History in the Making: opening EU negotiations with Moldova. Op-ed by Dr. Dorina Baltag



This means that Moldovan officials, institutions, and EU integration stakeholders such as mass-media, civil society organizations, academia and the business community, should partner in conveying their dedication to EU values and the benefits of the essential reforms required, through effective public diplomacy strategies...


Dorina Baltag

The recent recommendations by the European Commission and decisions of EU leaders in November and December 2023 respectively, regarding the initiation of accession negotiations with Moldova, mark a significant milestone in the European Union's enlargement strategy. Against the backdrop of regional challenges, including Russia's war in Ukraine and hybrid attacks on Moldova, the Council's latest conclusions, adopted in December 2023, commend Moldova's substantial steps towards meeting the criteria for candidate status. These achievements underscore Moldova's commitment to reforms, particularly in crucial areas such as the rule of law, justice, fundamental rights, and the fight against corruption. To continue advancing the relationship with the European Union, Moldovan leaders should step-up their reform process and take advantage of the EU’s revised enlargement methodology. The Council emphasized the significance of maximizing the capabilities inherent in current legal frameworks and is open to reviewing suggestions for a gradual, step-by-step integration process towards complete membership. This would include enhancing the collaboration with EU in specific sectors of mutual interest.

A very powerful (geo)political decision

Leaders representing the 27 European Union nations convened in Brussels during the December summit, where European Council President Charles Michel welcomed the decision to initiate accession talks as a profoundly impactful geopolitical gesture. In an unprecedented move, the European Council opted to commence accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova. EU leaders recognize that the bloc's geopolitical significance hinges on integrating its eastern flank. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock emphasized that the entire European continent would face increased vulnerability should the EU refrain from expanding. This geopolitical move was made clear earlier, when the European Commission, for the first time, endorsed formal accession discussions before a nation fulfilled all prerequisites.

It was the full-scale Russian invasion in Ukraine that accelerated the typically sluggish process of approving new EU members. Even more so, the Commission indicated that the commencement of technical work could start immediately upon EU leaders' approval of the talks. This swift action aims to facilitate the adoption of the negotiating framework — the blueprint for negotiations — once both Ukraine and Moldova accomplish necessary reforms. Both Ukraine and Moldova attained official EU candidate status shortly after Russia's invasion into Ukraine with tanks, reigniting EU enlargement after a prolonged pause. That decision alone underscored a geopolitical dimension, positioning the EU as an involuntary yet imperative geopolitical actor.

Against such background the Council reaffirmed its unwavering commitment to the EU membership aspirations of the Western Balkans, Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, emphasizing their future within the European Union. The Council's conclusions underscored enlargement as a strategic investment in peace, security, stability, and prosperity with a geostrategic significance. It is regarded as a catalyst for enhancing the economic and social conditions of European citizens, minimizing disparities among nations, and must uphold the foundational values of the Union.

Russia’s invisible hand

There have been consistent claims of Orbán's proximity to Moscow, despite the EU's punitive measures against Russia. The actions by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán have added a layer of complexity to the discussions regarding Ukraine's accession negotiations with the European Union. Following the EU's decision to commence accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova, Orbán utilized his veto power, impeding a critical €50-billion aid package intended for the war-stricken nation. By exerting his veto, Orbán effectively thwarted the consensus, as unanimity is required for budgetary decisions within the EU, resulting in the inability of leaders to proceed with the essential fund.

In the lead-up to the EU meeting, Orbán had expressed reservations about Ukraine's readiness for negotiations and questioned the European Commission's neutrality as an impartial evaluator. Despite Ukraine being designated as a candidate country in the previous year, it was required to fulfill seven specified reforms as a precondition for commencing talks. The Commission acknowledged Ukraine's substantial progress, having fulfilled four of the seven reforms completely, with ongoing efforts in areas like anti-corruption, de-oligarchisation, and minority rights. This assessment contradicted Budapest's vehement opposition, challenging Kyiv's advancement to the next negotiation phase.

