Prevalence of the geopolitical factor in the EU accession agenda of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. Analysis by Dionis Cenușa



Geopolitical security issues should be managed in parallel with meeting accession requirements and carrying out necessary reforms, not before or instead of reforms...


Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor

The destabilization of Eastern Europe, under the pressure of the Russian war against Ukraine, determined a paradigm shift in terms of enlargement and security within the European Union (EU). After Russia's revisionist protests produced serious ramifications for regional security beyond Ukrainian borders, the process of European enlargement towards the East became an acceptable geopolitical strategy at the European level. In addition to the perception that the geography of enlargement includes non-Balkan territories, the EU also implied that the inclusion of Eastern European countries in the enlargement package is aimed at securitizing the neighborhood. In other words, the impossibility of expanding the coverage of NATO's collective defense umbrella is pushing to use the European project to remove Eastern Europe from the "gray zone" of Russian influence.

The EU's attention in bilateral relations with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia is focused on several aspects, such as: the immediate needs of resistance to war, the management of humanitarian and economic crises (diverting trade routes and restoring energy security, among others), as well as the formation of a coalition around Ukraine, which implies adherence to sanctions against Russia. Although the reform agenda has not disappeared from sight, the EU has taken a differentiated (and somewhat uneven) approach to assessing the progress made by the governments in Kyiv, Chisinau and Tbilisi. Under pressure from Eurosceptic national capitals within the EU (Hungary, Slovakia, etc.), European institutions have called on Ukraine to implement reforms in several sensitive areas, especially those related to the legal framework covering national minorities. As in the case of Ukraine, but for different reasons, the EU has been demanding reforms in Georgia. The involvement of the oligarchic factor (Bidzina Ivanishvili) and the Georgian government's political opposition to the EU's reformist pressures created delays in Georgia's pre-accession schedule. Until now, Moldova had the easiest path, with respect to which Brussels did not apply the same level of demand as in the case of Ukraine or Georgia. The interference of criminal political actors (Ilan Șor) and their alignment with Russian interests limits the EU's ability to show decisive objectivity towards the actions of the Moldovan government. Consequently, the EU faces the difficult task of guaranteeing the balance between the demand for comprehensive reforms and the unconditional support of the government in Chisinau, mainly due to the geopolitical positioning of the latter favorable to the European vector.

The characteristics of the EU enlargement policy towards Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia

Both the approval of the accession negotiations of Ukraine and Moldova and the granting of candidate country status to Georgia highlighted a drastic revision of the EU enlargement policy with regard to (1) the speed of the adoption process of political-bureaucratic decisions, (2) the prevalence of geopolitical calculations and (3) the political favoring of pro-European regimes in the candidate countries of the eastern neighborhood.

First of all, Brussels resorts to a "utile haste" to set the speed with which the European bureaucracy addresses the enlargement policy towards the East (EESC, October 2022). Precisely in this context, the EU institutions granted Ukraine and Moldova candidate country status in less than six months after submitting their application for membership (in February-June 2022). Therefore, the speed with which the EU integrated its Eastern European neighbors into the "enlargement package" was twice as fast as that of North Macedonia, where the decision took almost a year (between 2004 and 2005). The discrepancy is even more significant when compared to the highly polarized Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the EU took six years to grant candidate country status (between 2016 and 2022), which is 12 times slower than in the case of Ukraine and Moldova. The EU favored Ukraine and Moldova even compared to other countries in the region, such as Georgia, which achieved candidacy in about 18 months or more than 3 times slower.

The second characteristic of the EU's enlargement policy, which is in a process of profound metamorphosis, consists of the predominance of geopolitical reasoning over the transformative objective and the gradual Europeanization of the candidate states. Ukraine's rapid progress towards the prospect of accession denotes strong EU inspiration in crisis management approaches, where containment and minimization of contagion risks prevail. The EU's "open door" policy towards Ukraine aimed above all to combat security threats generated by Russian military aggression. As a result of the adjustment of the former function of enlargement policy, that of transformation, the EU loads the connotation of the future wave of enlargement with a geopolitical reasoning based on the necessity of securitization. These changes already require the revision of the enlargement methodology, which will facilitate a gradual institutional-sectoral integration in the EU, even if actual accession to the EU may become more complicated (EESC, November 2023). At the same time, during this process, the EU is ready to proactively challenge the Russian sphere of influence over the Eastern Partnership states. Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are the countries on the front line of the geopolitical dispute, which could eventually be joined by Armenia, whose dialogue with Moscow is in continuous decline.

