Editorials

Moldova and Ukraine in the EU: political will vs. the reality on the ground

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C), European Council President Charles Michel (L), and Moldovan President Maia Sandu (R) at a joint press conference following their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, 21 November 2023.
© EPA-EFE/SERGEY DOLZHENKO   |   Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C), European Council President Charles Michel (L), and Moldovan President Maia Sandu (R) at a joint press conference following their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, 21 November 2023.

Holzstock Festival

EU accession negotiations between Ukraine and Moldova and the European Union were officially launched on June 25, 2024. Although this came as good news for both the two states and for the EU, the accession calendar remains unknown. Not only is the world around us changing, but the European Union too.

The granting of EU candidate status and the start of negotiations traditionally served as guarantees for obtaining EU membership, with the notable exceptions of Turkey and Serbia, where the accession process is uncertain. In the case of Ukraine and Moldova, the European Union has to deal with a special situation, given the clash between political and what we might call bureaucratic imperatives. Both the benefits that derive from EU accession as well as the EU's moral obligation to accept the two countries are clear. The war in Ukraine and the growing influence of China demand a firm geopolitical response, and Ukraine’s current position as an outpost of Europe is also obvious. In recent years, Moldova has managed to strengthen its pro-European stance, and the borders of the EU are hard to imagine with Moldova as an enclave between Ukraine and Romania.

On the other hand, if we were to imagine the accession steps of Moldova and Ukraine in the absence of Russia’s second invasion of Ukraine, which started in 2022, the situation would have been quite different. It is quite clear, without further arguments, that we are talking about neighboring territories, with a political history and governance systems different from the current standards of the EU. In addition, with the exception of the Baltic States, which are a special case, these are the only former Soviet republics that have been given the greenlight by the West.

Barriers to EU accession and red tape

The problems that Ukraine and Moldova have to solve with a view to joining the EU do not require a detailed analysis for Romanian readers. In general terms, we can compare them to Romania in the 1990s, where corruption and inefficiency hampered its development, and different chapters of legislation, from copyright to minority rights, were at odds with the community acquis. In addition, both Moldova and Ukraine face problems from a sizable Russian minority, politically oriented towards Moscow, which in the case of Moldova is also linked to a territorial dispute, concerning the breakaway region of Transnistria. The gap between Romania at the end of 2004, when all the negotiation chapters were concluded, and the current position of Ukraine and Moldova is difficult to quantify, but the gap itself is evident.

The 33 negotiation chapters pretty much cover “everything”, from food safety to taxation and the free movement of people. It is clear such problems are difficult to solve, and this translates into processes that take years, if not decades, to complete. Admittedly, right now Moldova has broken all speed records at the start of the accession process, with the submission of the accession application in March 2022, the approval of EU candidate status in June 2022 and the launch EU accession talks in June 2024 (Ukraine submitted its accession application in February 2022). By contrast, Turkey submitted its accession application in April 1987, was granted EU candidate status in December 1999, and the accession process started in 2015, only to be gridlocked in 2016 for reasons we all know (the Erdoğan regime). In the case of Romania, the accession application was submitted in 1995, and negotiations took place over 2000 and 2004. Then, the EU accession treaty was ratified in April 2005, with January 1, 2007 being the official date when EU membership took effect.

The accession process covers nine steps, and in recent times it usually takes 8 (in the case of the Baltic States) or 11 years (in the case of Romania) to complete. While the hopes expressed by Ukraine’s Prime Minister, Denys Shmyhal, regarding Ukraine’s accession to the European Union within two years, might seem far-fetched, those of the president of Moldova, Maia Sandu (who said Moldova could join the EU by 2030), seem more realistic, although this estimate too might be over-optimistic.

In the case of Moldova, we might assume the country could join the EU with the Transnistrian dispute unresolved, given the precedent of Cyprus, which also had (and still has) a territorial dispute with the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus before joining. And yet, the same precedent might be more problematic than expected, considering that the acceptance of Cyprus created a lot of problems for the EU, first and foremost complicating its relations with Turkey. Therefore, it would be safe to assume Brussels won’t need a similar headache.

Moldova, on the other hand, has a great advantage. It is a country with only 3.5 million inhabitants, which for Brussels is easier to reform compared to Ukraine, whose population is at least 10 times larger, which could be a drawback in that regard, but also an asset in other terms. The good reputation enjoyed by Maia Sandu and Moldova’s strong pro-European orientation feed into that perception. In addition, Moldova is known for doing good work not only in Chișinău, but also in Brussels, where the efforts of Ambassador Daniela Morari did not go unnoticed.

Brussels' attitude: positive, but in idealistic terms

The decade-long accession processes and the EU’s unchanged borders for the last 11 years (Croatia became an EU member in 2013) are not necessarily something EU lawmakers pride themselves with. On the contrary, the Moldovan establishment senses the structural shortcomings of the European Union perhaps more acutely than Eurosceptics and anti-EU propaganda of authoritarian regimes. The EU Council is known to stumble over a great many things, not just in terms of enlargement, given unanimity is almost impossible to achieve particularly where it is needed the most, in matters of great geopolitical importance. Ironically, the EU accession process of Moldova and Ukraine starts with Hungary taking over the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union. On the other hand, Hungary chose to start its presidency with nothing short of a surprise: Viktor Orbán’s visit to Moscow. And if Orbán's geopolitical antics might no longer surprise us, the real irony is that the head of the intergovernmental conference that started the accession process of Moldova and Ukraine (who basically welcomed them to the negotiations table) is the foreign minister of Belgium, Hadja Lahbib, a former TV host whose main diplomatic achievement was a visit to Crimea as a journalist in 2021 with a Russian visa (thus to a territory that de jure belongs to another state).

