible kernels of explanatory insight. In this article, I demonstrate how two tools –Schmidt’s DI tables and the Carstensen and Schmidt’s ideational power triad─ can help us better understand the dynamics of institutional change as it relates to the European Integration in the Western Balkans.

Keywords: Discursive Institutionalism, Power/Ideas, European Union, Western Balkans

Resumen: Los recientes esfuerzos por desarrollar un conjunto de herramientas de análisis desde el Institucionalismo Discursivo (ID) han producido instrumentos útiles y bien organizados que ayudan a los investigadores a descifrar enigmas empíricos desafiantes y a sintetizar grandes cantidades de evidencia en piezas con potencial explicativo. En este artículo demuestro cómo dos herramientaslas tablas ID de Schmidt y la tríada de poder ideacional de Carstensen y Schmidt pueden ayudar a comprender mejor la dinámica del cambio institucional en lo que respecta a la integración europea de los Balcanes Occidentales.

Palabras claves: institucionalismo discursivo, poder/ideas, Unión Europea, Balcanes Occidentales

  1. Introduction

Political scientists continuously strive to find ways to better comprehend and explain the complex phenomena that animate our political and social world. The emergence of Discursive Institutionalism (DI) as a theoretical framework has provided scholars with analytical methods to describe what often can be the most subtle or nuanced operators of political behavior –ideas and discourse. While our intuition may lead us toward fruitful conclusions about how ideas and discourse function as a category of explanation within a given political context, we do not have to rely on instinct alone to detect the causal force that ideas and discourse can bring to bear. Recent efforts to develop DI’s analytical toolkit have produced useful, well-organized instruments that can help researchers decode challenging empirical puzzles.

In order to demonstrate their value, I will put these tools to the test by applying them to the analysis of European Integration in the Western Balkans. In particular, I will show how tables summarizing Schmidt’s (2014) DI analytical framework can be leveraged to illustrate institutional change, as well as how Schmidt & Carstensen’s (forthcoming) over, through, in triad, which defines relationships between power and ideas, can help explain political outcomes in the region.

Currently, the Western Balkan region is the central focus of the EU’s enlargement agenda.2 Naturally, this makes the study of the region at this time an excellent pursuit in terms of testing the validity of old theory on new cases. For scholars of enlargement, deciphering the factors that motivate a candidate state to either make an accession bid and align its policies with European norms or to resist such reform has long been a burning question. Milada Vachudova’s (2005) theory of leverage is one of the leading theories explaining enlargement in post-communist Europe. It describes how domestic political elites in candidate states are induced to reform through the EU’s use of passive and active leveraging. Vachudova contends that it was the presence or absence of strong illiberal opposition to democratic reform that determined how domestic political elites responded to EU strategies of active and passive leverage in post-communist candidate states eventually adopting European norms. The theory relies heavily on rational-choice calculus and on the use of material incentives to induce compliant behavior in candidate states.

Vachudova’s first work studied post-communist state of the 2004 enlargement. She has taken the lessons of her prior work and tried them on all the candidate and potential candidates of the Western Balkans. She finds that her theory still stands up despite the difficult initial conditions (namely war) that differentiate the Western Balkan cases from her previous set of cases that come from the post-communist enlargements of 2004/7. She argues that for elites in EU member states, geopolitical reasons dominate the reasoning for why enlargement goes forward despite the fact that these Balkan countries will provide very little economic payback for the Union. For national elites, however, economic payoffs are great, harmonizing with the acquis has ‘democratizing effects.’ The lack of better alternative makes domestic elites choose EU-compatible platforms because it is in their national interest (Vachudova 2014)

This article is not designed to refute Vachudova’s claims. They are, for the most part, accurate, yet overly simplified. Materialist logic is a factor that, in part, explains reform trajectories. Vachudova, however, largely ignores ideational interests such as national identity or the associational/reputational implications of membership. In the Western Balkan region, one cannot underestimate the power of ideational forces, especially those that are related to identity and collective memory. For this reason, I employ discursive institutionalism to make our observations more robust. To bolster the analysis of Western Balkan enlargement, I blend the materialist and ideational logics and demonstrate how they are used in tandem to explain outcomes. Discourse is the vehicle through which we can best understand which logic is at play at a given time. The operative logic is either revealed in the words that are used to persuade or justify an action, or it is revealed in the action itself when the action is at odds with a rhetorical platform. Examination of two cases: Croatia –the newest EU member, and Serbia/Kosovo– aspiring members;3 gives us a more complete picture of both the material and ideational dynamics that explain how and why European Union enlargement functions in this region, and provides insight that may be relevant for future enlargements.

