Start of Talks with EU: Is Honeymoon Over?

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Sergiu CEBAN
All the successes of Moldova’s European integration in recent years were due to unique regional and international circumstances. Now, when the last “gift” in the form of the start of EU accession negotiations has been solemnly handed over to the Moldovan authorities, Brussels hints that everything will be “gloves-off” from now on, and it will not be possible to exploit geopolitics anymore
The European Union’s intergovernmental consultations with Moldova and Ukraine in Luxembourg yesterday officially kicked off negotiations on their accession to the EU. In her welcoming speech, Ursula von der Leyen, who will once again head the European Commission, said that the coming period for Chisinau and Kyiv “will be full of challenges, but also of opportunities”. At the same time, she believes that the negotiations should “prepare the candidates to take responsibility for membership”, so there is no shortcut for them. Meanwhile, last week, Maia Sandu solemnly signed a decree to open negotiations on Moldova’s accession to the European Union. In the upcoming autumn referendum, the president expects that the people will vote in favor of a pro-European vector of development. In fact, we can hope that yesterday’s event will add motivation to the people. However, we cannot rule out that the results of the plebiscite will be a big embarrassment for the authorities, as well as an indicator of the volatility of European integration sentiments in society. The current government has created the most suitable conditions for this. The launch of official negotiations is taking place amid ongoing scandals that have accompanied the PAS since it entered the political Olympus. As a result, Brussels saw us as a country with total dysfunctionality of state institutions, deeply permeated with corruption and under the control of intra-governmental clans. The widespread disregard for democratic standards continues, including in the organization of elections, as the Venice Commission has already openly stated. Well, only a lazy person does not speak about the deteriorating economic situation, growing poverty and rapid depopulation of the country. In fact, it has long been obvious to everyone that the speed with which everything moved towards the start of accession negotiations was a political move rather than a meaningful decision based on concrete achievements. In this regard, von der Leyen’s hint that everything will be “gloves-off” from now on, and that geopolitics alone will not do the trick, is rather clear. Therefore, frankly speaking, Moldova is not ready to join the EU by any criteria. But, apparently, the bet is made on the fact that due to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, one way or another, the geopolitical factor will continue to dominate Brussels, and in the next few years it will be possible to make the most of it. The next stage will include the screening of Moldovan legislation and its adaptation to EU norms through judicial, administrative, economic and other reforms necessary to meet the Copenhagen criteria. It is likely that we will start full-fledged negotiations only next year, as in the second half of the year everyone will be focused on the active phase of the election campaign. If all goes well, when the relevant reforms are finalized and the result is satisfactory to both sides, Moldova will be able to join the EU. The only thing left to do is to sign a treaty securing the membership of the new state, which should be supported by the EU structures and then signed by all member states and ratified separately by each of them in line with their constitutional procedures. Of course, this prospect depends on the speed of reforms. It took Croatia, the last country to have joined the EU, more than a decade to complete the process. At the same time, the example of Turkey looks much less optimistic: the country applied for accession as early as 1987, but received candidate status only 12 years later. On the other hand, it took the Baltic states only four years to integrate into the EU. In our case, however, everything is rather ambiguous. There is a whole host of external and internal factors related to regional instability, the fragility of the current government, as well as persistent and even at times growing pro-Russian and Eurosceptic attitudes among citizens. Looking back in history, we can see that the EU’s strategic movement towards the post-Soviet space began exactly 15 years ago, after European leaders launched the Eastern Partnership programme in Prague in May 2009. Its main goal was to accelerate the political and economic integration of the interested former Soviet republics by promoting reforms. The EaP envisaged the signing of association agreements and a free trade zone in the future. Visa facilitation with the EU and other “carrots”, including financial aid, were also envisaged. At the same time, there was a key point – the Eastern Partnership relies on the principle of conditionality in its activities. That is, the development of relations is possible only if the participating countries fulfil the EU requirements. Most of the initial candidates dropped out from the EaP programme, but Moldova, unlike Ukraine, which experienced the second Maidan, has passed this way without major cataclysms. 10 years ago, an association agreement was signed, which initiated not only systemic integration into the European Union, but also a gradual break with the Eastern markets and the post-Soviet space. A decade later, hardly anyone will wonder how justified such a step was, how much our country has gained and how much it has lost over the years. The decision to open accession negotiations with the EU, in fact, removed the need for the authorities to summarize the state policy of the last 10 years. Further eastward enlargement of the European Union is, of course, no longer a question of the evolution of the “Eastern Space”, but a pure geopolitical confrontation. Brussels has challenged Moscow on principle. And it is quite symbolic that the EU has adopted a new package of sanctions against Russia one day before the opening of negotiations with Moldova and Ukraine. Moreover, the European elites made such a move even despite the ongoing hostilities and the fact that potential newcomers do not fully control their territory. In 2014, after the association agreement was signed, the Kremlin reacted rather painfully. Not only was access to the Russian market blocked for Moldovan products, but also cooperation with Tiraspol was demonstratively strengthened by signing “interdepartmental” agreements with Transnistrian region institutions. This time, the Russian capital seems to be more restrained in its assessments, not objecting in principle to Moldova’s European integration, but believing that it should not destroy relations with the Russian Federation. In a few weeks, the emotions of our officials will fade and the government will return from Luxembourg to the harsh Moldovan reality. Judging by the peaceful atmosphere in Chisinau, the majority of citizens did not notice the “historic event”, and many probably do not even know about any “breakthrough” of the country towards the EU. Covering up the gaping holes in the budget and socio-economic problems by starting negotiations with Brussels will definitely not work. Therefore, in fact, Dorin Recean has a good reason to leave his post on such a positive note and cede the prime minister’s chair to another “talented manager”.