The statement adopted as a result of the Association Council meeting is a combination of critical, neutral and positive aspects. The more critical formulations, even if they are powerfully diluted by the diplomatic language, belong to the European side, while the neutral and more positive appraisals derive from the opinions of the Moldovan authorities. The Association Council is a body managed by representatives of the EU and Moldova. That’s why the statements published by this cannot contain open and harsh criticism. As a result, the text of the Statement is milder and more moderate towards the government than other official documents published by the EU since the start of 2018: report on the implementation of the Association Agreement (this April) and the Conclusions of the Council of the EU (this February).
More trenchant messages about the quality of reforms can be identified in the statements made by the High Representative of the EU Federica Mogherini and Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn. Both of the European officials, even if they welcomed the progress made by the Moldovan side, asked to uninterruptedly fight corruption besides continuing the structural reforms. Several clear ideas derive from the affirmations of the two European officials. First of all, the EU support is provided to the Moldovan authorities to fulfill the Association Agreement and to benefit the citizens, not to support a government that says it is “pro-European”. Another thing that can be deduced is that the support, as the macro-financial assistance shows, is provided in very concrete conditions. Ultimately, the European officials suggest they will also assess the Moldovan authorities’ performance in terms of democracy by the way in which these hold the legislative and local elections (in Chisinau and Balti). The uncertainty as regards the allocation of the first installment of the macro-financial assistance, awaited since last year, only confirm the precaution with which the EU treats the quality of reforms.
EU requirements and constructive coercion
The holding of an intense and trenchant dialogue with the Moldovan authorities is the safest method of keeping the reforms moving and of exerting constrictive coercion on the Moldovan political class. This logic permits several major things. To begin with, the EU can extract more substantial results from the government, without promising more than it is contained in the Association Agreement. Also, the European institutions keep the political files in Moldova on the public agenda owing to the “political pre-conditions” anchored in the macro-financial assistance. Moreover, this keeps the Moldovan authorities in the European integration area until the electoral process will eventually rearrange the political arena. Inevitably, the same logic can bring benefits to the Democratic Party that is trying to justify its pro-European profile, increasing thus its chances of extending the political mandate after 2018.
The requirements reiterated by the European side in the meeting of the Association Council (Council of the EU, May 3, 2018) refer both to old reforms that have been implemented defectively until now and to the recent involutions, such as the transformation of the electoral system into a mixed one.
As regards the democratic institutions, the EU is concerned about the correctness of the electoral process, existence of functional media pluralism and an inclusive and representative process of adopting decisions. Besides participatory democracy, the European integration falls under the subordination of narrow groups, becoming partial and, respectively, far from the general interests.
As to the rule of law, the EU requests that the Moldovan authorities should make sure that the justice and fight against corruption become a routine that does not necessitate external conditions for being operational. The rule of law is the essence of the European project as the accountability and equality before the law this way transcends the national borders and intensifies the integration within the limits of the European borders. Besides the self-regulation of political and socioeconomic interactions, when it becomes operational the rule of law creates mutual confidence between the member states and the EU, between the European citizens and Brussels. This way, besides attracting investments from outside, the good implementation of the law in Moldova can restore the credibility of the state before the own citizens and of the government in the eyes of the EU. That’s why the European institutions ask that the investigation of the banking fraud should be completed in the nearest future, by bringing all those responsible to justice and recovering the misappropriated funds. The failed investigation of this crime, after four years of its disclosure, can disadvantage most of the pro-European political forces in the elections of 2018, either they are at the top or at the basis of the pyramid of political power. On the contrary, the authentic progress in investigating the banking fraud can foster the EU’s popularity and this will have a positive effect on the pro-European political forces that are critical of the government.
In the commercial sphere, the EU and Moldova agreed to cooperate to maximize the benefits for the citizens and to strengthen the operational capacities and independence of institutions dealing with public procurement, energy, intellectual property rights, food safety and others. These areas can receive EU assistance and expertise and the positive results achieved until now generate more optimism than towards the political sector.
(I)reversibility of European course
Unlike the reserved and neutral tonality of Brussels, the Moldovan authorities express more optimism about the pace of reforms. According to Prime Minister Pavel Filip, the implementation of the Association Agreement “goes well” and the results achieved during the past two years are beneficial to the country’s European course (Gov.md, May 4, 2018).
Contrary to the expressed optimism, the Premier assured that the government intends to make Moldova’s European orientation “really irreversible” (Gov.md, May 3, 2018). The recognition of the fact that the country’s European course is reversible, on the one hand, fuels the fears spread in Brussels about the expected victory of the pro-Russian forces in the parliamentary elections of 2018. On the other hand, this clearly shows that the Democratic Party is trying to assert itself as the force that wants to save the European course.
The request for EU assistance in combating hybrid threats and invoking of risks related to the possible interference from outside in the legislative elections show that the authorities do not give up using the Russian factor for political purposes. Using this threat as a pretext, the ruling party tends to generate if not sympathies then at least solidarity among the Europeans. Also, the Moldova authorities seem to be persuading the EU that the pro-European forces in Moldova should unite before the risks emanated by the Russian factor and so as to keep the Association Agreement after the elections. This confirms the supposition that one of the post-electoral scenarios developed by the Democrats involves the attraction of European players into the negotiations on the formation of a coalition between Vladimir Plahotniuc’s PDM and the block of parties led by Maia Sandu.
First installment of macro-financial assistance expected in July or in autumn
The lack of a concrete date when the first installment of the macro-financial assistance will be disbursed is a real blow to the image of the Moldovan government. The European institutions practically refused to validate the first installment for the reason that the Moldovan authorities have shortcomings in fulfilling a sector condition. In fact, the main objection of the Europeans contains dissatisfaction with the functionality of the National Integration Authority that plays a systemic role in fighting political corruption. If this institution is not made operational by this July, the EU could transfer the disbursement of the first installment to September (Free Europe, May 3, 2018).
At the same time, the fact that no conditions to make concrete amendments to the electoral legislation were imposed for disbursing the first installment is a letdown for the extraparliamentary opposition and civil society. In this case, the EU adopted a minimalist approach, pledging to assess the results of the implementation of the mixed system post-factum already.
For the Moldovan government, the fastest provision of the first installment is of major importance as this allows performing political maneuvers in a crucial electoral year. Known for the attempts to adopt counter-reforms, the ruling party could deviate from the current commitments to the EU related to the democratic institutions. That’s why the obtaining of money until July will offer the Democrats time for adjusting the pace and direction of reforms without risking losing the first installment of the macro-financial assistance.
On the other hand, the transferring of the disbursement of the first installment to autumn is not fully wanted by the EU either. When being provided before the elections, the assistance can become an administrative resource in the hands of the government and could also be used by the pro-Russian forces as a reason for accusing the EU of trying to influence the Moldovans’ vote.
Instead of conclusion…
The reforms done by Moldova are yet insufficiently convincing for restoring the image of the ruling party before Brussels. The independence of justice and active fight against corruption are the main requirements of the EU used as criteria for measuring the real attachment to the European integration.
Even if it comes with delay, the first installment of the macro-financial assistance has already an electoral connotation. The EU reserves the right to transfer the money even in September, but prefers to do it by July, if all the conditions are met.
With or without the EU’s wish, the European factor will be a central one in the campaign prior to the parliamentary elections of 2018. That’s why the Europeans should be very precautious and also realistic as to the involuntary or deliberate impact that they can have on the election outcome.
Areas of interes: European integration, European policies, EU's foreign policy, migration and energy security.
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