In the tradition of DI, this work takes ideas seriously. Ideas contain the power to shape our normative and cognitive understanding of the world. Individuals share and propagate ideas, and intersubjectively construct worlds of meaning. Consciously and unconsciously, these worlds of meaning shape our beliefs and our practices, and build our identities. Discourse is a vector through which ideas travel. The speaker and the audience engage the intersubjective dialogue, molding value and meaning in their society. Political elites are in a unique position to structure the terms and content of this dialogue. Therefore, the ideas that elites propagate are central to the formation of meaning contexts. From these contexts, behaviors and practices flow which, over time, harden into new identities and new institutions.

Going forward, this article offers a glimpse of how the tools of DI can be meaningfully applied to complex political phenomena and shows the types of conclusions that derive from their application. This work is a sample of how I have used DI tables and the ideational power triad to synthesize vast swaths of empirical data to make important inferences about the motivations and impacts of institutional reform as related to European enlargement in the Western Balkans.4 I begin with DI tables, treating the Croatia and Serbia/Kosovo cases in turn. For each case, I offer an analytical summary and present empirical findings in three tables –Ideas in Integration Discourse, Discursive Interactions in Coordinative Sphere, and Discursive Interactions in Communicative Sphere. Then, I apply the ideational power triad (through, over, in) to the two cases for an analysis of power and ideas in Croatia and Serbia/Kosovo. I end with conclusions and a suggestion for pushing forward DI’s research agenda.

2. DI Tables

2.1 Overview

Elite discourse takes many shapes and serves to convey messages across numerous actors. Elite discourse contains substantive content, the meaning of which can be propagated through frames, narratives, collective memories, and discursive struggles. Leaders may attempt to appeal to their audience through either cognitive or normative argumentation. Likewise, depending on the target audience messages may be handled differently according to the interactions of the actors and if their purpose is to coordinate with the policy community or communicate with the public.

The tables that follow are adapted from Schmidt (2014). They help organize discourse among Croatian, Serbian, and Kosovar political elite as it pertains to European integration. In addition, they serve to help summarize and synthesize an enormous amount of empirical content.5 A brief summary of analytical conclusions is provided before presentation of the tables.

Although discursive institutionalism is a relative newcomer to the scene as an analytical framework, it is beginning to be more widely applied, and, in particular, for studies that concern Europe. Discursive institutionalism encompasses the first three institutionalisms (rational-choice, sociological, and historical), using them as background conditions, but goes further to examine how discourse, language and the communication of ideas play a casual role in explaining institutional reform. Discursive institutionalism takes ideas seriously, working to understand their content and to trace how interactive processes among various actors, audiences, and interlocutors impact institutional change. Ideas can be categorized by level of generality (policies, programs, and philosophies) and type of content (normative and cognitive). Discursive interactions are classified into two basic types: coordinative (discourse among policy actors) and communicative (discourse between political actors and the public) (Schmidt 2008: 305).

Policy level ideas are basic prescriptions for action to solve a given problem. Programmatic ideas define problems, consider the issues at stake, weigh norms and ideals, set goals, and select the methods or instruments to be applied to the problem. Philosophies are deeper sets of values, knowledge systems, beliefs, or worldviews that are shared by a segment of society. Policies and programs are thought of as foreground since they are openly debated in public, whereas philosophies that underpin policies and programs operate in the background (Schmidt 2008: 306). Agents draw upon both their background and foreground discursive abilities to drive institutional change –either through mastery of the ideational rules within given meaning context (background) or through external communication and persuasion (foreground) (Schmidt 2008: 314).

Policies, programs, and philosophies contain two basic forms of ideas: normative and cognitive. Cognitive ideas are ideas about what can be done and how it can be done. Normative ideas are ideas about what should be done. Cognitive ideas are roadmaps or technical practices that are involved in solving a given problem, while normative ideas convey why those roadmaps and technical practices comport with societal values and aspirations (Schmidt 2008: 307).

The following tables organize the various forms of ideas that define integration discourse in Croatia and Serbia/Kosovo.

