EU membership candidacy: internal and geopolitical differences between Ukraine and Moldova. Analysis of Dionis Cenușa



The EU candidacy for the countries, treated by Russia as part of its sphere of influence, displeases the latter. Despite this fact, the current geopolitical situation is a historic opportunity to replace dependencies on Russia with deeper EU integration, attainable through candidate status...


Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor

More than three months after applying to join the European Union (EU), Ukraine and Moldova have been granted the status of a candidate country, and Georgia that of a potential candidate. The decision was published in the conclusions of the EU Council meeting in Brussels on June 23-24. In this way, the EU's partner countries in the Eastern Partnership have received a clear European perspective. Before this, for about 8 years, the EU was willing to recognize only its European aspirations, as an explicit aspect of the Association Agreements signed with these countries in 2014. Therefore, the list of countries with a European perspective has increased to 10 countries, including Turkey and six Western Balkan countries (Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo).

The EU's appetite to include the Eastern Partnership states in the run-up to the enlargement process has fundamentally changed the regional geopolitical context, currently interrupted by Russia's military aggression against Ukraine. With the new EU Council decision, the number of countries now waiting for a future European enlargement has become similar to that of the 2004 enlargement, when 10 countries joined the EU. In addition, Ukraine and Moldova become the new ex-Soviet states joining three other ex-Soviet republics (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), which have been in the EU for 18 years. For that to happen, they need to adopt the necessary reforms, demonstrate political stability, ensure the functioning of democratic institutions, and benefit from a favorable geopolitical climate.

The European future of Ukraine and Moldova (and eventually of Georgia) will depend not only on the fulfillment of the political, economic and legislative conditions with respect to the EU (the "Copenhagen criteria") in the accession process, but also on the will of the EU states to expand further. At the same time, before accession negotiations start, the two associated states must demonstrate tangible results in the reforms already underway (rule of law, fight against corruption, local public administration, etc.). Although the EU has good intentions, the evolution of the bilateral dialogue with the two new candidates depends on the internal situation and not exclusively on the political will of Brussels. For the ruling elites of Ukraine and Moldova to cope with reforms, they will need financial assistance and political support, in addition to the current one. This means that the costs of the EU will increase in the transformation of the candidate countries. Therefore, given the large number of applicants for pre-accession resources from the EU, it is very likely that Brussels will impose higher standards on the quality of the reforms implemented. In addition, the internal evolution of Ukraine (and to a lesser extent Moldova) depends to a large extent on the situation on the battlefield, where, for the time being, Russia seem to prevail by occupying new Ukrainian territories (which at the beginning of June constituted 20% of the Ukrainian territory). Consequently, ensuring qualitative reforms in the two candidate countries will be in natural competition with their ability to withstand the shocks caused by the Russian factor.

Factors that determined the candidacy of Ukraine and Moldova

The historic decision of the EU heads of state to offer the status of candidates to Ukraine and Moldova, previously recommended by the European Commission, is due to a mixture of positive and negative factors, which made it possible to break the traditional political-bureaucratic reluctance to within the EU, and at the level of the Member States, against enlargement.

Firstly, both Ukraine and Moldova (as well as Georgia) have implemented association agreements since 2014 (approximately 8 years), which has allowed them to catch up with the Western Balkan states in terms of harmonization of legislation. From this point of view, the EU had evidence, including that collected through questionnaires filled in by the authorities of the associated states, showing that European integration, in practical terms, had made some progress. It became clear that, apparently, at the sectoral level, many processes occurred according to EU expectations and standards, including during the oligarchic (Ukraine, Moldova) or pro-Russian (Moldova) regimes of previous years (IPN, May 2021).

Secondly, on the political side, the ruling parties in Kyiv and Chisinau have a pro-European vocation. The party created by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the Servant of the People, joined the family of European Liberals in June (ALDE), and the Action and Solidarity Party, whose informal leader is President Maia Sandu, has partnered with the European People's Party (EPP) since 2017. Through these political affiliations with the main political groups at the European level, the European Parliament has massively supported the EU's bid for the two associated states.

Thirdly, pro-EU political forces have a monopoly on power, with effective horizontal control of the main institutions of the state, including the presidency. This allows for full accountability for the reform agenda, while providing the necessary tools to initiate reforms, regardless of the political costs and efficiency of the process. Even at a rather slow pace, due to the Russian aggression against Ukraine and the economic, energy and security crises in Moldova, the reforms continued.

Fourthly, the governments of both countries have capitalized on the positive relationship both with non-governmental actors in the country and with the governments of the EU states. The subjectivism in these relations favored a massive opening of the European institutions. Added to this is the intense socialization developed in relation to the EU by the foreign policy actors in Kyiv (Volodymyr Zelensky and Dmytro Kuleba) in the context of the Russian aggression and those in Chisinau (Maia Sandu and Nicu Popescu) about the crisis of the refugees.

