|Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor|
The positioning of the European Union (EU) vis-à-vis Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia in the field of accession dialogue depends on the performance of the states. The aspect of European security and the geopolitical motivation of the population of the three countries mattered for the EU at the stage of granting a European perspective in the summer of 2022. After the completion of the stage of inclusion of the eastern neighbors in the "EU enlargement package", Russian aggression no longer serves as a sufficient argument to accelerate rapprochement with the EU, while European officials insist on the exact application of the meritocratic principle in relation to all states that aspire to join the EU.
The evaluation of the degree of transposition of the European acquis in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia allows Brussels to moderate the ambitious demands of the three states (IPN, February 2023). Only Georgia is satisfied with the EU assessment and uses it to overcome the disadvantage of potential candidate status, arguing that it is comparable to Ukraine and more advanced than Moldova. The Ukrainian and Moldovan authorities are rather alerted by the insufficient progress to catch up with the countries of the Western Balkans and Turkey. The latter have a level of alignment with the European acquis that is more than 20 points higher than that of Ukraine (69 points), and more than 30 points higher than the results of Moldova - 55 points (European Pravda, February 2023). On the other hand, the result of the legislative approximation with the EU of the Eastern European neighbors is positive anyway, taking into account that Turkey received the candidacy in 1999 and Serbia in 2012.
Even after the revelations about still limited progress in the field of alignment with European law, some Ukrainian politicians are still counting on meeting the EU's requirements to open negotiations in 2024, so speedy accession would be possible as early as 2025. Optimism also prevails in Moldova, which has adjusted targets to meet EU conditions, set just after obtaining the candidacy status in June 2022. Chisinau wants to be technically ready for possible inclusion "in package" with Ukraine. Thus, the government in Chisinau moved the actions initially planned for implementation until June 2023 to the end of March (Expert-Grup, 2022). On the one hand, Georgian leaders are taking concerted steps to meet EU requirements at an accelerated pace, so as not to be left behind. However, the reputational costs of refusing to pardon former President Mihail Saakashvili, who is serving a sentence in Georgia for a series of past abuses (Agenda, February 2023), is affecting Georgia's credibility. To the same extent, the reluctance of the Georgian side to give guarantees about the exclusion of any influence of the oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili in politics and justice fuels suspicions about the insincerity of the Georgian government's intentions to advance the process of European integration (European Parliament, February 2023). Similarly, the initiative to declare the media and NGOs "foreign agents" of influence is not helping Georgia either.
The 5 principles to make reforms more efficient
To drive reforms in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, the EU needs a very clear set of rules to follow when promoting, monitoring and evaluating the quality of reforms and the effectiveness of their impact. These include the following principles: 1) overcome geopolitical biases; 2) conditionality regarding the reforms; 3) depoliticization of the rule of law; 4) capitalize on the transformative potential of elections; and 5) Europeanization of the elites.
Principle 1: Overcome geopolitical stereotypes
Above all, the EU and other external development partners in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia must disassociate themselves from the geopolitical dichotomy with which they interpret the political realities of these countries. For example, not all political actors who declare themselves to be Europeanists have an agenda that follows this approach without deviating. Such a situation may be characteristic of Georgia. At the same time, if pro-EU governments are criticized by local political forces, the latter should not be treated as sympathizers or facilitators of Russian interests. These unjustified approaches to the opposition are widespread in Moldova, even with the support of the exponents of the ruling party.
Brussels has enough tools to make a nuanced analysis and carefully contextualize the internal political rivalries in the three countries. Otherwise, there is a risk that European evaluators will ignore signals coming from opposition forces about deficiencies in the implementation of certain reforms. Combating geopolitical biases is especially imperative in the context of Russian aggression, when government exponents can discredit the opposition's healthy skepticism through negative association, often out of inertia, with pro-Russian forces.
Principle 2: Conditionality attached to reforms
Although the reforms related to the EU accession dialogue are a priority for the governments of Kyiv, Chisinau and Tbilisi, they cannot be left solely to the goodwill of political actors in these countries. As the recent high-profile corruption case related to the use of foreign assistance to Ukraine demonstrated, there are political actors and groups seeking to benefit from the prioritization of the defense objective against Russian threats. To avoid these cases, the EU is obliged to intervene through its conditionality mechanism, which according to European standards must be linked to any external (non-humanitarian) aid provided by the EU.
