The European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), which has shaped the EU's relationship with neighboring countries since 2004, has been cleverly designed and revised since 2004 to provide ‘everything but the institutions’ to the post-Soviet and North African states, including Moldova and Ukraine. This approach has offered economic advantages while stopping short of granting membership to EU institutions. The rationale behind this approach came from the varying levels of support for Moldova and Ukraine's aspirations for EU membership among different member states. Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries, having joined the EU more recently, have generally been more enthusiastic about EU enlargement. In contrast, countries with greater influence on the EU's enlargement agenda, such as Germany, the Netherlands, and France, have displayed more caution and reservation. As a result, the ENP has tactfully bridged this gap by providing substantial benefits to Moldova and Ukraine through the Eastern Partnership via the Association Agreements.
It has never been more obvious than since the Russian was in Ukraine that for Ukraine, Moldova, (and Georgia), the process of EU integration holds a significant promise of breaking away from Russia's sphere of influence. The pursuit of closer ties with the EU has become a crucial strategy for managing and deterring Russia's territorial aggression in these countries. The ongoing war in Ukraine, with Russia's aggressive actions at the forefront, has served as a critical litmus test for the EU's enlargement agenda. It is under these challenging geopolitical circumstances that the European Political Community (EPC) has emerged, reflecting a shifting dynamic in Europe's political landscape.
The creation of the EPC signified the recognition of the urgent need for stronger cooperation and integration to address the security challenges posed by Russia and ensure a safer and more prosperous future for countries in the region. In this context, the second EPC reunion held in Moldova yielded several key results that have significant implications for the country and the broader European community. The roundtables conducted during the summit played a crucial role in addressing key issues. In terms of security, the summit emphasized the importance of regional stability and security, particularly in relation to ongoing conflicts like the war in Ukraine and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It underscored the need for a unified approach to address these shared challenges and ensure peace in the region. On the energy topic, the summit facilitated greater cooperation and dialogue between EU member states and non-EU countries, creating opportunities for enhanced economic collaboration, particularly in the fields of energy and connectivity.
Nonetheless, both EPC summits (in Prague and in Bulboaca), although centered around security and energy, offer Moldova and Ukraine a complementary pathway to EU membership, aligning with President Macron's vision expressed in his May 9 speech. The EU's enlargement fatigue, following the 2004 wave of Eastern European countries joining, has slowed down the process, leaving aspiring candidates like the Western Balkans countries in a state of uncertainty. Despite Ukraine and Moldova receiving EU candidate status a year ago, the journey to EU membership is a lengthy one, taking more than 5 years on average. Croatia's experience, which took a decade to become a full member, serves as an example. Moreover, for Ukraine, the challenges of post-war reconstruction might further extend the timeline for EU integration. Clearly the focus now will be on charting a path that enables Moldova and Ukraine to navigate EU integration effectively.
So how did EPC play a role in the enlargement process for Moldova and Ukraine, and did it build bridges to EU accession?
First, EPC is an EU-centric affair.
It is important to highlight the EU-centric nature of the initiative, with close links to the Council Presidencies, European Commission, and EEAS, each ensuring that when it comes to implementing reforms for countries aspiring to EU, these align with the EU's priorities. So, without replacing the formal EU accession process, the EPC has offered an interim forum to incentivize institutional reforms and provide greater security for Moldova and Ukraine. To support the latter, for example, the European Commission, just before the summit, announced further enhanced support for Moldova’s integration: financial packages for thermal insulation of buildings (€160mn), for modernisation of the railways (€50) and for strengthening the military (€40mn), which on top of previous financing since 2021 adds up to €1.6bn. At the same time, the points discussed on the EPC’ agenda, such as integrated approach to energy infrastructure and interconnectedness, facilitating investment and technology transfer to ensure a secure and green energy infrastructure and securitization of digital spaces, are policy areas that bind countries non-EU countries with those in the EU and overlap with the topics tackled during the enlargement process.
Second, EPC advanced a common agenda for Moldova and Ukraine.