2.1.2 Analytical Summary of Tables 1-3 – Croatia

Croatia entered the European Union on July 1, 2013 after a long and arduous journey. After the death of Franjo Tudjman, the successive regimes built a firm pro-EU platform with eventual membership being the ultimate foreign policy objective. The policy had high public support in the early stages, but then began to drop as time went on due to a combination of a changing rule structure, political and economic crises in the EU, bilateral vetoes, resistance to additional conditions (ICTY compliance), and a protracted negotiation. As support declined, it was not transformed into opposition; rather, it turned into indifference and apathy. For the most part, political elites did not see the need to change their messaging. The political, economic, and identity bearing/associational discursive frames served to sufficiently paint a legitimizing picture of its plan to push forward the integration agenda. Although there was an expressed policy to enhance communication, communication policy functioned to occasionally report information on EU progress or reinforce pro-EU messaging. Responding to citizen feedback or engaging debates regarding concerns raised through counter-narrative arguments did not figure into the government’s communication strategy.

Given the establishment of pro-EU consensus early on in the accession journey, political elites did not necessarily need to instrumentalize narrative discourse in order to gain favor for measures that would lead to radical institutional change.6 One notable exception, however, is that elites did try to package the meaning of European Union membership in a way that is satisfying with respect to the identity-bearing associational sensibilities of nationalist leaning parties. Surprisingly, this effort has seemed to achieve the desired effect. Although the typical argument from nationalist groups is that the EU is sovereignty-threatening, in the case of Croatia, EU accession is framed as sovereignty-confirming. In addition to joining NATO, European Union membership positions Croatia to be among a group of like-minded allies that will safeguard its national interests if they come under threat. This aids Croatia to act as a well-functioning and independent state. (Jovic 2011: 40) Moreover, declarations of independence can appear as symbolic in nature even if they are supported by international recognition. If there was any doubt as to the legitimacy of Croatia’s independent statehood, the process of being vetted by and accepted as a member of the EU is thought to be the final word on the matter. The EU’s endorsement vindicates the war effort. It firmly plants in the minds of nationalists the idea that the conflict was a rightful war of independence, soldiers nobly defended their homeland, and the outcome was not only the desired one, but more importantly, it was just. Political elites cleverly manipulated the logic of the nationalist narrative by inserting the EU as the definitive arbiter of national sovereignty in order for this population to arrive at the conclusion above. They may have been too marginal a force to fully derail the integration efforts of the elite, yet the elite saw the benefit of utilizing the EU to recast nationalist discourse in a way that significantly disarmed the elite’s greatest opposition.

With the opposition in check and the majority of the population languishing in indifference, elites could quite easily march forward toward Croatia’s eventual EU membership. The harmonization of laws with the acquis has produced observable improvement in the quality of democratic political institutions. While this can be construed as a positive development, political elites will be quick to point to this as further justification that the accession process was best left in their hands and that citizens should blindly trust that EU membership is the best option for Croatia, a fact they will soon realize as they ‘learn through experience’ all the benefits membership entails.


Political elites, both elected officials and civil servants, occupy an important position within the realm of communicative and coordinative discursive interactions, but they are not the only actors whose ideas have a bearing on institutional change. We can define broader categories of discursive actors to include epistemic communities, discourse or advocacy coalitions, and knowledge regimes. Epistemic communities are loosely connected individuals who share common ideas about the cognitive and normative aims of a given policy venture and have access to instruments of change (Haas 1992). Advocacy coalitions are more tightly united around one given issue in a specific policy context. Discourse coalitions are similar to advocacy coalitions where actors share a social construct and communicate a similar story about a given problem, but discourse coalitions have broader reach across space and time than advocacy coalitions (Hajer 1993: 45-47). Knowledge regimes are sets of actors that produce and disseminate ideas that affect how policy-making is organized and operates. These actors produce data, research, theories and recommendations, which are considered in the course of crafting of public policies (Campbell & Pedersen 2008: 3).

The following table organizes the various actors that define integration discourse within the coordinative sphere in Croatia.

The more traditional avenues of top-down political communication are represented below as they related to Croatia’s integration journey. Given the unique multi-level nature of the European polity, national elites, though propagating top-down ideas, stand somewhere in the middle of the communication channel. On one hand, they filter messages down from Brussels. On the other hand, they are mindful that when they deliver messages to the national public, the ears of the European elite are paying close attention. The media is used as a convenient vehicle for communicating with both audiences.

The following table organizes the various actors that define integration discourse within the communicative sphere in Croatia.

2.2 Serbia/Kosovo

We can apply the same organizational scheme to another case of interest: Serbia/Kosovo. The following table organizes the various forms of ideas that define integration discourse in Serbia/Kosovo.