Fifthly, and the last factor, are the geopolitical dilemmas related to regional security, in combination with solidarity with Ukraine. Among other things, the EU candidacy is seen as a new incentive that could keep the Ukrainian population mobilized around the government in Kyiv, which refuses to give in to the Russian aggressor. Even if the bid offers a nebulous timetable for accession, it anchors Ukraine in a clear post-war development perspective. The same reasoning for social mobilization around the government mattered in the case of Moldova, where the government risks facing a crisis of legitimacy (still in hidden form) due to the deteriorating socioeconomic situation (30% inflation, etc.). In this unfortunate context, the positions of the pro-Russian forces are being consolidated, which, in the context of the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections (2024-2025), may have negative effects on the EU's positions in Moldova, causing problems for Ukraine as well. For these reasons, it appears that Moldova's candidate status has been conditioned to a considerable extent by regional security calculations, as well as the desire to ensure continuity of rule by pro-EU forces.

The considerations outlined above have had a cumulative effect in favor of the decision to grant candidate country status to both Ukraine and Moldova, which, at least for the time being, appear to have their EU candidacy interdependent ("package principle" ).

The main differences between Ukraine and Moldova regarding the EU candidacy

According to the past scenarios, Ukraine and Moldova risked gaining potential candidate status, which was granted to Georgia (IPN, June 2022). However, the factors described above led to the materialization of the positive scenario, the development of which depends, on the one hand, on the quality of the reforms (inwards) and, on the other hand, on the EU's willingness to expand and the consequences still unknown of Russia's war against Ukraine (outside). However, from a political point of view, the internal situation in Ukraine and Moldova differs significantly.

Although in both cases there are parties in government accredited with the trust of the EU, only in Ukraine is there certainty that the next elections will not reverse the country's processes. Recent surveys show that 69% of the Ukrainian population is convinced that their country will join the EU in 5 years, another 14% see this goal achieved in 5-10 years, and 3% - in 10-20 years. This level of confidence is due to the lack of geopolitical alternatives. This is explained by the lack of collaboration with the Commonwealth of Independent States that ceased in 2018. Also, the dialogue with the Eurasian Economic Union or other Russian-dominated organizations will be under long-term political interdiction. Furthermore, no Ukrainian political force has questioned the importance of EU candidate status, partly due to the (temporary) political marginalization of the pro-Russian opposition, whose leader Viktor Medvedciuk is under arrest and investigation for treason. These circumstances create an irreversible context for Ukraine's application for EU membership.

The current government in Chisinau is anchored in a reformist agenda and has an indisputable pro-European discourse. However, the ruling party's position is fragile in terms of public legitimacy. The polls show very clearly that until the EU candidacy was obtained, both the PAS and the opposition formed by socialists and communists had practically the same level of public sympathy (around 24% each political party). The rapprochement with the EU is very likely to repair the decline in public sympathy caused by socio-economic crises. However, the effect of the EU candidacy may have a temporary effect. The negative inflation forecasts for the second half of the year and the maintenance of high hydrocarbon prices due to Russia's use of energy as a weapon of pressure expose the Government to significant risks of political instability. Unlike Ukraine, Moldova is a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States and an observer state within the Eurasian Economic Union. Thanks to these connections with international organizations controlled by Moscow, pro-Russian political actors have the opportunity to draw public attention to the issue of multi-vector foreign policy. This feeds into the polarized nature of society in terms of the country's foreign orientation (IMAS, February 2022: EU membership - 52%; Eurasian Union membership - 48%). To exploit the existing geopolitical fissures, the opposition formed by the pro-Russian forces, represented by the socialists, condemned the granting of the status of a candidate country. In this sense, the fact that the request sent to the EU was not supported in a referendum was invoked, because the country is going to send certain aspects of its sovereignty to the EU (, June 2022). Moldova's foreign orientation towards the EU is vulnerable as pro-Russian forces show resistance, despite the fact that their informal leader Igor Dodon is under house arrest and under investigation for treason, corruption and illicit enrichment. In addition to carrying out reforms in a transparent and efficient manner, the Moldovan government must minimize geopolitical divergences.

In lieu of conclusions…

Concrete results will count in the coming months and years, and the EU and many Member States have pointed out that there are no double standards or short cuts for new candidates. Therefore, in parallel with the survival of Russian aggression (Ukraine) and multiple crises (Ukraine, Moldova), these countries will be under enormous pressure to carry out reforms. Right now, the latter are not conditioned by any macroeconomic aid, but by the promise made to their own citizens to move as soon as possible to the opening phase of accession negotiations.

Once the accession application was obtained, Ukraine and Moldova identified the exact route towards the EU. Due to the Russian factor, the effort of the associated countries seems more complicated than that of the Western Balkans. The EU candidacy for the countries, treated by Russia as part of its sphere of influence, displeases the latter. Despite this fact, the current geopolitical situation is a historic opportunity to replace dependencies on Russia with deeper EU integration, attainable through candidate status.

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.
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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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