Meanwhile Orbán's actions drew commendation from the Kremlin, given his close ties to Russia, which labeled the EU's decision to initiate accession talks with Kyiv as a politicized move that might destabilize the bloc. To counter Hungary’s veto, the European Commission authorized the release of €10 billion in cohesion funds for Hungary, nearly a year after freezing the funds due to ongoing concerns regarding the country's failure to address persistent rule-of-law issues.

Moldova to step up its reform efforts

The foundational step toward accession involves meeting the essential criteria outlined for membership, commonly known as the 'Copenhagen criteria'. These prerequisites encompass several fundamental elements: the establishment of stable institutions upholding democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and safeguarding the rights of minorities; the development of a functional market economy capable of withstanding competition and aligning with EU market dynamics; and the ability to proficiently adopt and execute the obligations of membership, encompassing adherence to the goals of political, economic, and monetary union.

There has been notable rapid progress in Ukraine and Moldova's reform toward EU accession, prompting confidence among Commission officials that both nations will resolve outstanding issues by the stipulated deadline of March 24. Nonetheless, the trajectory of negotiations depends significantly on the pace of reforms and alignment with EU laws within each respective country. It's crucial to note that the duration of negotiations can vary substantially and commencing negotiations simultaneously with another country doesn't ensure a synchronous conclusion. The speed and efficiency of reforms and the harmonization process with EU laws will dictate the overall pace and trajectory of accession negotiations.

Chisinau has demonstrated substantial commitment to EU integration by fulfilling six out of nine European Commission steps towards candidacy: reforming the judicial system and the electoral code, bolstering gender equality, and enhancing the involvement of civil society in the decision-making process. Moreover, commendable efforts have been made in advancing the management of public finances and pursuing de-oligarchization initiatives. Acknowledging Moldova's dedicated efforts, the Council emphasized the necessity for sustained and tangible progress in these key domains to facilitate Moldova's accession trajectory.

Implementing reforms based on the legislative frameworks in place, which are already in alignment with EU acquis, becomes of utmost important, if Moldova is seriously committed to making the European dream a reality. In this sense, the country is urged to:

- focus on comprehensive justice reform, including the vetting process, and strengthening institutions combating corruption. Notably, the establishment of a robust record of investigations and convictions, particularly in high-level cases, stands as a pivotal component of this progress;

- advance economic and financial sector reforms, emphasizing transformative measures, sectoral cooperation, and enhanced integration within the EU internal market. Leveraging the EU-Moldova association agreement and the deep and comprehensive free trade areas agreement between the EU, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine is pivotal in this pursuit;

- to fortify the public administration and align increasingly with the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy positions, including the adoption of restrictive measures. These collective steps are crucial in ensuring Moldova's continued progression towards European integration.

Other EU integration ingredients to consider

Adhering to and actively promoting the EU core values underpinning the European Union, alongside fulfilling the necessary obligations for EU membership, stand as imperative benchmarks for all aspiring countries seeking to join. Emphasizing the significance of the rule of law as a foundational EU value, the Council underscored its indispensable role in advancing toward EU membership. Consistent and irreversible advancements in reforming the rule of law, fundamental rights, the efficacy of democratic institutions (including efforts to reduce polarization), public administration, and economic standards persist as pivotal yardsticks by which progress towards EU membership is evaluated.

And finally, the Council emphasized the crucial necessity for all countries to engage in transparent and comprehensive communication with their citizens regarding the advantages and responsibilities associated with their individual paths towards EU integration. This means that Moldovan officials, institutions, and EU integration stakeholders such as mass-media, civil society organizations, academia and the business community, should partner in conveying their dedication to EU values and the benefits of the essential reforms required, through effective public diplomacy strategies.

Dorina Baltag
Dorina Baltag is a PostDoctoral Researcher at the Institute for Diplomacy and International Governance at Loughboroug h University (London campus). Her research covers democratisation in the Eastern Partnership and EU diplomacy related topics. You can liaise with her at linkedin.com/in/dorina-baltag/.

IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.

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