2.2.2 Analytical Summary of Tables 4-6 – Serbia/Kosovo

Serbia’s EU accession bid is more fraught than that of Croatia. The formal conditioning of the process as it relates to the Kosovo issue explains the speed of progress in that it creates a viable nationalist opposition to the integrationist agenda. The existence of the nationalist opposition brings the use of discourse into play. Nevertheless, political consensus has reigned since 2008 and nationalist groups that use anti-EU messages are becoming increasingly marginal. Instead, two separate hegemonic ideas reign –join the EU and keep Kosovo. These ideas are not expressed as being in competition with one another. Similar to Croatia, political elites do a very poor job of communicating its EU-related activity to the public, and yet the possibility that harmonization with the acquis will build durable democratic institutions is quite strong. The further Serbia progresses down the road toward the EU, the more the issue of determining Kosovo’s status will press on the minds of political leaders.

As the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue continues, the EU will have the opportunity to serve as a mediator of peace and reconciliation and facilitate resolution to this frozen conflict. Thus far, the carrot of membership has worked as an incentive to find diplomatic solutions and compromise. This may change as the EU continues to evolve and if the EU forces the two parties to determine a status settlement, which will push Serbia finally attaining membership to an unknown date, well in the future. Although the EU has helped forge historic agreements, one could contest that it has unlimited power to actively lever Serbia to induce reform. Moreover, willingness to agree to reconciliation plans in order to progress on the EU path might be indication that the realities of material life in Serbia/Kosovo are so dire that they are willing to reform at any cost, even if doing so could lead to the loss of an important source of national identification.

No doubt, the EU mediated talks are extremely important first steps.7 Yet, there remains a vast chasm between the Serbs and Albanians when it comes to meaningful reconciliation. The EU has heretofore used the membership prospect as an effective tool to actively lever the government of Serbia to pursue a path of reform based upon terms set for it by the EU. With the opening of the accession negotiation beginning in January 2014, it seems that progress will continue. As of mid-2015, the pre-screening of all chapters of the acquis is complete. Serbia is waiting on word for the EU to open chapters and begin the negotiation in earnest. When it does, there will be bumps in the road and difficulties closing chapters. The lion share of these difficulties will be technocratic or capacity related. Whether or not Serbia will become a member rests on how Chapter 35 on Kosovo is handled. For now, the status question is being pushed as far into the future as possible due to the delicate nature of the political situation.8 Until the EU truly forces the status question, political elites will continue to provide its public with a dual discourse of becoming an EU member state and retaining Kosovo.

As it stands, it is unclear which side’s bargaining strategy is creating a better illusion. By proceeding with Serbia’s accession with Kosovo being treated under UN resolution 1244 (status neutral), the EU is luring Serbia to continue to advance toward membership while holding the belief that they will never have to sacrifice her ‘southern province.’ According to this strategy, the EU hopes that by keeping that belief alive, Serbia will time and time again return to the negotiating table and eventually surrender to the reality of Kosovo’s independence while simultaneously building durable democratic institutions through adherence to the accession criteria prescribed by the aquis. Serbia, on the other hand, would like show that it is a willing reformer; that it is open to small, incremental changes. Behind this strategy is the idea that they can advance so far along EU path without having to recognize Kosovo that the EU will either have to let them in or force the issue before it is too late. The problem is that both sides are probably delusional or, at best, cannot foresee their own endgame or that of the other side. The EU does not want another Cyprus and Serbia does not want to lose Kosovo. If Serbia is forced to choose between Europe or Kosovo, at this moment in time, it is hard to envision the political elite class doing anything but walking away from Europe. The symbolic value of what Kosovo means to national identity far outweighs the potential political or economic benefits of membership. For the time being, however, the Serbs are not being forced to choose between the two hegemonic ideas. The dream of both Europe and Kosovo (I Kosova i Evropa) remains alive, and Kosovo’s final status remains in limbo until further notice.

The following table organizes the various actors that define integration discourse within the coordinative sphere in Serbia/Kosovo.

The following table organizes the various actors that define integration discourse within the communicative sphere in Serbia/Kosovo.

3. Ideational Power Triad

In general, the discursive institutionalist analytic framework can be a useful to approach how to explain political change. One criticism that has been leveled is that it inadequately accounts for relations of power in its analysis. Carstensen and Schmidt (forthcoming) respond to this criticism by introducing a framework that describes the relationship between power and ideas.