Secondly, the active participation in current and future initiatives under the EPC provides an opportunity for partnership building and advancing common agendas, particularly for Moldova and Ukraine in their pursuit of EU integration. Although not an official agenda item, the topic of enlargement took centre stage during the debates, driven by the remarks made by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine and President Maia Sandu of Moldova. President Sandu strategically utilized the summit to reaffirm Moldova's European aspirations and express the country's goal of joining the EU by 2030. Furthermore, president Zelenskiy argued against any prolonged delay on EU and NATO enlargement emphasizing the consequence of a cumbersome enlargement – a creeping Russian annexation of the two Eastern European countries. A clear shift happened in the EU’s political landscape - even EU member states that previously marginalized countries from the Eastern Partnership and favoured the ones part of the Union for the Mediterranean, such as France, shifted their stance. President Macron now recognizes the need to provide Ukraine with tangible and credible security guarantees as it transitions towards NATO and EU membership. He acknowledges that Ukraine plays a crucial role in protecting Europe and providing security guarantees. This shift in French policy reflects a growing realization that EU enlargement is necessary to prevent candidate states from falling under Russia's geopolitical influence. It also highlights the recognition that the EU needs to enhance its decision-making processes to effectively address the evolving geopolitical landscape.
Third, EPC propelled a revamped enlargement.
The EPC's alignment with the EU's geopolitical ambitions and proposals for a revamped enlargement policy marks a significant shift in the narrative surrounding EU membership negotiations, presenting candidate countries with new prospects and advantages. The EPC should be viewed as part of the broader vision for a 'geopolitical Commission' that aims to stabilize neighbouring regions, accelerate the enlargement process, and champion multilateralism. In line with this vision, European Council President Michel put forth a proposal on May 18, 2022, expanding on President Macron's EPC initiative. This proposal emphasizes that a geopolitical community extends beyond the traditional scope of enlargement. To achieve unity within Europe, the EU must reform its enlargement policy, incorporating a phased and gradual integration approach, even while the accession process is ongoing. The European Council endorsed this ambition in June 2022, highlighting the need to advance the gradual integration between the EU and the region throughout the enlargement process in a reversible and merit-based manner, building upon a revised methodology. These developments demonstrate the EU's commitment to redefining its approach to enlargement and fostering closer ties with candidate countries.
Navigating the Winds of Change of European Integration
Given that last year European Council President Michel proposed a comprehensive reassessment of the pathway to EU membership, advocating for a faster and phased integration approach for aspiring countries, Moldova and Ukraine stand at a critical juncture in their pursuit of EU integration, as the accession process undergoes a significant paradigm shift. In fact, a new era dawns for Moldova and Ukraine as they navigate the EU integration process, with a window of opportunity opening up: obtaining tangible benefits as candidate countries throughout the accession period, rather than having rewards withheld from them until full EU membership is achieved. Such a proposal aligns with previous recommendations, including the French non-paper on enlargement policy reform from 2019. The paper proposed that negotiations be organized around policy blocks, in which candidate countries would gradually be included in combination with a principle of reversibility should be established to address situations whereby the candidate country, in whole or in part, no longer meets certain criteria or ceases to fulfil the commitments it has undertaken.
Embracing such winds of change, Moldovan and Ukrainian leadership must go beyond mere political rhetoric and demonstrate tangible results in their pursuit of fundamental reforms to ensure an equal footing with EU members. The progress made by these countries is being closely monitored by the EU, with specific conditions outlined to gauge their readiness for EU membership. According to EU Enlargement Commissioner Varhelyi, Ukraine has made progress by fulfilling two out of the seven conditions required for EU membership. These conditions include tackling corruption and implementing comprehensive judicial reforms. The Ukrainian authorities have already taken action against individuals accused of corruption, targeting politicians, civil servants, and oligarchs. For example, a former department head at the Ukrainian defense ministry is currently under investigation by the prosecutor general's office for suspected embezzlement of substantial funds. In addition, the recent arrest of the head of the Supreme Court on bribery charges, involving an amount of $2.7 million (around €2.5 million), highlights the ongoing efforts to combat corruption and uphold accountability in Ukraine. While acknowledging the positive trajectory, Varhelyi emphasized the need for Ukraine to strengthen its anti-money laundering system and take further measures against corruption. Similarly, Moldova, has fully implemented three out of nine conditions related to democratic reforms, civil-society dialogue, and human rights protection. The country has made significant strides in justice reform, de-oligarchisation, and public finance management reforms. However, the focus now must shift to combating corruption, fighting organized crime, including asset recovery and financial crime, and implementing public administration reforms. Both countries must continue their efforts and demonstrate concrete progress in these areas to advance their EU accession prospects.
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.