Moldova’s European Integration: One Step Forward, Two Backwards

Home / Analytics / Moldova’s European Integration: One Step Forward, Two Backwards
Christian RUSSU
Many people with rejoicing welcomed the recommendation of the European Commission to open negotiations on Moldova’s accession to the European Union, not paying attention to the fact that the European body’s report indicates big problems with the fulfilment by the Moldovan authorities of their obligations to the EU
The day before yesterday, another “historic event” took place in our country’s European integration. At least, this is how it was presented by the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who was completing her mandate and announced a recommendation to start EU accession talks with Moldova and Ukraine. Surprisingly, the official’s pathos was not supported by the Moldovan authorities. There were no fiery appeals, solemn meetings or festive concerts. Maia Sandu, Dorin Recean and Nicu Popescu mundanely noted the interim nature of the EC’s decision and urged to “roll up sleeves” till 15 December, when all members of the community will have their say on the issue at the EU summit. If we put aside speculations that the country’s leadership was so engrossed in European integration that it did not find time and opportunity to delight von der Leyen's speech, it becomes obvious that there is actually no cause for celebration. Unlike the authorities, the Moldovan journalists attending the briefing of the European Commission President were enthusiastic and did not fail to ask about Moldova’s accession prospects by 2030, a date that has become sacred in our country over the past two years. The German diplomat’s answer about the need to “show merit” and not to think about 2030 was “cooling”. However, not even that marred the event. Both we and Brussels knew in advance about the real sentiments and assessments of Moldova’s and Ukraine’s progress, as well as the content of the European Commission’s report itself. The EU did not even want to hide it, having conveyed to Kyiv and Chisinau through the mainstream media an open irritation in the form of information that the positive recommendations would be conditioned by “technical” clauses. In order to eliminate ambiguity, it was specified that these “technical” details had to cover “big caveats” and important political consequences due to the failure of commitments to make progress in a number of areas: from the creation of a strong and independent judiciary to the protection of minority rights and anti-corruption measures. Maybe the poorly concealed claims concerned Ukraine and not Moldova? Someone will surely point to the recent admissions of the MFAEI head about the possibility of abandoning the European integration “package” with Ukraine as “ballast” due to the different speed of obligations’ implementation to the EU. However, this version is easily shattered by the conclusions of the European Commission directly on our country. It is worth recalling that on 23 June, the Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Oliver Varheliy, clearly outlined the 5 stages by which Brussels would assess the progress of the new candidate countries: no progress, limited progress, some progress, good progress and, finally, “implemented”. On the same day, the European official pleased the public by saying that Moldova had already fulfilled 3 of the 9 recommendations. A “step 2”, the elimination of the shortcomings identified by the OSCE ODIHR and the Venice Commission in the reform of the judiciary and the electoral code, was also made an “asset”. However, an already closed item in the European Commission’s report takes on a new meaning. It states last year’s amendments to the electoral code and nine laws submitted for consideration by the relevant European structures. That is, nothing about the changes in the electoral legislation this year and amendments concerning the judicial reform. In short, the framed officials in Brussels had to refer to Moldova’s 2022 achievements and edit their June records in order to re-confirm the alleged fulfilment of this point. Obviously, the EC could not list as merits legal lawlessness and disregard of the Venice Commission’s recommendations. The situation is similar with regard to completed “step 8”. If in June it was considered as such for “increasing the participation of civil society in decision-making processes”, in November it admitted that it had been done in advance. The report indicated that the involvement of civil society had taken place only on paper through the creation of a platform in parliament, and that PAS MPs themselves would have to fix problems with the transparency of decision-making. As it turned out, Brussels also noticed the work of the parliamentary “mad printer” over the past months. Moreover, in June, Varheliy recklessly claimed that Chisinau authorities had made “good progress” in three other areas, namely justice reform, de-oligarchizing and public finance management reforms. It turns out that the EU, a few months ago, thought that we were at the finish line in these three areas, since “good progress” is followed by the “completed” stage. If we compare the wording of the two documents with the assessments, it becomes clear that we are not talking about progress, but rather the opposite. The task of reforming the sphere of public finance management was considered completed, but the wording of the first two is not optimistic. As for “de-oligarchizing”, the new report does not record any progress at all, given that the previous demands to implement all the recommendations of the Venice Commission and demonstrate the effectiveness of the Broadcasting Council have not been met. The section on the implementation of “step 4” simply lists the measures from our authorities’ report. The lack of progress in fulfilling commitments to de-oligarchizing and eliminating the excessive influence of vested interests in the economic, political and public life of the country is seen in the nexus of commitments in the justice system and the struggle against corruption. Whereas in the summer the EU noted “good progress”, it has now reverted to “some progress”, pointing to the removal of many remaining obstacles to anti-corruption reforms. Also, in the summer, the EU expected the epic with the formation of the renewed structures of the SCM, the SCJ and the election of the Prosecutor General to come to an end soon. Now, a complete failure is recorded, mentioning that the candidates should have been pre-screened on the basis of a law adopted on the Venice Commission’s recommendations, which never happened. In addition, “negative impact on the efficiency of the judiciary”, “lack of progress in the prosecution of high-profile corruption cases and long-standing criminal cases”, and expectations of “a transparent appointment process in the main judicial and prosecutorial bodies” are mentioned. All the high-profile scandals in the field of justice in recent months lie behind this language. It is noteworthy that without waiting for the announcement of the European Commission’s report, the chief justice reform specialist in Parliament, Olesea Stamate, urgently initiated amendments to four laws previously adopted as part of the justice reform in order to bring them back in line with the Venice Commission’s recommendations. These are the acts on the external evaluation of judges and prosecutors, the functioning of the Supreme Court of Justice, and the procedures for selecting candidates for the members’ positions of self-governing bodies of judges and prosecutors. In fact, if the European Commission’s report had been published two days later, it would most likely have had to include amendments to the Constitutional Court’s latest decisions. In particular, on the unconstitutionality of the amendments to the Law on Prosecutor’s Office, adopted at Maia Sandu’s behest to remove Alexandr Stoianoglo from office. And also, to mention the restructuring of the court with Domnica Manole’s return to the post of chairperson. All these developments make the completion of the process on formation of functional self-governing bodies of judges and prosecutors, as well as the Prosecutor’s General election highly doubtful. Against this background, the remark of the EU delegation’s head, Janis Mazeiks, that the European Commission’s recommendation to start negotiations is not the “next step” in Moldova’s European integration process, but only a “prelude” to it, can be considered symbolic. It is becoming more obvious that there will be no positive decision on the beginning of negotiations for Moldova, because the remaining three problematic “steps” in the field of fighting corruption, justice reform and de-oligarchizing will not be fulfilled either by the end of this year or by the spring of the next year. These commitments may become a stigma for our country for many months or even years, similar to the control of the Council of Europe. The optimists who expect that the EU will give Moldova everything in advance, as it can be seen in the recommendation not to close the window of opportunity for Georgia, should remember that Brussels, while deciding to give the candidate status last year, reserved the right to withdraw it. So, as they give an advance, they will take it back, especially if the geopolitical situation changes.