Power is expressed in three ways, through ideas, over ideas and in ideas. Power through ideas is the ability of actors to persuade others to think and do using ideational elements. Power over ideas is actors’ ability to control the meaning of ideas. Power in ideas is the authority of certain ideas over others. Power in ideas derives authority from background ideational conditions such as institutional set-ups, knowledge systems, or historically constructed forms of meaning (Carstensen & Schmidt forthcoming: 3-5). These forms of power may interact. Actors may utilize the tactics of power through ideas to establish power over ideas and later consolidate power in ideas. Incorporating an analysis of power in ideas allows us to understand how political actors express and propagate their interests, and how those interests become formal policies, which can perpetuate or alter an institutional landscape.

This work finds that elites’ ability to express power through ideas and over ideas can transform power in ideas for the cases of Croatia and Serbia/Kosovo. Like Vachudova’s (2005) theory of leverage, the journey to consolidate power in ideas is an iterated game. Initially, the instrumentalization of discourse is a persuasion tactic to win power over ideas. This is the period when ideas are most dynamic and elites can pit competing ideas against one another. As time goes by, the number of competing ideas begins to decrease if a critical mass of political elites effectively controls power over a dominant idea and is able to reinforce it. Eventually, without strong alternative ideas, the dominant idea becomes hegemonic and a stable consensus is set in place.

In the former Yugoslavia, the idea of joining the EU became powerful after the fall of Tudjman in Croatia and Milosevic in Serbia. Part of the power of the idea of the EU is derived from the corrupt and moribund alternative, the idea of ethno-nationalist states, which typified the preceding decade. With this backdrop, it was easy for elites to exploit the power of the EU idea to gain political office and establish consensus. This happens in Croatia earlier than it does in Serbia, yet in both cases the EU idea has been consolidated.

In Croatia, there was not much challenge to the notion of membership as a destination, but determining the meaning of why it should aspire to join was open to contestation. Particularly operative was the manner in which its incorporation into the new polity would influence the construction of its identity. The wars of the 1990s demonstrated the most violent and radical expression of the politicization of identity in the region. Post-war identity discourse faced the dual-problematic of, on one hand, de-emphasizing identity, and on the other, finding the tools to construct new identities in an emergent polity. Croatia’s bid to become a member state of the EU, and the accompanying discourse, played an integral, albeit contested, role in addressing the post-war identity problematic.

Given the extraordinary amount of media coverage and the prominence of the 1990s wars on the international stage, it was incumbent upon the political elite class to restore the detrimental reputational effects that these conflicts had on Croatia’s international image. Political elites needed to formulate ways to confront the country’s ‘troubled past’ and rectify its ‘war-torn’ and ‘savage’ image.

Croatian political elites worked to confront the ‘troubled past,’ was through a program of promoting identity convergence with European norms and social values. (Subotic 2011: 310) By linking aspects of Croatian state identity to the process of Europeanization (through EU membership) and de-linking it from memories of war, elites had found an appealing way to frame the difficult costs of the accession process as part of a project of reasserting its belonging to Europe, and more importantly establishing its uniqueness from the other states of the region in order to ‘de-Balkanize.’ (Subotic 2011: 320) More specifically, post-war identity discourse did not only attempt to sever Croatia from the Balkans, but it aimed to promote the idea that Croatia is much more comfortably labeled Central European (like Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic) or Mediterranean (like Italy, Spain, or Portugal) (Ashbrook 2010: 29). In this sense, there are multiple layers of the belonging or returning narrative, although the Balkan escape narrative appears more powerful than that of returning or belonging to Europe. The story about belonging simply affords the elite a convenient vehicle to enact the escape.

Despite facing some unique factors –post-conflict, Copenhagen-plus, post-big bang, post-Constitutional crisis, post-Eurozone─ in the end, Croatia’s candidacy was quite typical. It was an elite-driven process with a pre-destined outcome. The EU may have passively levered Croatia into its gravitational field, yet as it was considered the ‘only game in town,’ no viable oppositional force or idea could hinder momentum in the EU direction. The sense of inevitability tempered citizen’s ambivalence toward the EU. With a growing democratic deficit, a historical orientation toward Europe, a flagging economy, and distrust of corrupt political leaders, Croatia fits right in with the current realities of ‘Europe’ and should feel naturally at home. Although this is not the ideal place to be, it is deemed significantly preferable to being ‘Balkan.’ The ‘belonging’ or ‘return’ narrative about what the EU means is most potently employed as a cloak for the underlying desire to ‘escape’ the Balkans at any cost. The power that motivates and best explains political behavior is found in this idea. The pro-EU consensus can thus be read as an anti-‘Balkan’ consensus, which is why, given the challenges Croatia faced on the route to the EU, there was just enough public support to confirm membership through the referendum and finalize the escape.

