Macron’s proposal to set up a new union for the countries that follow the path of European integration is gaining popularity. “Old Europe” would benefit in two ways: this option would help to better adapt the potential members, like Ukraine and Moldova, to European standards, and at the same time shelve the awkward issue of their direct admission to the EU
The day before, the European Commission opened discussions on granting the candidate status (a necessary condition for starting accession talks with the European Union) to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. By Friday, the EU’s highest executive body should come to a decision and provide its recommendations. The final “for” or “against” is to be voiced at a summit of EU heads of state and government on June 23-24.
Although little time is left, Brussels is maintaining the suspense, while respectable European offices almost equally voice the words of support and unpleasant skepticism for the three Eastern European capitals. However, based on fresh insider reports, some curious trends can be highlighted. Thus, among the former Association Trio members, two favorites stand out – Ukraine and Moldova, while Georgia seems to be losing chances for a positive result. This has already prompted an emotional rant from Tbilisi that claimed it is far more willing to “defend its candidate status” than its former Trio partners.
However, Kyiv and Chisinau also have no time to relax. Much will depend on the conclusion of the European Commission. Even if the firm refusal doesn’t follow, the wording may vary significantly. In the past, the EC always demonstrated a flexible approach – in some cases it could recommend starting accession negotiations immediately (Iceland), in others – to give candidate status without conditions (Serbia), and in a third case – to provide a “candidate” but with a “homework” (Montenegro). A less inspiring example is that of Bosnia and Herzegovina that did not receive a positive decision but only an extended list of requirements to achieve EU membership criteria.
The case of Moldova has certainly presented Brussels with a more difficult dilemma. To completely refuse the applicants in the membership prospects amid the war-related emotional context is unacceptable, but there are no objective reasons to force the European integration process either. The latter is exactly what European bureaucrats are attempting to do now, but a number of Western European countries oppose it. Recently, Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi stated that almost all major EU countries are against the candidacy of Ukraine (and thus, Moldova). Based on this position, the European Commission can show creativity and invent an option like a “candidate to become a candidate” status (that is, it will draw up a list of requirements as was in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina).
Let’s assume that the European Commission’s decision will be more or less positive. But this is merely a recommendation (although many EU members will rely on it), and the last word is with the Brussels summit where the consent of all 27 countries of the Union is required. As we already know, there are at least several countries that do not agree to grant the candidate status to the Association Trio countries, including the Netherlands and Denmark. Whether it will be possible to change their position is a big question and one of the summit intrigues.
Meanwhile, the idea of some kind of new association, a kind of transit zone before joining the European Union, is attracting more and more supporters. It was first presented by Emmanuel Macron on May 9, and in general it was perceived unambiguously, as an alternative to EU accession. Although the French Foreign Ministry later rejected this interpretation, noting that “the European political community is designed to enhance support for candidates in all areas”, Kyiv’s reaction was quite illustrative.
However, despite Ukraine’s resistance to this initiative, it appears that no one is going to abandon it. It is no coincidence that the other day the French Foreign Minister mentioned it at a meeting with his Romanian counterpart Bogdan Aurescu.
What can the European Political Community be? In simple terms it’s an anteroom with an indefinite period of stay for those who are waiting to be interviewed for admission to the European Union. They veil this by beautiful wordings like “a new format of cooperation, uniting democratic countries committed to EU values”, “an addition to structure relations with these (candidate) countries in politics, energy, investments,” and so on.
Charles Michel, President of the European Council, gave a bit more specifics. According to him, the new format could provide for the right of deliberative vote in the EU Council of Ministers, gradual integration into the daily activities of the Union in certain sectors (such as energy), access to European funding, etc.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa and Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer have already expressed their support for the idea of a “parallel EU”. The latter quite frankly called it a “preparation zone” where potential members would adapt to European standards. At the same time, in his opinion, quick and full accession to the EU “cannot be a topical issue in any case”, and the same requirements should be applied to the current applicants as to the applicant countries from the Western Balkans.
One can observe how the wind of sentiment among the European elites is changing. Emotions are giving way to healthy pragmatism, especially in those countries that actually pay for the so-called European banquet. They are trying to “put out” quickly and actively the topic of Euro-integration of the three post-Soviet countries, thus bringing back old habits: accession to the EU is a matter of decades and deep structural reforms; there are countries having begun their integration path earlier and so forth. In this sense, the EPC can be regarded both as a “bonus for anxiety” for the political elites of Ukraine and Moldova, and as a safety bag for them.
Interestingly during the discussion of the details of the European Political Community Project an important point is emphasized –participation in it does not predetermine membership in the EU, and integration and financial benefits can be reversed if a country starts to retreat from “European values”. That is, the EU actually leaves the present tug-of-war situation and returns its maneuvering field, without ironclad guarantees and expanding its space, but retaining its zone of influence in Eastern Europe.
For Moldova, this means, in fact, leaving one European anteroom for another, but in a new, more beautiful package. Well, it is still better than nothing at all.