What Criteria Should Moldova Meet for the EU Membership?

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Anton Șveț
The application for the status of a candidate for membership in the European Union has been submitted. What will happen next? Can Moldova seriously claim a positive result?
The military conflict between Russia and Ukraine has radically changed the geopolitical situation for the entire European (and not only) continent. One of its notable consequences was the filing by Kyiv of an official application for EU membership immediately after the start of fighting with Russian troops. The Office of the President of Ukraine saw a window of opportunity for fast-track“emotional” consideration of the membership request as a measure of moral and political support for the state faced with Russian military apparatus. Ukraine’s allies in the so-called Association Trio in Georgia and Moldova politically had no opportunity but to get involved into this process, even if they did not consider the current timing optimal. Chisinau was the last to submit the application – on March 3. The ceremony was attended by President Maia Sandu, Speaker of Parliament Igor Grosu and Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita. The Association Trio countries received reaction to the submission of applications at the summit of the European Union in Versailles on March 11-12. The EU Council has asked the European Commission to consider the requests of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova and to provide a competent opinion on whether it’s possible to grant them. Some competition and jealousy emerged within the “Trio” with references to the allegedly greatest fairness of Ukraine’s membership due to special circumstances. However, the leaders of individual EU member states have made it clear that there is no fast-track procedure for joining the community, and it will be, first of all, a scrupulous analysis of the applicant states’compliance with a certain set of criteria. After a while, the situation allows us to distract from the informational and propaganda impact of the very fact of filing an application, which does not mean its automatic approval, and questions of political expediency in the form of the so-called “demand of the moment” and impartially analyze Moldova’s compliance with the requirements for membership in the European Union. To date, the candidate countries for EU membership are Albania, North Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro and Turkey (the European Commission’s website also identifies Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo as “potential candidates” who were “promised the prospect of joining when they are ready”). The Turkish issue is of a special nature, since the country has been waiting for 35 years, but since 2017, as a reaction to the strengthening of the regime of Recep Erdogan’s personal power, negotiations have actually been frozen. Besides, Turkey hardly meets geographical criterion,which is important for joining the EU, for the candidate country must be a European state. For example, according to this criterion, full membership was denied to Israel and Morocco. Only 3% of Turkey’s territory is located on the European continent, the rest of the territory, including the capital, is in Asia. There are no problems with Moldova’s application in this – purely geographical – respect. At the same time, another requirement is the candidate’s obligation to observe the principles of freedom, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law. The so-called “Copenhagen Criteria” adopted in June 1993 at the meeting of the European Council in Copenhagen define this. They are stated as concisely as possible and are based on the EU Treaty: – political – stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, rule of law, human rights, respect and protection of minorities; – economic – a functional market economy and the capability to meet competition and market prices within the EU; – the ability of institutions to accept and implement the obligations arising from membership, including strict adherence to the goals of political, economic and monetary union. In December 1995, in Madrid, the European Council confirmed and somewhat specified the “Copenhagen criteria”– a requirement was formulated to include EU legal norms in the national legislation of the candidate country (the so-called “process of harmonizing the legislation” in Moldova has been going on since the conclusion of the Association Agreement in 2013) with the mandatory condition of administrative and judicial authorities’ability to comply with the harmonized legislation. By the way, this is where Brussels’ constant complaints against the justice and judicial authorities in Moldova stem from – there are reasoned doubts that legal norms largely copied from the legislation of the European Union are being implemented in practice. There is an important caveat in the criteria, always taken into account – namely, the EU capability to accept new members while maintaining the pace of integration. Probably, due to the limited territory and population of the republic (especially considering that about a million of our citizens already have Romanian citizenship), this criterion will not become the main sticking point in Moldova’s case. However, in general, the "Copenhagen criteria" are quite subjective and cannot be  subject to mathematic evaluation. The