In April 2018, it will be four years of the coming into force of the visa-free regime for Moldovan citizens who possess biometric passports. The number of trips made by Moldovans to the Schengen Area and the EU member states rose by about 30% in 2013-2015, from about 83,000 a year in 2013 to approximately 108,000 in 2015. During the first three years of the introduction of the visa-free regime, about 1 million Moldovans made about 3 million trips to the Schengen Area and the EU member states, including Romania. In 2015 alone, the Moldovan citizens saved about €3.7 million, which would have been paid for Schengen visas if the visa regime had been in force (IPN, April 18, 2017).
The facilitation of the visa-free travel in 2014 and Moldova’s entry into the European Common Aviation Area in 2012 significantly contributed to increasing the flow of persons and, subsequently, to intensifying inter-human contacts, strengthening the human dimension of the EU – Moldova relations. The liberalization of visas favored the multiple families of Moldovan migrants in Europe, which totaled over 300,000 people or at least 10% of the country’s population. An active process of socializing with the European landscape became possible for a broader part of civil society and the mass media of Moldova. Among the beneficiaries of the visa-free regime was also the business sector and Moldova’s exports to the EU market were boosted additionally, rising to approximately 65% of the total exports in 2016. This fostered the official, informal and sector relations between the EU and Moldova, generating a series of unintentional positive consequences for both of the sides.
The maintaining and amplification of the results of the visa-free regime depend on the way in which the Moldovan authorities fulfill the commitments made to the European partners. Corruption and organized crime at home are major, already chronic problems faced by Moldova. Besides discrediting the authorities, the weakness of the anti-corruption policies has negative effects on the environment and the dissatisfaction of society in general. The effects of corruption are extremely profound and with a long-term impact and can be measured in the rise in the population’s appetite for legal and illegal migration to the EU, including in the illegalities committed by groups of Moldovan citizens while in European states.
The main tendencies related to the implementation of the visa-free regime are highlighted in the European Commission’s first report on the visa suspension mechanism that became mandatory in 2017. The report provides a synthesis of the way in which eight countries that benefit from the visa-free regime (Western Balkan and Eastern Partnership countries), including Moldova, fulfill the visa liberalization benchmarks. This lays emphasis on problematic cases only. Namely for this reason, even if it reveals worrisome data, the report (European Commission, December 2017) concludes that all the countries assessed fulfill the visa liberalization requirements. But the European side insists on the necessity of stepping up action to fight corruption, organized crime and illegal migration in whose absence the violation of the visa-free regime is inevitable and, respectively, is punishable by suspension.
Negative tendencies, but without major or immediate risks for visa suspension
Some of the opposition media sources and the main party of the extraparliamentary opposition led by Maia Sandu (PAS) used the conclusions of the report to warn about the risk of losing the visa-free regime. But these omitted, not out of ignorance most probably, the fact that the EU report says both Moldova and the other seven countries generally meet the conditions of the visa-free regime. The fact that Moldova is outside any risk was reiterated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration, which presented the updated context of reforms and the percentage of illegal stays and entry refusals that fluctuate, but are yet within the limits accepted by the EU.
Even if there is no major or immediate risk for the suspension of visas, the report points to negative tendencies witnessed in Moldova. Thus, it is worrisome that the Moldovans do not feel safe in the country and continue to seek asylum in Europe or that they deliberately abuse the conditions of the stay, etc. This is also due to the state institutions’ reduced capacity and the weak political will to fight corruption and organized crime at home and to prevent thus their migration to the EU, by liberalizing visas with the leaving of citizens.
Unlike Ukraine or Georgia, which have benefitted from the visa-free regime since 2017 only, the Moldovan authorities had three years after the abolition of the visa requirements in April 2014 to ensure irreproachable progress. But these showed the opposite in a number of critical areas. The frauds committed in the Moldovan banking system in 2012-2014 show the serious consequences of the gross relaxing by Chisinau after the effective liberalization of the visa regime. On the other hand, this clearly shows that the EU’s vigilance of the anticorruption reforms in the period decreased drastically. Therefore, the new European visa suspension mechanism is beneficial for signaling crime and corruption epicenters in the given states and for exerting additional constructive influence on the authorities.
What does first post visa-free regime provision monitoring show?
Even if it was published in December 2017, the commission’s report was massively exploited by the press and a part of the opposition only in the second week of January 2018. It happened practically simultaneously with the appointment of the new members of the Government led by Pavel Filip, after the new suspension of President Dodon from office (IPN, January 9, 2018). The corruption and money laundering mentioned in the report continue to be the major neuralgic points of the government. The PDM intends to restart the justice sector reform and to more effectively fight corruption in 2018, also because the EU included these in the list of sector conditions for receiving the €100 million in macro-financial assistance. Owing to the eroded integrity and seriously undermined legitimacy, until the future renewal of Parliament and the political power the current government will be treated with maximum distrust, especially when it adopts the anticorruption rhetoric.
The report includes a series of important conclusions that are needed to understand the realities of the countries of the region and the challenges that hamper the complete implementation of the conditions that guarantee the keeping of the visa-free regime intact.
Primo, even if the report confirms that the visa-free regime is not in danger for any of the eight assessed countries, this also shows that Moldova, Ukraine and Albania are among the countries that lag behind the most in implementing a number of measures. Corruption fighting is a difficult sector common to Moldova and Ukraine.
