Will the EU Open Talks on Moldova’s and Ukraine’s Accession This Year?

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Sergiu CEBAN
Chisinau and Kyiv expect that negotiations on their accession to the European Union will be officially opened as early as December. However, we cannot rule out that under the pressure of internal, military, geopolitical and historical circumstances, Brussels will take a short time-out and stretch the process of making strategic decisions
Tomorrow, Maia Sandu will participate in the next summit of the European Political Community, due in Granada, Spain. It will precede the European Council meeting on 6 October. The trip to the Iberian Peninsula is part of the long European voyage of our president. According to press releases and diplomatic sources, the central theme of the upcoming summit will be the further enlargement of the European Union and all related issues. In September, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in her annual address to the European Parliament that the EU should prepare for enlargement to more than 30 countries. To make sure the larger bloc works, the EC has launched a review of the basic policies governing the functioning of the Union. According to von der Leyen, history calls for the “finalization of the EU” as this is related to Europe’s strategic interests. Consequently, it is necessary to think about how the main institutions of the community will continue to function, what shape the European Parliament and the European Commission will take on, and how the common budget will be formed. A few weeks later, at the initiative of France and Germany, 12 experts proposed a plan for structural reform of the European Union to make it ready to accept new states in the future. The key proposal of the analysts, supported by Paris and Berlin, is to consolidate the principle of the so-called “Multi-Speed Europe”, i.e. the division of European states into 4 groups depending on the level and desire for integration. In addition, the experts propose reforms to optimize the EU structure, for instance, reducing the number of European Commissioners and members of the European Parliament, as well as abolishing the right of national veto. Several options were also presented on how to adjust the decision-making process in the EU after enlargement, including budgetary issues and the transition to majority voting instead of unanimity in the European Council. It is obvious that the current context of EU enlargement is predominantly related to Ukraine, with regard to which Brussels will sooner or later have to formulate a common position on the prospects of integration. The day before, an informal meeting of the EU Council at the level of foreign ministers, the main topic of which was assistance to Ukraine, was held in Kyiv. At first glance, holding such a meeting in the Ukrainian capital looks like another gesture of solidarity. However, there are reasons to believe that such an outing was also necessary in order to create the effect of presence and feel the atmosphere. It is no secret that the mood among the Union’s states towards Kyiv is not homogeneous and, in order to overcome the existing differences, Brussels probably decided to meet under special conditions. But even though European foreign ministers met outside the EU for the first time in history, they failed to reach an agreement on the main issue - the allocation of €5bn in military aid to Ukraine in 2024. Of course, this is another alarming signal for Kyiv, and for Chisinau such internal discord within the EU does not bode well. We should assume that the Europeans, among other things, offered Ukrainians to consider some intermediate options, which caused a flurry of discontent on the part of Ukrainian officials, who publicly stated that their country deserved full accession to the EU and that no one would accept any alternative involving a tiered system of candidates. The most original statement was made by Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, who emphasized that Ukraine is a “first-class state” and therefore accepts nothing but “first-class EU membership”. Before his trip to Kyiv, the head of European diplomacy Josep Borrell paid a visit to Chisinau in order, apparently, to cheer up our leadership and to tell about the heated debates within the European Union, which unfolded around further enlargement. Judging by the modest comments on the results of the meeting in the Moldovan capital, the situation is indeed difficult. No one can say for sure that the European Commission will recommend opening accession negotiations with Moldova and Ukraine this year. Amidst this the idea that Moldova could join the European Union before Ukraine is more and more frequently voiced in the media and expert discussions. It is largely due to the attempts of Moldovan and Romanian diplomacy to separate the integration trajectory of Chisinau and Kyiv, i.e. to take Moldova out of the common “package”. The logic is simple and obvious: if the Ukrainian factor played a positive role in obtaining the status of a candidate country, then in case of opening accession negotiations Moldova may find itself hostage to the complex attitude of collective Brussels towards Ukraine. As a result, there is a risk of being deprived of the opportunity to expedite the next phase of integration. Despite current state of affairs, our authorities still hope and demonstrate in every possible way that Moldova is fully prepared and ready to roll up its sleeves and get to work. Recently, the government submitted for public consultations the National Plan of EU accession. It is a summarized document specifying particular measures on preparation Moldova for EU accession by 2030. The plan will be the basis of the integration process, through which, among other things, national legislation will be adapted to the European one. Although it is supposed to be a very important programme document, as one might expect, it was hastily drafted. The experts did not read anything clear about the reforms that are planned to be carried out in the key sectors of the state system. It is not clear how Chisinau will address the problems in the justice system and the Transnistrian problem. Recently, the head of the EU Delegation to Ukraine, Katarina Maternova, made some clarifications about whether Moldova could join the European Union with an unresolved conflict, which put our leadership in a very awkward position. In the near future, the European Parliament will consider the report on Moldova’s implementation of the 9 EU recommendations and possibly vote in favor of a resolution on the need to start accession negotiations. This decision will be a politically important intermediate step and will provide additional support for a favorable conclusion at the EC level and a final agreement at the European Council summit in December. The issue of the EU’s enlargement is entering a decisive phase, so reassuring declarations and friendly pats on the shoulder will not be enough. Despite the electoral processes and the domestic situation in the EU member states, European officials, one way or another, will have to give unambiguous answers, which are expected from them not only in Kyiv and Chisinau, but also in the Western Balkans. We cannot rule out that under the pressure of domestic, military, geopolitical and historical circumstances, Brussels will prefer a short time-out and stretch the process of strategic decision-making. The main reason is the lack of certainty in the Ukrainian issue, which simply cannot be ignored. Although our authorities expect to start negotiations this year, Brussels may proceed from a completely different political logic. For instance, it is more rational to take a “historic decision on negotiations” next year, in 2024, ahead of the presidential elections, in order to secure Maia Sandu’s re-election and open a second breath of European integration hopes in Moldova.