Differentiated European accession: the imminent decoupling of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. Analysis by Dionis Cenușa



If it is not the vetoes that can (most likely) arise repeatedly in the case of Ukraine, including non-Hungarian ones, then the internal reform processes and the (in)stability of the pro-European orientation will influence the multiple speeds with which Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia to the EU...


Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor

The only Eastern Partnership countries with Association Agreements (Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia) entered the EU enlargement package in the period 2022-2023. This separated them from the rest of the EU's eastern neighboring states, where authoritarian regimes dominate (Russia, Belarus and Azerbaijan) or a strong counterbalancing toward the EU is attempted (Armenia). Currently, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia have the status of candidate countries, and the first two received, in June 2024, positive approval from the European Commission to start accession negotiations. At this moment, Brussels cannot separate Ukraine from Moldova for political and geostrategic reasons. As a result, Moldova's European path will for now remain closely intertwined with that of Ukraine, which, in turn, depends considerably on the circumstances of the ongoing war.

After the European Commission qualified Ukraine and Moldova as ready for the start of negotiations, the 27 Member States must also give a positive and unanimous response in the EU Council (national governments). Hungary may be the only country interested in postponing the start of negotiations with Ukraine. The Hungarian blockade is not provided for in the Moldovan file. Until now, Victor Orban has never shown himself in negative terms towards Chisinau. Although the Moldovan authorities would agree to start negotiations as soon as possible, starting them before Ukraine would cause discontent among Ukrainian and European partners. Both Brussels and the EU national capitals, as well as Chisinau, are aware that without Kyiv's powerful and relentless appeal, neither Moldova nor Georgia would have become EU candidate countries. At least as long as the Russian war of aggression lasts, the EU will be pressured by the moral argument to put Ukraine's needs first. This aspect is inevitable, given that, according to EU plans, the steps of Ukraine's European integration are linked to its post-war reconstruction. For this reason, the Moldovan authorities are striving to include Moldova in the EU's multidimensional post-war recovery plans (economy, energy, infrastructure, etc.) and Europeanization (legislative, institutional and public policies) of Ukraine.

The European parliamentary elections (June 6-9) and Hungary's rotating presidency of the EU Council would in no way have the potential to disrupt the agenda of accession negotiations set for Ukraine and Moldova. If they arise, the main obstacles to accession negotiations may be local developments, such as the military situation in Ukraine or the temporary position of certain Member States, such as Hungary. The lack of prospects of starting a path towards Ukraine's accession to NATO, an aspect that will in any case be discussed at the NATO summit in Washington (July 9-11, 2024), demands that the West offer some kind of compromise Ukraine by including it in a viable scenario for the EU's enlargement towards the East.  Ukraine will therefore be part of any Western calculation, and its support will be seen as a critical investment in protecting its eastern border against a revanchist and militarizing Russia. Moldova and Georgia will have somewhat different trajectories, which will largely depend on the internal political situation, rather than regional security issues.

Gradual decoupling

The EU already uses the differentiation principle to manage the accession processes of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. Due to Moldova's alignment with Ukraine's speed, these countries are currently treated as part of a "single package." In this way, the EU also rewarded the Moldovan leadership's unconditional support for Western efforts to help Ukraine during the war. Unlike other neighboring EU countries, Chisinau did not obstruct the transit of Ukrainian grain, although this came at costs for Moldovan farmers. The Moldovan side also secured national transportation routes and infrastructure to deliver goods for Ukraine's wartime needs. In addition, up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees would still remain on the territory of Moldova. In other words, Moldova's geopolitical alignment towards the EU and Ukraine is being recognized and further encouraged through the acceleration of the preparatory steps towards accession talks.

Georgia is not part of the "Ukrainian-Moldovan package" due to the tense relations that the Tbilisi government has with Brussels, on the one hand, and with the opposition, civil society and opposition media, on the other. The adoption of the law "on the transparency of foreign influence" (IPN, June 2024), together with Russian legislation criminalizing the activities of foreign-funded NGOs and media, sparked massive anti-government protests and attracted the first international sanctions against the government (individual sanctions by the US). Authoritarian-type of legislation and animosities between the Georgian government and the EU make any serious discussion about starting accession negotiations with Georgia impossible in the near future. Consequently, Georgia has already naturally separated from Ukraine and Moldova, and the latter will eventually decouple due to events in Ukraine (the war) or as a result of the situation in Moldova (the transfer of power towards Eurosceptic and/or pro-Russian political forces).