problem of our country is that seven years ago, after the "European success story" started, the then Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Thorbjorn Jagland, in his response to the unprecedentedly enhanced anti-democratic oligarchic regime of Vladimir Plahotniuc, dubbed Moldova a "captured state". Although a few months before that the republic was praised as a the Eastern Partnership frontrunner. Chisinau's relations with Brussels also failed during Igor Dodon's presidential term, especially after the socialist-led coalitions were created in Moldova's parliament. Now, under the unlimited rule of President Maia Sandu's confidants, such problems are scant. However, even today Moldova is occasionally a subject to criticism by the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, or the indictment verdicts from the European Court of Human Rights. Thus, Brussels' perception of the level of democracy, the rule of law and the protection of human rights in Moldova directly depends on the current power configuration in the country. If pro-European forces sharing liberal values are in power, the European Commission will show support and solidarity. However, if the political initiative is seized by conditional pro-Russian or geopolitically neutral traditionalists, contradictions will immediately arise. That is, achieving compliance with the political "Copenhagen criterion" will require at least two or three electoral cycles from the pro-Western majority. As a result, progress can be hampered at any moment simply by the political will of the voters. Or if power is taken not necessarily by Eurosceptics but those who for some reason will not find any common ground with Brussels. For example, the governments of Poland, with its traditional religious social structure and the primacy of local legislation over European legislation, and of Hungary, where Viktor Orban has been in power for many years and is friends with Vladimir Putin, are heavily criticized today in Brussels for inconsistency with the EU political values. Bulgaria or Romania systematically were subject to questions and even sanctions when they were solely ruled by the social democrats. In addition, the economy should function relatively well. Meanwhile, the Republic of Moldova is expected to face an economic downturn this year, the second time in three years. Furthermore, due to the trade, cooperation and infrastructure ties that have been traditional since the Soviet times (of course, now weakened due to the military operation in Ukraine, but not yet reset), Moldova's economy depends on Russian energy prices and conditions for exporting Moldovan agricultural products and labor resources to the Russian market. Consequently, Moldova can generate active economic growth only under the condition of a pragmatic foreign policy, and this is what the pro-Western political projects constantly have problems with. In this case, there will be a situation in which fulfilling political requirements provided for by the "Copenhagen criteria" will actually contradict the economic requirements. One way or another, to satisfy Moldova's application for EU membership, a primary decision on enlarging the union in the Balkans is needed. It's an extremely serious question how long it will take the EU to prepare for membership and align about six Balkan state entities, featuring a whole set of challenging domestic and international problems and the most complex relations among themselves. Of course, there is some progress, for example, in the form of Albania and Montenegro joining NATO or settling a long-standing dispute between Greece and now Northern Macedonia over the name of the latter. Recall, the first state from the Western Balkans – Croatia – joined the EU back in 2013, i.e. a pause of 10 years was required to make a decision on the next phase of enlargement. With such dynamics, it is fair to predict that the Balkan countries integration only will take more than one decade. This unavoidable fact delays the prospects of Moldova's EU membership as much as possible. Moreover, in the future Moldova will have to outflank its partners in the Association Trio to be the first among new, as of today officially not agreed, candidates for the EU membership. The solution of this task, requiring enormous efforts and a very rare set of circumstances for our policy in the long term, can be blocked at any time by the refusal of one or more EU members. Recall that the issue of admission of a country to the EU is not the competence of supranational structures of the European Union. The final decision is made by each country in its national capacity. The rich countries of the EU north and west are traditionally skeptical about receiving troublesome Southern and Eastern European states. The conflict in Transdniestria remains an additional and difficult to predict risk factor. The parties are still far from a settlement; there are no actual political negotiations. At the same time, Tiraspol has already expressed its opinion on Moldova’s integration into the EU – Transdniestria intends to become an anchor that will in every way prevent Moldova from joining the EU, or achieve independence. Chisinau in this sense risks facing an unpleasant dilemma. So, taking into account the listed problems and factors, Moldova’s membership in the European Union is still more about the so–called wishful thinking than about real practical policy.