Will Moldova’s EU Accession Stall at the Start?

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Sergiu CEBAN
To open negotiations is not the most difficult stage in the EU accession process, as Chisinau will face much more challenging problems in the future
The results of the European Parliament elections showed a slight change in the preferences of the European electorate, expressed in the predicted surge of the right-wing forces. Despite Ursula von der Leyen’s intention to receive a second mandate to head the European Commission, the European Union is unlikely to proceed with its previous policies, given the domestic political effect of the European Parliament vote in Germany and France. However, even before the election, the European Commission announced that Moldova and Ukraine were ready to start the EU accession talks. The next step will be for the member states to adopt a negotiating framework and convene an intergovernmental conference to mark the official start of negotiations. In fact, the decision is rather expected, given numerous diplomatic leaks, including that a group of states is actively pressurizing Brussels. Therefore, the European Commission, which is completing its mandate, has accelerated the process, so as not to leave such an important issue to the new team. Statements that Chisinau and Kyiv have become closer to European standards over the past six months sound at least hypocritical, given the situation in both countries. But geopolitics is above all nowadays. In view of the upcoming autumn elections, it is crucial for Maia Sandu to receive promising signals from Brussels, as well as for her Ukrainian counterpart, whose country faces a protracted crisis and military-political failures. While the big players are running the world, the “rapid European integration” in Moldova does not seem to encourage the majority of its citizens. Otherwise, why distract former foreign minister Nicu Popescu, who is safely employed abroad, and make him travel to Chisinau to “bless” the launch of the public initiative “Citizens for Europe”. As its authors state, the project was created to support Moldova’s European integration and to properly inform the public about the benefits of EU accession. It seems that closed polls show stagnation of pro-European sentiments, i.e. even high-profile diplomatic successes do not lead to a sharp increase in the number of supporters of the European vector. This is understandable - the Moldovan electorate has too many questions to ask the authorities, so the dazzling festive show to celebrate certain decisions of Brussels does not work now. Kicking off negotiations is not the most intricate stage in the EU accession process, which is essentially a manifestation of political will. But in the future, Chisinau will face more challenges to overcome. For example, even Popescu seems to have no answer to the question of how to integrate Moldova into the EU, given the unresolved Transnistrian conflict. In his recent interview, the former minister says that our country will join the European Union in one stage, but the European policy will be implemented separately. These words clearly reflect the Cyprus case, when the island is legally part of the European Union but the European legislation applies only to its southern part. On the other hand, deputy prime minister for European Integration Cristina Gherasimov believes that Moldova will join the EU as a unitary state together with the Transnistrian region. At the moment, according to Gherasimov, Chisinau “is at the beginning of the process and stays open to make sure that the EU legislation will be applied on the whole territory of Moldova and hopes that the Transnistrian administration is also interested in this process.” It is certainly possible to hope that Tiraspol will suddenly change its preferences and sever with Moscow – the question is whether such a position is realistic. Besides, it is out of the general logic and formula of a “special status for the left bank”, which, at least verbally, is still adhered to by international partners. And this is by no means a unitary form of state. At the same time, political negotiations with Tiraspol have not started yet, and it is hardly possible to predict the parameters of the future final status. Gherasimov also reminds of a Cypriot model of accession in the history of the EU, but so far this scenario is not considered for Moldova. As the main argument that the left bank should agree to enter the European path, deputy prime minister points out the economic integration of the region into the European market. Fine, but for example, Turkey is not only in the European market, but has also been a member of the Customs Union since 1995, which hasn’t granted it full membership anyway. And last week Ankara announced that it was considering joining BRICS. Just recently, Maia Sandu and the head of the EU delegation, Janis Mazeiks, debated that Moldova’s accession to the EU may be divided into two stages. Firstly, the right bank of the Dniester could join the Union, and then the left bank. Such diversity and discrepancy in positions shows that there is still no clear vision either in Chisinau or in Brussels. Therefore, some very general ideas are being proposed in order to break the information vacuum and not to give Moscow and Tiraspol any reason to speculate on this topic. The recent visit of the OSCE Representative for Transnistrian Settlement, Thomas Mayr-Harting, also provided head scratcher in this regard. He summarized the results of his work in the first half of the year and discussed the current problems with the main negotiators from Chisinau and Tiraspol. Apart from the fact that the OSCE habitually wants to achieve “positive dynamics”, no one voiced anything that even remotely hinted at the topic of European integration. This suggests that while there may be an exchange of views through closed or some private channels, officially this topic does not concern the Transnistrian settlement. Although there were intentions in the capital to propose to the left bank to form a working group with the same European name. Last year, Moldovan and European officials firmly stated that the process of European integration would not depend on reintegration in any way. But today, even among court experts, there is no longer the same certainty, and more questions hang in the air. One may recall that it all started with the Association Trio and intellectual and rhetorical research on how and to what extent the Cyprus model is applicable to Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia. A year or so later, analysts are trying to understand how seriously unresolved conflicts can affect the dynamics of negotiations with the EU and not block the process altogether. Therefore, despite encouraging statements from Brussels, the road to EU membership is a tough and perhaps even decisive one in terms of the political and geographical parameters of the state.