Orbán and Lahbib are an expression of the opposition Moldova and Ukraine could face in Brussels. Ultimately, these are the reasons why the EU is otherwise an inert geopolitical structure. The good news is that all this does not go unnoticed. Europe's inability to act is a pressing problem in Brussels, even when it doesn't seem like it. Evidence of that is Emmanuel Macron's suggestion of ​​creating a European Political Community, which has already been put into practice. The European Political Community has already convened in Moldova, at Mimi Castle (the castle was named after the Bessarabian politician and boyar Constantin Mimi, a commissar in Kerensky's provisional government after the Tsar's 1917 abdication), where Viktor Orbán had to kiss Maia Sandu's hand. What this means in practical terms is the inclusion of states that are not members of the European Union, but are aligned with the community bloc, in a wider decision-making club, with de facto benefits, not just political, but also economic. The funding Brussels provided to Ukraine and Moldova is strong evidence of that.

In fact, the European Political Community is seen as one of the “four circles” (the outer one) of the European Union suggested in a report of the Franco-German working group on EU institutional reform, leaked last fall to Politico.eu. Whereas the idea of ​​a “multi-speed Europe” has sparked outrage in the past, today it seems the only possible scenario where Ukraine and Moldova (or the Western Balkans) might join the EU. Another type of enlargement that takes place in a different way from the slow process we see today was also suggested by Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, in a speech where he referred to “gradual integration” based on the idea of ​“more for more”. This would entail the participation of candidate states in the financial-economic structures and mechanisms of the EU, in those chapters where they have complied with accession criteria, but with the imposition of a “principle of reversibility”, which would make candidates lose their benefits in the event of a decline in democratic processes.

What would the EU accession of Moldova (and Ukraine) mean for Romania?

It is obvious that Moldova would be a valuable ally for Romania in the European Union, in light of the very good relationship our country has over the years developed with what we might call a reformist Moldova, which is now in power. This relationship could be all the more important, since reforms such as discarding the principle of unanimity in the EU Council would make alliances and affinities between member states very useful, especially if they have Romania's relatively low political influence, which became transparent in its efforts to join the Schengen area.

Cyprus is again a point of reference on how Moldova could work in cooperation with Romania at international level, not because of the territorial dispute, but due to its similarity with Greece, based on which it sometimes defines itself as ​​“one nation, two states”.

With regard to Ukraine, its European Union membership could spell an improvement in diplomatic relations with Romania, which we can describe, let's say, as “docile” prior to the unconditional support offered by Romania to Ukraine after Russia’s second invasion in 2022. Issues such as the Snake Island dispute, the Bystroye Canal or the problems facing the Romanian minority in Ukraine are major landmarks of Romanian-Ukrainian bilateral relations. It is interesting to note that the disenfranchisement of Romanians in Ukraine (totaling some 400 thousand people, including those who identify themselves as Moldovan) is a consequence of the recent policy of de-Russification of Ukraine, applied primarily to the Russian minority. In other words, the Romanian-Moldovan minority is the collateral victim of the conflict with Russia. In simple terms, we’re witnessing a case where the political objectives do not match the “bureaucratic” or legal ones (minority rights as defined by EU legislation). Like previously stated, such tension best describes relations between the European Union and Ukraine and Moldova.

An unspoken and unanswered question: the end of the war

One way or another, it turns out that European laws, criteria or ideals are defective in times of crisis. As seen so many times before, for instance in the case of Russian gas imports to Germany, this creates quite a bit of leeway for pursuing self-interests. From this point of view, the entire dynamics of the EU accession process will be influenced by an unspoken and unanswered question: when and how will the war in Ukraine end? If Putin's Russia remains a threat, regardless of the outcome of the conflict, there are two questions that arise in relation to our topic: how urgent will this threat be perceived and to what extent will Russian influence in the European Union be compounded by the outcome of the conflict (which is bound to happen in any other scenario except an outright victory of Ukraine)?

With regard to the rise of the far-right after the June 2024 European Parliament election, the pro-Russian parties in the Identity and Democracy group must be carefully considered, all the more so as Rassemblement National, known for its pro-Russian alignment, threatened to become the greatest political faction in France.

The domestic politics of the two candidate countries should also be given careful examination. Moldova still has two obstacles to overcome: the presidential election due this fall and the parliamentary election scheduled for mid-2025. However, according to recent polls, 63% of Moldovans are overtly pro-European. In Ukraine, support for president Zelenskyy is no longer as enthusiastic as it was at the start of the war, but a shift towards Russia is hard to imagine under any political leadership due to the aggressor's barbarism and aggression in recent years.

All that makes it hard to pinpoint the exact date for the EU accession of Moldova and Ukraine (which, in a way, is a good thing, but also discouraging). One thing is for certain: when the two countries eventually join the European Union, it will be different compared to today’s European construct. A “concentric” or “gradual” model of integration would greatly shorten the process, just as pressure from extremist political factions or a disappointing end to the war could lengthen it. Ultimately, it all comes down to an obvious fact: the future of the EU depends on its ability to increase its “footprint” and its geopolitical consistency. In that regard, Ukraine and Moldova are a critical test.

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Iulian Comănescu

Iulian Comănescu




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