In Serbia, in addition to the EU, the primary motivating political idea is Kosovo. Elites maintain their power over ideas by framing the EU and Kosovo ideas as not in direct competition with one another. Rather, they are two hegemonic ideas that are projected by elites as equally attainable and equally desirable. There is debate, however, over their comparable value.

As it stands now, the ideas do not need to compete with one another. As the integration process advances, the stable consensus of these two ideas will break down and be put in flux. Elites will be forced to again use the tools of discourse to express power through ideas and convince the public of the relative merits of the EU idea vs. the Kosovo idea. It is hard to imagine this debate as being anything but animated. By not forcing any immediate concessions, EU elites hope to maintain power over the EU idea and slowly habituate Serbs to the idea through experience. If successful, it will neutralize the power of the Kosovo idea, rendering any debate moot.9

The change of heart of president Tomislav Nikolic is the most surprising and curious aspect of Serbian elite discourse. It is difficult to explain how and why this once staunch nationalist became an ardent supporter of Serbia’s path to EU membership. His change of heart propelled him to the presidency, defeating long-time EU proponent Boris Tadic in the 2012 election. During his political career, Nikolic has advocated several controversial positions including calls for a Greater Serbia (reclaiming territories in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro), the incorporation of Serbia into a Belarus-Russia super-state, and the promotion of anti-western messages challenging the so-called hegemony of the United States and European Union (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty 2007). In 2008, when he split from the Radical Party, he began to promote a pro-EU discourse, baffling close observers of Serbian politics. It is perhaps at this juncture that the idea of “both Europe and Kosovo” becomes the dominant idea of Serbia politics and EU consensus is established.

Early adopters of a pro-EU stance like Boris Tadic proved that they could achieve electoral success through the propagation of the EU idea, persuading the public of its merits. In time, this leads to control over the idea as the government becomes increasingly comprised of members who favor an integrationist stance. Nikolic’s change of heart could be explained as a recognition of the power in the EU idea. By 2008, it has become untenable to try to mount a challenge to the idea because the tools of persuasion and control over the idea are no longer useful.

While this may help explain Nikolic’s change of heart, it does not help us fully understand his victory in the 2012 election. Tadic is a clear and consistent promoter of the “both Europe and Kosovo” idea throughout the time period in question, which includes his presidency. It is critical then, to split the “both Europe and Kosovo” idea into two separate ideas and examine the extent to which the candidates are loyal to each of those ideas uniquely through their actions.

While Tadic could claim credit for the signing of the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) and firmly planting Serbia on the EU path, Kosovo declared its independence and war tribunal indictee, Ratko Mladic, was handed over to the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) during his term. Tadic vehemently opposed Kosovo’s independence and relations between the Serbian and Albania communities have been broken for decades. Nevertheless, independence came under his watch. Moreover, Mladic’s extradition was viewed in conservative circles as an act of bowing to EU pressure. In this sense, although Tadic’s discourse demonstrates support for territorial integrity, these two events work to discredit his commitment to the Kosovo idea and show a skewing of favor toward the Europe idea among the Serbian public.

Nikolic, on the other hand, does not have as much of a record to stand on with respect to the Europe idea, but he has an immense amount of credibility for being a strong defender of the Serbian nation, culture and traditions and is a viewed as a more qualified guardian of the Kosovo idea. In the end, the election is close. Tadic beats Nikolic in the first round 25.31 percent to 25.05 percent, respectively. In the runoff, however, Nikolic comes out on top earning 49.54 percent of the vote to Tadic’s 47.31 percent. This suggests that the Serbian public felt that, perhaps based on a perception that Tadic’s actions were skewing him toward the Europe idea, Nikolic would be a better defender of both the Europe and Kosovo ideas.

The notion that electoral success can be understood as a composite score based on your allegiance to both the Europe and Kosovo ideas also explains Ivica Dacic’s rise to the post of Prime Minister. Dacic’s nationalist pedigree and reformed view of Europe has proved to be a winning combination. In essence, with the elections of Nikolic, Dacic, and then Vucic in 2014, we are not witnessing a challenge to the hegemony of the ideas of Kosovo or Europe. The power in these ideas is as potent as ever. The difference is that, on paper, those with control over these ideas appear less likely to make middle ground policy decisions, which will stall the enlargement process. Indeed, however, these individuals have made strides to move the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue and the accession negotiations forward. The true test of the power of the two ideas will come when concessions become much more onerous and a final status solution must be achieved.