Three main factors in the decoupling process

The determining factors of the current and future decoupling between Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia refer to the veto power, which can become "abuse", within the EU (intra-community opposition), to the situation on the battlefield in Ukraine (the geopolitical situation and security factor) and the internal politics of the three countries (dynamics of reforms).

From the point of view of opposition to a possible expansion within the EU towards the east, attention is currently focused only on Hungary and its position towards Ukraine due to the synchronization of geopolitical views between Orban and Moscow. In reality, as demonstrated by the case of North Macedonia or Turkey, two other candidate countries, the veto can appear in the process of accession negotiations of other Member States for various reasons, including political ones. In the case of Ukraine, however, obstacles may arise due to competition for positions in the European single market. France, Italy, Spain and even Poland are sensitive to European budget allocations for agriculture, a field in which Ukraine can become a huge competitor for European producers. Potential intra-EU blockades therefore risk further affecting Ukraine's trajectory, creating additional reasons to decouple Ukraine from Moldova, Georgia being already on a different pace of EU accession.

The second factor that will further influence differentiation and decoupling, respectively, is the dynamics of the Russian war of aggression. The absorption of political attention and financial resources for war needs can slow down efforts on the side of European integration. Kyiv will therefore need to integrate wartime defense and reconstruction efforts with as many elements of European integration as possible so as not to lose the EU's commitment. Ukraine is trying to prepare for EU membership, even if it depends on its military resilience. Thus, the uncertainties surrounding the war make Ukraine develop its own pace in its relationship with Brussels. For these reasons, Moldova feels the need to strengthen its separate dialogue with the EU, and Georgia tries to maintain the existing one, although it fails, mainly due to the oligarchic factor. Without functioning individual relations with the EU, Moldova and Georgia will have to take secondary positions in a broader platform in which Ukraine finds itself in fierce competition for European aid, dictated by the fight for survival as a state in the face of the threat Russian.

Finally, the third determining factor for decoupling is the internal processes in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. This aspect is based on two components: the sustainability of the European vector and the quality of the reforms. Ukraine has the most stable foreign policy vector, while the situation is more fragile in Moldova and Georgia. The deplorable socioeconomic situation and the low legitimacy of the pro-EU government in Moldova, both targets of disinformation and critical narratives, make the possibility of a rise of Eurosceptic and/or pro-Russian forces very high. In the case of Georgia, the problem lies in the influence of the oligarchic factor and the authoritarian tendencies of the government, which is not concerned that its actions harm the European agenda to remain in power. Both countries will go through critical electoral processes in October, which will reveal whether opposition forces have sufficient capabilities to democratically seize power. The integrity and quality of the reforms is another side of the issue. For now, Ukraine is in a more favorable position, as the government is subject to double critical monitoring by the country's civil society and media and by European institutions, including pressure from Member States (especially Hungary). Therefore, the government in Kyiv is forced to take criticism into account. This does not happen in Moldova, where even Western diplomats are surprised by the tolerant tone of most of civil society. The critical press is treated with suspicion of involvement in Russian disinformation and critical voices from the NGO sector (Amnesty International, etc.) are often ignored. In Georgia, although it would seem that there is a symbiosis between the opposition, civil society organizations, anti-government media on the one hand, and external partners on the other (EU, US, etc.), the ruling party shows resistance. This became evident with the passage of the "foreign agents" legislation, which sparked mass protests over fears of covert "Russification" and a cooling of relations between the Georgian government and most of its Western partners. All of these findings indicate that domestic political dynamics in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia may further contribute to the decoupling of the three countries on their European journey.

In lieu of conclusions…

The assumptions that Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia have separate trajectories in the EU accession process are plausible, even if there currently appears to be a "Ukrainian-Moldovan package." There are three factors that are already determining a differentiated approach for the EU and a practically inevitable process of decoupling between the three countries with Association Agreements. If it is not the vetoes that can (most likely) arise repeatedly in the case of Ukraine, including non-Hungarian ones, then the internal reform processes and the (in)stability of the pro-European orientation will influence the multiple speeds with which Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia to the EU. In any case, Russian aggression against the Ukrainian factor will have a strong impact on the EU's calculations regarding its eastern enlargement, since the (in)security dimension will play an important role in future European decisions regarding acceptance of new member states.

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.

Вы используете модуль ADS Blocker .
IPN поддерживается от рекламы.
Поддержи свободную прессу!
Некоторые функции могут быть заблокированы, отключите модуль ADS Blocker .
Спасибо за понимание!
Команда IPN.