European Council Summit: Moldova and Ukraine Are Waiting in Anticipation

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Sergiu CEBAN
The European Council summit, where Moldova and Ukraine are expected to open negotiations on EU membership, will be held very soon. However, this decision has not yet gained the backing from all EU member states
A little more than a week is left before the landmark summit of the European Council. Yesterday, diplomatic representatives of the 27 EU member states already started discussing the draft final document. Adopting it will not be easy, since one of the centerpiece issues is the opening of membership negotiations with the states that were granted candidate status. Sources close to the preparations for the high-level meeting said that the initial version of the resolution states that the EU “decides to start accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova”. But the phrase is in brackets, which means that such a decision is still far from being agreed upon. Because of this, according to some diplomats, the initial draft prepared for discussion will be further edited, and no one can say yet what the final wording will be. Despite a certain skepticism in expert circles, including in Chisinau, the President, Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration continue to (re)persuade high-ranking officials from all EU countries to support Moldova and its European integration aspirations. Recently, Maia Sandu held telephone talks with the Prime Ministers of Ireland and Belgium. Let me assume that she has plans to call all European capitals before the summit. Undoubtedly, the position of the EU leaders, primarily Germany, France and Italy, will play a decisive role in the final resolution. However, if we take the bloc as a whole, then, of course, there is no unity of opinion. With regard to Ukraine and Moldova, the EU countries have split into three conditional camps. The first includes states that are ready not only to give a ‘yes’ vote, but also to actively lobby for such a decision in other capitals. Among them is the closest neighbor of Ukraine and Moldova - Romania. Recently, the Romanian Foreign Minister confirmed that Bucharest would support the decision to start negotiations at the European Council summit in December because “such a step by Brussels can ensure peace, stability and prosperity in the long term”. The second group of states are the so-called ‘hesitating” ones. For example, the Dutch, who are as cautious as possible about the European Commission’s recommendations, are among them. Recognizing the geopolitical factors that push the EC to take more decisive steps in the light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Amsterdam remains committed to traditional approaches to enlargement, based primarily on merit and achievements. The third category of countries are those who oppose the opening of negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova. Hungary has perhaps the most uncompromising position here. In his letter to European Council President Charles Michel, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán called to pull the issue off the summit agenda at all, because, in his opinion, the obvious lack of consensus will inevitably lead to failure. Orbán believes that such a scenario must be avoided in order to preserve unity, “which is the most important asset of the European Union.” Slovakia has in fact solidarized with Budapest's position, saying through its Foreign Ministry that it cannot imagine Ukraine joining the EU in the current context. Moreover, Bratislava is waiting with interest to see how European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and other supporters of Ukraine’s accession to the bloc will justify the opening of membership talks with the warring country. It seems that the discussions on the sidelines of European politics are indeed tense and far from a common vision. According to European publications, amid such internal discord, European Council head Charles Michel even cut short an important visit to China for additional talks with European leaders on the EU’s future plans, including on its immediate neighbors. Last week, Michel reportedly met with Orbán in Budapest in an attempt to defuse tensions and the Hungarians’ harsh stance on the eve of the summit. They even involved ‘heavy artillery’ - French President Emmanuel Macron, who, according to journalists, invited the Hungarian leader to Paris to persuade him not to veto the opening of talks with Ukraine. No matter how the internal squabbles in the EU end, it is clear that the understanding of the real situation in Ukraine and Moldova is at the heart of such dissonance between different European capitals. Whatever Moldovan politicians say, Europeans have a quite clear sense that the ‘European project’ in Moldova is still far from the state of irreversibility and unity of all elites around this idea. Political forces with alternative or not entirely pro-Western views still have a serious chance to regain control of the country and, consequently, to revise its current foreign policy course. Although local elections are not decisive as compared to the parliamentary elections, still, the electoral message coming from the voting results allows us to notice a certain rethinking of political views in the Moldovan society. The main and stubbornest fact is that today the number of those in favor of European integration among voters has decreased, although not radically, but still. No less important is the fact that the military events in Ukraine have not led to a sharp increase in pro-European and Euro-Atlantic views among the population. Even the closure of the alternative media, which promoted skeptical narratives about the ruling party’s European prospects and foreign policy goals, did not help to keep the political sentiments of compatriots in the “right geopolitical direction”. It is difficult to predict what the final outcome will be among the EU countries. Obviously, most European capitals have taken a wait-and-see attitude, trying not to speak out in favor of one decision or another, and watching where the pendulum will swing in the end. However, it is likely that closer to the beginning of the summit more details will start to leak out to the press, which will allow for a rough estimate of the EU’s final verdict on Ukraine and Moldova. Despite the complexity of the situation, it is likely that in order not to give the Kremlin and Russian propaganda an extra reason to gloat about the “failure of European integration” of these post-Soviet countries, the collective Brussels will have to smooth over a negative resolution and find softening language. Of course, it will be important to reassure Chisinau and Kyiv that the issue remains open and that the prospect of negotiations will be further discussed at the next European Council summit in March 2024.