Recalling Vachudova, she argues that EU integration in the Western Balkans is about the pursuit and fulfillment of material objectives. DI helps us go beyond this observation to illustrate that the ideas that are embedded in discourse give meaning to material interests and shape political institutions. If institutions are thought of as “ideas frozen in time,” institutional reform requires a concerted effort to challenge status quo ideas (Risse 2011: 592-3). The effort consists of first persuading the public of the merits of the ideas. Power through ideas leads to power over ideas. In time, power over ideas becomes power in ideas, which become institutionalized and “frozen in time.” The official narrative that has been put forth by political elites in both Croatia and Serbia to persuade the public as to the merits of EU integration, convince the public that the EU will offer salvation and that it is worthwhile to adhere to their stringent conditions can be characterized along three major themes. These themes represent tactics through which elites express the power of ideas as they work to build support to consolidate these ideas as stable institutions.

In general, competing narratives offer an alternative idea to the dominant idea that political elites disseminate in their official discourse. These ideas and the actors that propagate them, however, are not always opposed to the overarching idea of EU accession. It is more a matter actors having conflicting opinions on the necessary measures to take in order to turn the EU idea into reality. For instance, in order to make the technocratic changes required to satisfy the acquis, the government will look to the expertise of members of civil society. These actors, who are members of epistemic communities and knowledge regimes, offer recommendation within their sector of expertise. Members of these communities may agree with the objective of the EU condition within their sector, yet lambast the government for complying because compliance represents the minimum response to a problem for which reform should go much deeper. Actors such as these, although presenting a discourse critical of the official discourse, function to reinforce power in the dominant idea rather than challenge it.

4. Conclusion

The tools of DI help us make meaning of highly complicated political and social phenomena. This is demonstrated through their application to the analysis of Western Balkan enlargement of the European Union. This scenario has multiple moving parts, which feature post-socialist, post-conflict transition states searching for redefinition by joining a European Union that is facing an economic crisis, potentially on the verge of collapse, or at best, searching for an opportunity for redefinition itself. DI’s tools allow us to draw important inferences and conclusions on multifaceted nuanced social puzzles. They can help us demystify nebulous concepts such as identity, and take them from the realm of the abstract into the realm of the concrete, showing their impact on political behaviors and outcomes.

In Croatia, we used DI tools to find that despite voices of nationalist opposition to EU integration, the political elite saw the benefit of utilizing the idea of the EU as sovereignty-confirming (vs. sovereignty-threatening) to recast nationalist discourse in a way that significantly disarmed the elite’s greatest opposition. With the opposition in check and the majority of the population languishing in indifference, elites had no problem advancing Croatia’s bid for EU membership. Additionally, neutralizing the power of oppositional nationalist ideas reinforced the power in the EU idea, which explains the attainment of EU membership as an empirical outcome.

In Serbia/Kosovo, our DI tools help us clearly identify the main ideational conflict related to EU membership –the Kosovo status question. For Serbia, this is framed as being forced to choose between Europe and Kosovo. Political elites promise to deliver both. DI tools, particularly the ideational power triad, push us to go beyond the conventional thinking that the Kosovo status issue is simply a political one or that EU membership is a political or economic choice. When we consider these to be a question of competing ideas, we then have an easier time explaining the rhetorical platform of the Serbia political elite as well as Serbia’s rate of progress toward EU membership and a status solution on Kosovo.

Like any mode of inquiry, there is always room for refinement and innovation. My challenge for DI’s research program is to think critically about the ideational power triad, looking particularly at the concept of power in ideas, and ask what leads to the breakdown of a hegemonic idea? At what point are ideas contestable again, bringing power through and over ideas back into play? One of DI’s greatest strengths is its dynamism. By addressing these questions, we will avert the trap of analytic stasis, and move DI’s research agenda forward in fruitful directions.


Ashbrook, John A. (2010) ‘Croatia, euroskepticism, and the identity politics of EU enlargement’, Problems of Post-Communism, 57(3): 23-39.

Carstensen, Martin B. & Schmidt, Vivien A. forthcoming, ‘Power through, over and in ideas: conceptualizing ideational power in discursive institutionalism’, Journal of European Public Policy.

Campbell, John L. & Pedersen, Ove K. (2008) ‘Knowledge regimes and comparative political economy’, working paper no. 48, International Center for Business and Politics, Copenhagen Business School, Copenhagen.