Segundo, the initiatives promoted by the government of Moldova, which can actually encourage corruption and money laundering (capital amnesty in 2016 and decriminalization of economic offenses in 2017-2018) are clearly stated. In other words, Brussels possesses facts and relies on the concerns expressed by civil society, which is the active public in Moldova.
Tertio, the report contains six recommendations that refer first of all to the consolidation of the legislation and anticorruption institutions. These measures should be taken by the Moldovan authorities to ensure sustainable and continuous reforms that are essential for the uninterrupted functioning of the visa-free regime in the future.
Ultimately, the report enables to compare the situation in five Western Balkan states with clear EU membership perspectives with the situation in the other three states, including Moldova, whose European perspectives haven’t been yet validated. It is confirmed that the Western Balkans are stricken mainly by organized crime, while the Eastern Partnership countries are paralyzed rather by corruption. Both of the problems reduce the capacity of the states to guarantee the supremacy of the law and this affects their resistance and negatively impacts the speed of reforms.
Significance of new suspension mechanism
The introduction of a new monitoring and reporting mechanism for the countries that benefit from visa-free travel appeared in reaction to the crisis of illegal migrants and asylum seekers of 2015. Even if the wave of irregular migration used mainly the Western Balkans as a transit zone to the EU, the visa suspension mechanism reviewed in 2016-2017 includes also the EaP countries that were exempted from Schengen visas – Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia.
Besides extending the circumstances for the suspension of visas, the European side simplified the conditions for re-introducing checks inside the EU. The readjustment of the Schengen Area to the new realities is an initiative that refers to major problems of internal security of the European states that face the challenges of illegal migration and risks of terrorism and other related threats.
However, the visa suspension mechanism is designed not to measure the progress or to penalize the countries with shortcomings, but rather to create a permanent surveillance framework that will enable to increase the sustainability of reforms that are critical for the rule of law. This refers to the strengthening of the anticorruption institutions and elimination of sources that cause organized crime and other illegal activities.
For Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia, this mechanism is an instrument complementary to the Association Agenda, centered on the implementation of the Association Agreement with the EU, which is reviewed once in two years. It is a complementary framework that is aimed at corruption. Even if it overlaps the Association Agenda in parts, the visa suspension mechanism requests the countries with visa-free regimes to fulfill particular conditions defined in reports published at least once a year. More limited areas are featured, while the major focus in the case of Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine is on the pursuing of anticorruption policies and fighting of organized crime.
Even if illegal migration and the requests for asylum from these countries to the EU persist, their share is insignificant for Brussels. The main recommendations to the authorities of Moldova, Ukraine or Georgia refer to the intensification of communication with the citizens about the obligations that derive from the visa-free regime and the better management of migration.
When can the suspension mechanism be triggered?
The pace of illegal migration that involves Moldovans or the existence of a demand for asylum in the EU confirms that Moldova is far from being stable and attractive for its own citizens. Moreover, the Moldovans leave for the EU using Romanian passports or legalize their stay while they are there. But the perpetuation of negative phenomena that involve Moldovans is insufficient for the EU to invoke the visa suspension mechanism.
A series of extreme circumstances should be identified for the suspension of visas to be possible. These include a substantial increase (more than 50%) of irregular migration, including people found to be staying irregularly, and persons refused entry at the border, and of asylum applications; a decrease of cooperation on readmission, and an increased risk to the security of EU member states, in particular serious criminal offences. Moreover, the Commission can also trigger the mechanism in case certain requirements are no longer met as regards the fulfillment of the visa liberalization benchmarks by third countries that have gone through a visa liberalization dialogue.
Hypothetically, the mechanism is triggered by one of the aforementioned circumstances to which the Commission reacts with a thorough assessment of the impact. Only with the approval of the majority of the member states will the Commission initiate a suspension for a period of nine months, with regard to a specific category of citizens, not to the whole population that benefits from the visa-free regime. If the situation is not remedied by the third country after nine months, the visas will be reintroduced for all the holders of biometric passports for a period of one year and six months. If the sources of the problem are not removed in the period, the country is put again on the list of countries with Schengen visa regimes. Analyzing these aspects, we can easily deduce that Moldova is for now far from the risk of having the visa-free regime suspended.
Instead of conclusion...
Even if the problem of corruption in Moldova is pressing and worries society, not only the foreign partners, this is not a reason for triggering the visa suspension mechanism reviewed by the EU in 2016-2017.
Neither the illegal stays of Moldovans nor the number of asylum applications reached the limits that can sound the alarm in the EU and force the reintroduction of visas for Moldovans.
The importance of the new suspension mechanism resides in the fact that the EU introduces one more instrument for monitoring reforms related to the rule of law. This is a headache for the government of Moldova and an additional tool for the opposition and civil society for exerting pressure in an electoral context.
The liberalization of visas for Moldovans is for now outside any major risk. But the probability of suspension of visas will always be high as long as the quality of governance is dubious, the rule of law is volatile and corruption persists in different forms and dimensions as a practiced or tolerated method of daily survival of the public system and, respectively, of a large part of society.
Areas of interes: European integration, European policies, EU's foreign policy, migration and energy security.
Follow Dionis Cenuşa 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.