The third aspect that characterizes the current mindset regarding EU enlargement policy refers to geopolitical favoritism towards the national governments of the candidate countries. Pro-European rhetoric must be combined with a rejection of strategic relations with Russia, at least during Russian military aggression against Ukraine. For this reason, the EU approaches reforms in the area of the rule of law (justice, etc.) more rigorously, if the governments of the candidate countries show Euroscepticism. The manifestation of the latter may include initiatives that undermine European values (civil society, media, LGBT rights, etc.) or seek to improve sectoral relations with Russia (trade, transport, etc.). In this sense, Georgia represents a completely opposite example to that of Ukraine and Moldova. Currently, the Georgian government is discussing the adoption of restrictive legislation related to LGBT rights (the so-called fight against LGBT propaganda) and at the same time facilitating the intensification of trade ties with Russia. This has translated into an influx of Russian citizens and an increase in Georgian wine exports (Transparency Int., February 2024). Under the impact of this evidence, the EU's willingness to draw more attention to the quality of reforms in Georgia is clearly greater than in the case of Ukraine and Moldova. Regarding Ukraine, the EU admits the existence of limitations due to the war situation (European Commission, March 2024). However, the Ukrainian side is implementing reforms in the area of the rule of law, because access to external financing depends on them, not only the dynamics of EU accession. The most complex situation is in Moldova, where reforms related to the judicial sector are dragging on and the EU refrains from openly criticizing deficiencies. This inhibition can be explained by an exaggerated fear that EU criticism could contribute to the erosion of the legitimacy of the Moldovan government ahead of the autumn 2024 presidential elections and the 2025 parliamentary elections. In all three cases, the EU's critical approach to the quality of reforms depends on the behavior of domestic civil society, which shows the highest degree of impartiality towards government actors in Georgia, followed by Ukraine. The most modest level of impartiality is recorded in Moldova; NGOs with a significant impact on the public agenda rarely resort to condemning the government for failed reforms, citing the same argument as the EU: the presence of Russian hybrid risks.

EU conditionality towards Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia

The political circumstances in the Eastern European candidate countries are in an uncertain situation and have by no means reached a point of irreversibility in terms of European integration. However, the EU sends extremely positive messages, approving the performance of the Ukrainian and Moldovan governments without insisting on resolving pressing areas. The EU report on the November 2023 "enlargement package" explicitly states that accession negotiations with these countries can only take place after the indicated conditions are met. However, already three months later, in March 2024, the European Commission highlighted that progress had been made, avoiding specifying the degree of compliance with the requirements imposed on Ukraine (4 conditions) and Moldova (3 conditions). Although the results of the two countries' implementation of the conditions have not yet been presented to the public, the European Commission has already developed the negotiating framework for Ukraine and Moldova. It includes three components: (1) negotiation principles; (2) the content of the negotiations, as well as (3) the negotiation procedures. In parallel, both Eastern European countries must continue to transpose the European acquis. On the other side, the EU's position towards Georgia is currently more reserved. Although it has recognized its status as a candidate country, Brussels continues to condition this status on the application of 9 conditions by Georgia, which must implement twice as many conditions as Ukraine and Moldova.

Among the most sensitive issues being debated in Ukraine is the selection of judges for the all-powerful Constitutional Court. The greatest risk lies in the promotion to positions of "judges loyal" to the political groups in power. So far, 8 of a total of 25 candidates have been selected in the first round, and the process is described as "transparent and objective." In the case of Moldova, the biggest problem is the impossibility of electing the new Prosecutor General. The competition has already failed twice, despite the fact that the Superior Council of Prosecutors, involved in the selection, went through the prior pre-vetting procedures initiated by the current government. In November 2023, only one file was submitted to the contest, which led to its cancellation. Subsequently, after the competition was repeated in February 2024, the results were revoked due to suspicions that a member of the selection board had sabotaged the final grades. The appointment of a Prosecutor General in a transparent and meritocratic manner is one of the EU's three conditions for starting accession negotiations with Moldova. The most complicated situation can be seen in Georgia, which is facing the political polarization of the country. What is at risk is not so much the unity of the population's pro-European sentiment, which is stronger than in Ukraine or Moldova. Political polarization in Georgia discredits positive pressure, coming internally from civic actors and the opposition and externally from the EU. This jeopardizes the continuity and integrity of the reforms necessary to reach the stage of accession negotiations.

In lieu of conclusions…

Although geopolitics determined the opening of the EU's enlargement policy towards Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, the continuation and deepening of this process will depend not on the degree of alignment of these candidate states with the EU in the security dimension, but on the results that occur in the area of reforms. Excessive geopoliticization of the accession agenda can undermine the quality of the EU's monitoring of real progress. Geopolitical security issues should be managed in parallel with meeting accession requirements and carrying out necessary reforms, not before or instead of reforms.

Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor
Dionis Cenușa is a political scientist, researcher at the Institute of Political Sciences at Liebig-Justus University in Giessen, Germany, MA degree in Interdisciplinary European Studies from the College of Europe in Warsaw.
Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU's foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.
Follow Dionis Cenușa on Twitter

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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