Haas, Peter M. (1992) ‘Introduction: epistemic communities and international policy coordination’, International Organizations, 46 (1): 1-35.

Hajer, Maarten A. (1993) ‘Discourse coalitions and the institutionalization of practice: the case of acid rain in britain’, in Frank Fisher & John Forester (Eds.) The argumentative turn in policy analysis and planning, Durham: Duke University Press.

Hartman, Luke T. (2015) Identity, discourse, and the impact of EU conditionality in the western Balkans. Ph.D. dissertation, Boston University.

Jovic, Dejan (2011) ‘Turning nationalists into EU supporters: the case of croatia’, in Jacques Rupnik (ed.) The western balkans and the EU: the hour of europe’, Institute for Security Studies European Union, Paris.

Novotna Tereza (2008) ‘The transplantation and adaptation types of political integration: Examples of the German unification in parallel with the eastern enlargement of the EU,’ Perspectives: The Central European Review of International Affairs, 16 (2): 77-102.

Novotna Tereza (2015) forthcoming, How Germany unified and the EU enlarged: Negotiating the accession through transplantation and adaptation. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Risse, Thomas (2011) ‘Ideas, discourse, power and the end of the Cold War: 20 years on’, International Politics, 48: 591-606.

Schmidt, Vivien A. (2008) ‘Discursive institutionalism: the explanatory power of ideas and discourse’, Annual Review of Political Science, 11: 303-26.

Schmidt, Vivien A. (2014) ‘Speaking to the markets or to the people? A discursive institutionalist analysis of the EU’s sovereign debt crisis’, The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 16: 188-209.

Radio Free Europe/Radio LibertySerbian parliament speaker calls for closer Russia ties’ 2007, 9 May,

Subotic, Jelena (2011) ‘Europe is a state of mind: identity and europeanization in the Balkans’, International Studies Quarterly, 55: 309-30.

Vachudova, Milada A. (2005) Europe undivided: democracy, leverage, & integration after communism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Vachudova, Milada A. (2014) ‘EU leverage and national interests in the Balkans: the puzzles of enlargement ten years on’, JCMS, 52(1): 122-38.

1* Ph.D., Boston University

2 The European Union considers Croatia, Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Albania to be the countries that make up theWestern Balkans.”

3 This article derives from empirical research included my Ph.D. dissertationIdentity, Discourse, and the Impact of EU Conditionality in the Western Balkans” (2015). Although Croatia has subsequently become a member state of the EU, the research only examined the pre-accession period in order to maintain comparative similarity with the Serbia/Kosovo case. Moreover, although Serbia and Kosovo could be treated separately, I have chosen to treat them in tandem because their European destinies are highly interdependent. For more information on case selection, please refer to Hartman 2015.

4 All the tables in this article are adapted from empirical research included my Ph.D. dissertation The tables distill and organize the findings of an original survey of 50 in-depth interviews with regional experts, and a content analysis of over four thousand statements made by Croatian and Serbian political elites, covered in top newspapers between 2006-2012. For further details and discussion of methodology, please refer to Hartman 2015.

5 See also Schmidt (2008), Schmidt (2014), Haas (1992), Hajer (1993) or Campbell and Pedersen (2008) for more detailed reading of some of the terminology contained within the tables.

6 For further reading on related arguments see Novotna (2008) and Novotna 2015.

7 The impact of various EU institutions and EU member states is for the most part the same with respect to Serbias membership bid and the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue. Moreover, when Frederica Mogherini replaced Catherine Ashton as the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the messaging from both sides remained the same. Serbia tends to express a willingness to work with most EU institutions and actors. One notable exception, however, is the EUs Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX). Serbia approaches EULEX with hostility in the view that EULEXs presence in Kosovo is evidence that the EUs posture is not status neutral as it relates to a solution.

8 Chapter 35 of accession treaty is normally reserved to treatOther Issues.’ That is, any miscellaneous issue or issue that is specific to the candidate country in question.

9 It is worth noting that the Croatian and Serbian cases are not perfectly analogous. The Kosovo question necessarily colors the calculation of elite behavior vis-à-vis Europe in Serbia. If we take the counterfactual proposition that, in the aftermath of the dissolution of Yugoslavia, Croatia was pressured to concede areas of the self-proclaimed Republic of Serbian Krajina, then would we still witness hegemony of the Europe idea during the early push toward integration? Counterfactuals may mislead us, but we should also not be misled by assuming the exact symmetry between these cases.


Creative Commons License All the contents of this journal, except where otherwise noted, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License