Will Moldova Become an “Eternal Candidate” for the EU?

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Sergiu CEBAN
Behind the pretty words and successes of Moldova’s current cooperation with the EU there are many objective factors that threaten to significantly slow down the process of European integration
From 4 to 8 February, Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita, together with a government delegation, was in Brussels to attend the seventh meeting of the Moldova-EU Association Council. As many journalists noted, this was the first time our country was present at such an event as a candidate country for EU accession. Let’s try to find out what are the real chances of speeding up the process and making the cherished European future a reality. Based on preliminary information, several specific outcomes of this meeting can be highlighted. For example, agreements have been signed for Moldova to join a number of important EU programs in the fields of customs, taxation and health care. This is expected to bring tangible benefits for the population and the business community. The short-term goals include also the accession to the SEPA Common Payment Area and the reduction of the roaming fees with the EU states. Furthermore, Brussels has expressed its willingness to allocate 150 million euros to support Moldova’s macroeconomic and financial stability. European officials paid particular attention to our country’s desire to step up efforts to combat the excessive influence of oligarchs, who have become considerably “rampant” in recent months and are concentrating on supporting certain clans in the justice system. Here the EU stressed the importance of deep structural and regulatory reforms in the areas of justice, political party financing, election laws, media, taxation, competition policy and the full implementation of the Venice Commission recommendations. Our authorities were also urged to work harder against money laundering and organized and cross-border crime. On the whole, the agenda of the meeting included several key areas. The first one is the evolution of the Moldova-EU relations, focused on political dialogue and reforms. Gavrilita said that Moldova is determined to implement an ambitious program of reforms in the economy, which will contribute to the development of enterprises and to the creation of new jobs. In the current circumstances, such plans look very brave, as it is obvious to everyone that the government’s main task now is to at least keep the country afloat and prevent a complete social collapse. Secondly, economic and sectoral cooperation, including in the field of energy and trade. The main focus is logically on diversification of natural gas and electricity supply sources, as we still need Brussels’ support to find affordable alternatives. There are opinions that the energy situation will remain stable only until the end of the cold season and the end of the current contracts with the MGRES, and then a new wave of crisis will come. Many European countries are preparing for a difficult time as they have to fill their gas reservoirs in the summer. Here, our politicians rely primarily on Bucharest, which was able to reach an agreement with Baku and guarantee itself additional supplies of blue fuel. The most important direction, especially now, is foreign and security policy. The first issue is the armed conflict in Ukraine, which has a serious impact on Moldova, including the Transdniestrian settlement. With regard to the latter, Brussels’ position remains unchanged, but it is likely that a solution to the frozen conflict is directly linked to the prospects of the European integration process. In this sense, Natalia Gavrilita’s meeting with NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoane was interesting. As if to anticipate it, Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu shared another batch of revelations that in a situation of regional instability a neutral status is not enough to ensure stability in the country – and therefore Moldova needs support, partnership and also equipment to keep peace and tranquility. In a joint briefing with Geoana Gavrilita further elaborated on this point, stressing that Chisinau was counting on enhanced defense capabilities with the help of the North Atlantic alliance. As expected, the main final message of our authorities lies in the desire to launch as soon as possible the negotiations on Moldova’s accession to the European Union. Indeed, this could be a major achievement of the two-year PAS government cycle. But to bring this prospect closer, the nine recommendations that the EC outlined as a condition for granting candidate country status must first be implemented. Meanwhile, ahead of the Association Council meeting, the European Commission issued reports on Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia analyzing the countries’ preparation for the next stage of integration. All areas were assessed and the conclusions were disappointing. It turns out that of the three states, only Ukraine is assessed as “good”, while Moldova and Georgia are either at an initial stage of preparation, or at “some level” or at an intermediate level, on all counts. Moreover, none is at an advanced or highest level in at least one sectoral area. Only by this autumn is the European Commission expected to comment on the progress of the three countries in implementing priority reforms on the basis of changes since June 2022, to make new recommendations for further reforms and to announce some decisions on the launch of negotiations. The latter, as we know, can only start with the agreement of all EU member states. So far, experts are in disagreement as to whether the collective EU will decide to open the negotiation phase with Moldova. Some experts say that the conditions set by Brussels are feasible from the point of view of their formal perception. However, the main obstacle may be the undercurrents within the Union and the lack of real willingness of some of its members to speed up the integration of the still rather “raw” eastern neighbors. There is, of course, the possibility of jumping back on the “rushing Ukrainian train to the EU”, but we cannot exclude that at the next stage our “carriage” will be unhitched, as it was done with the Georgian one last year. Besides that, our great vulnerability is the objective potential of Moldovan officials and Moldovan bureaucracy in general, which is already working at the limits of its capabilities. Delays in implementing EU recommendations are a typical symptom. At the same time, if the European Commission decides to postpone the start of negotiations and imposes additional conditions on the way, it will become increasingly difficult to implement them. Consequently, the real timetable for European integration will shift smoothly and the prospect of becoming an “eternal” candidate for EU membership will become more than tangible.