The imminent constitutional crises spreading through Hungary, Romania, and Poland shook both political and academic arena and called into question the EU’s ability to safeguard its fundamental values and prevent the democratic backsliding of member states after the accession conditionality loses force. This paper analysis the EU’s democratizing influence and the political and legal measures chosen by different actors and EU institutions to exert it. So far, the theory has tended to generate hypotheses arguing that actors formulate their positions on the application of protection mechanisms based on their national interests (states), left–right ideological affinities (parties in the European Parliament), and commitment to the European integration project (European Commission and Court of Justice). Nevertheless, the available empirical findings do not support the general validity of these hypotheses. Fundamental values must be understood as legal norms embedded in the processes of EU enlargement and in interactions among actors within the EU. The EU’s inability to respond effectively to the weakening of these values in certain countries after accession is not so much the result of their vague definition in the founding treaties, as by their split and incidental characterisations and an ambiguity as to who is authorised to interpret them.
The paper first categorises different forms of the EU’s influence on democratizing processes in member countries employed since Iberian states enlargement through the post-communist states accession. The aim is to distinguish which measures are theoretically applicable by which actors in different stages of EU’s development (i.e. pre-accession, accession conditionality, post-accession era). Paper then proceeds with an analysis whether the actors were actually willing to employ these mechanisms in the constitutional and democratic crises in Hungary, Romania, Poland, as well as in Austria back in early 2000s. Last part concludes with the discussion of the odds that the sanctions under the Article 7 will be implemented compared to other, soft-policy, options.