The Year of Candidacy: Will Moldova Move to a New Stage of European Integration?

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Sergiu CEBAN
The authorities are full of confidence that the accession talks with the EU are about to start almost this year, but the reality doesn’t look that rosy: there are many reasons that can put problems and aspirations of the new candidate-countries on the back burner
The escalation of the internal political situation in the Russian Federation almost overshadowed an important date for Moldova – the first anniversary of its candidate status for accession to the European Union. Of course, in this fascinating race our country looks like a total newbie compared to such “experienced colleagues” as Turkey (since 1987), Northern Macedonia (since 2004), Montenegro (since 2008), Albania (since 2009) and Serbia (since 2009). Granting the candidate status to Moldova and Ukraine on an exceptional basis is an unconventional step for the European Union. EU was in a rush when it considered applications submitted by Chisinau and Kyiv almost immediately after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It seems that the main goal of European leaders was to support these post-Soviet states and to cover them up geopolitically. By doing so, the EU challenged Moscow’s militant ideas. After the status was granted, the Association Trio ceased to exist. After all, unlike our country and Ukraine, Georgia received only the so-called European perspective. Nevertheless, Brussels gave “homework” for all the three and formulated a list of conditions to each of the states. Only after fulfilling them, the European Union will consider moving on to the next stage – the opening of accession negotiations. On the first anniversary, Maia Sandu addressed the country, highlighting this stage as an important sign of support from European states and their commitment to accept Moldova into the single European family. On this path, the president expects the greatest changes, implementation of infrastructure projects, improvement of social and living conditions, as well as consolidation of peace and security of the citizens. At the same time, she understands that Moldova’s transformation into a European country requires a lot of time and work. However, with each stage, year by year, our country, in Sandu’s opinion, will get closer to the status of EU permanent member. In fact, the head of the MFAEI said it had been a year of progress and remarkable achievements. After all, Moldova has made progress in deoligarchization, strengthening justice and developing administrative capacity. In particular, authorities have made great efforts to implement key reforms. They paid much attention to democratic values, the promotion of transparency and the rule of law, and sustainable economic and social development. Nicu Popescu is absolutely convinced that every step forward received strong backing from European partners. There was no doubt that serenity reigned in the high authorities, and high-ranking officials were full of hope and faith in the best. Alas, the ordinary citizens do not feel the same optimism and perceive this bouts of political happiness in Chisinau quite calmly. As before, opinion polls reflect great social pessimism, doubts about the right choice of political elites, as well as distrust in the current internal and foreign policies. Dry statistics and data from authoritative international reports show the harsh reality in which our republic lives. We are last in Europe in terms of economic freedom and Moldova’s GDP has fallen in real terms by 2.4% compared to January-March last year. Moreover, the number of inhabitants today is equal to that of 1956, after one of the biggest migration of our citizens abroad took place in 2021 and 2022. Despite this, our authorities are full of confidence that accession negotiations will begin already this year. Perhaps they know something that ordinary people should not know, and Brussels have greatly encouraged them. Nevertheless, the reality does not look that rosy. According to the preliminary report of the European Commission, since last year Moldova has fulfilled only 3 out of 9 recommendations of Brussels. Among the implemented commitments are amendment of the electoral legislation (No. 2), involving civil society in the decision-making process (No. 8) and protection of human rights (No. 9). In other words, we have been quite successful in the least difficult tasks. The European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy Oliver Varhelyi recently said that Ukraine and Moldova had made significant progress on their way to full EU membership. At the same time, he stressed that both countries still have to fulfill the remaining obligations before the start of formal accession negotiations. By the way, Kyiv has implemented two of the seven conditions and, in fact, is even ahead of Chisinau on the path to European integration. Some of our unfulfilled commitments are the most difficult ones. And we must admit that they are unlikely to be closed in the coming months. We are talking about the judicial reform and the effective work of the Supreme Court of Justice. Also important is the appointment of a prosecutor general with full powers to deal with de-oligarchization, the fight against corruption and organized crime. This also includes reform of public administration and public finance management. Even a cursory view of the situation in the justice system and the behind-the-scenes struggle between judicial and prosecutorial clans allows an unequivocal conclusion: we are still very far from functional justice. Unlike other countries of the now defunct Associated Trio, the European Commission maintains a tougher stance towards Georgia. Therefore, they expect even greater efforts from Tbilisi and point to the fact that Georgia is moving away from its European future. For this, the Georgians have to fundamentally and quickly change their policy. This is in fact a clear example of the way Brussels treats unwanted regimes. One can only imagine how quickly Moldova’s European prospects will cool down if centrists or leftist parties come to power. No less cynical are the comments of the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, who recently stated that an exact date of Ukraine’s accession to the European Union cannot be given. However, in her opinion, the European Union without Ukraine in 20 or 30 years would be unthinkable. With the European Parliament elections approaching in June 2024, these are just the first signs that the rhetoric of European officials will grow more restrained, if not harsh. Therefore, closer to the autumn, the focus of the EU and all countries will be on their own problems and voters, and the post-Soviet countries will inevitably lose their topicality and recede into the background. With further uncertainty in the Russian-Ukrainian confrontation and continuing risks in terms of the statehood of Ukraine and Moldova, this scenario seems more and more likely.