In the conditions of war and the myriad crises facing the three countries, conditionality must include some measure of flexibility. However, the reforms that the three governments have committed to implement in key sectors (rule of law, etc.) require close monitoring and sanction (delaying or not offering promised assistance). As a first step, arising from the completely different situation in Moldova compared to Ukraine, the EU should ensure a thorough control of how the conditionality is applied to this country. In the period 2021-2022, Moldova received around €1.1 billion from the EU in the form of grants and loans. The EU committed to offer another 145 million as macro-financial assistance in 2023. However, there is no clear report from the EU specifying how many of the reforms that make up the EU's conditionality towards Moldova have been implemented. It remains unclear what is the result obtained and how the situation in the reformed area is evolving. Such EU reports would help the opposition, civil society and the media to hold the government accountable, making the process of European integration even more meritocratic.
Principle 3: Depoliticization of the rule of law
To exclude the use of justice as a political tool, the EU approach must include a depoliticization of reforms targeting the judiciary. Attempts by political actors to clean the system of corrupt judges and prosecutors must follow strict rules to avoid setting dangerous precedents. To avoid systemic resistance against reforms in this sensitive sector, European actors must discourage representatives of the national governments of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia from intimidating judges.
Public statements by which country presidents, ministers or parliamentarians warn judges that their decisions will be taken into account in the evaluation process constitute an indirect form of political interference in the reform. Therefore, judges can issue decisions that are politically convenient for the government, but then they could be lost in the European Court of Human Rights because they violate international conventions. Similar episodes were found in Moldova. In the case of Ukraine, the Venice Commission criticized the way in which the Constitutional Court is intended to be reformed, as there is a risk that the institution could be politically subordinated by the country's president (Kyiv Independent, December 2022). The risk of the courts remaining politicized remains high in Georgia. The non-reform of the self-administration body in the Georgian judicial sector leaves unresolved the problem of "clans of judges", which can develop loyalty based on political criteria (Civil.ge, November 2022).
Principle 4: Harness the potential of elections
The democratization of the three countries represents the safest investment in their European future as members of the EU. Therefore, it is in the interest of Brussels to request that the reforms related to electoral legislation correspond to the recommendations of the Venice Commission, which, unlike local actors (civil society, etc.), has a higher degree of impartiality. The increase in the quality of the elections reduces suspicions about the legitimacy of the winning political forces. In the context of Russian disinformation, the EU must be proactive in excluding the possible challenge of the results of the upcoming elections in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.
Harnessing the potential of elections is strategic in the case of Moldova and Georgia. Against the backdrop of the consequences of the energy crisis and the populism of the opposition leaning towards Russia, the political situation of the pro-EU ruling forces is fragile. Local elections this fall will test President Maia Sandu's ability to help her party (Action and Solidarity Party) win the most votes, consolidating positions ahead of the 2024 presidential election. Critical elections in Georgia is in the 2024 legislative elections, when the proportional principle will be applied and the electoral threshold will be 2%. The EU must put a lot of emphasis on these Georgian elections, because its misconduct could radicalize the Georgian parliament instead of democratizing it. In the case of Ukraine, the presidential elections scheduled for 2024 are predetermined by Volodymyr Zelensky's exceptional contribution to his ability to rally the West around the Ukrainian cause against Russian aggression.
Principle 5: Europeanization of the elites
The efficient and accelerated European integration of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia will be influenced by the existence of a free circulation of pro-EU elites at the national level. For now, the tendency of the EU is to favor communication strictly with the Europeanist political forces in the government and/or in the parliamentary opposition. The concentration of pro-EU political capital in a small number of hands is extremely risky in political environments where a high degree of political and geopolitical polarization persists: Georgia and Moldova. Ukraine is rather an exception, given the exclusion of pro-Russian forces from political life, for reasons of national security, at least during the war.
The EU must reduce its dependence on a limited number of political forces on the principle of its "distance from power" and the act of governing. These forces are tempted to exploit the lack of alternatives for the EU. Therefore, the Europeanization of the elites, after a diversification prior to that, represents a saving scenario for the continued generation of pro-EU electoral options for the voters of Georgia and Moldova. The monopoly of political power by the same political parties, even if they are pro-European, implies hidden risks for the sustainability of the European vector in the three countries, but also for the quality of democracy.
In lieu of conclusions
The progress made so far by Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia is real, even if in some cases there are justifiable doubts about the quality of certain reforms. It is clear that the EU has political sympathies with various local political actors, which it tends to view positively, even if a more critical approach is (sometimes) imperative.
EU actions in relation to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia should be the result of full knowledge of local political processes. Any partial, superficial or romanticized approach can be detrimental to the reforms, the sustainability of which requires impartiality in the evaluation of the results and the use of updated data on the evolution of internal political processes.
Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU's foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.
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