Due to the EU candidate status, granted in Brussels in June, Moldova has the opportunity to move more easily and quickly on the path of reforms. They are essential for the functioning of the country, but also indispensable for making EU accession feasible in the near future. The merits to obtain this candidacy combine several important factors, such as: the impact of the Western reaction to the Russian aggression against Ukraine (IPN, June 2022), the results of the implementation of the EU-Moldova Association Agreement in 2014-2021 and the positive image of the Moldovan government.
Firstly, without the war launched by Russia, any discussion of EU enlargement to the East would have been met with resistance from skeptical member states such as France, the Netherlands, Denmark and even Germany. Secondly, very few in Brussels would have taken seriously the applications for membership submitted by the “association trio”, of which Moldova is a part, if they had not been in the process of implementing the association agreements for almost 8 years. Through these agreements, many approaches to European legislation are already being made, with effects on national sectoral policies. And, thirdly, it is practically unlikely that Moldova would have applied for membership and that the EU would have examined it quickly and with a favorable result, if pro-Russian actors or political forces influenced by oligarchic interests were in power in Moldova. The fact that the government in Chisinau is credible in the eyes of the West has allowed Moldova to join Ukraine, avoiding the fate of Georgia, which received the status of a "potential candidate" for undermining democratic institutions, currently exercised by the oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili.
To see the raprochment with the EU bringing about change at the institutional level with positive political and economic effects, the executive must overcome the constraints of crises, using a governance based on inclusion, transparency and meritocracy. Maia Sandu’s immense popularity in the West or the supremacy of the Action and Solidarity Party in the legislature can be used to boost the reform agenda. But the key policy areas need to be taken into account in the first place, many of which were indicated in the European Commission's assessment, on the basis of which Moldova received the green light for EU candidacy. At the moment, the reform of the judiciary is stagnating, the agricultural sector fails, the high COVID-19 infection rates are reviving, Ukrainian refugees need constantly resources, the gas situation is generating new debt and inflation is becoming uncontrollable. They need consistent intervention rightway, but the authorities are wasting their political legitimacy, already so thinned, to carry out reforms of secondary importance ("university reform"). In other words, the government fails to understand that in times of crisis, state institutions need to address urgent issues, rather than expanding into areas irrelevant to the current public and national interest.
The real agenda of the population and the political agenda of the government must be synchronized so as not to create contradictions and reduce the decline of the popularity of one of the pro-EU government with the highest integrity in all the years of Moldova’s independence. Otherwise, the failures of the government will affect not only the image of the government, but also that of the European partners. The latter will have to assume part of the responsibility for the actions of the government in Chisinau, because they offer them financial aid without imposing conditions that would allow a minimum both qualitative and beneficial pressure and accountability.
Rapid reform versus qualitative reform
The crises facing the region to which both the EU and Moldova belong indicate that EU membership should not be treated as a quick goal for several reasons.
In the first place, the EU's geopolitical focus is on stopping the Russian war against Ukraine and resolving the multiple ramifications that it generates (refugees, reconstruction, alternative routes for the export of cereals, etc.). Obviously, the enlargement mechanism is underway, but it still does not produce significant effects even for the (relatively small) states that have been in accession negotiations for a long time (Montenegro since 2012 and Serbia since 2014). Joining the EU takes time and requires great progress, even if this question is often decided based on political calculations.
Second, the Moldovan side has to meet a series of uneasy requirements. So far, there are 13 conditions that seem to be a precondition for advancing in deepening relations with the EU, given the candidacy obtained. Most of the requirements are either too general (fight against corruption, etc.) or extremely complex (local public administration reform). For this reason, it is premature for the government to start discussing the possibility of accession negotiations. Instead of speeding up or, worse yet, forcing complicated and complex reforms, the authorities can make a critical self-assessment, using the results of the previous EU questionnaire, to set concrete steps and realistic timeframes to achieve them by December 2022 and beyond. If Brussels wants a qualitative change, it will not focus on the speed of the reforms, but on their sustainability and irreversibility. This will help reduce geopolitical polarization. The population will positively appreciate the changes made effectively and in optimal time, associating them with European integration.
A third issue that matters is the combination of new and old mechanisms of relations with the EU. Specifically, creative solutions must be found to combine actions related to the implementation of the Association Agreement with the EU with the fulfillment of the requirements necessary to bring Moldova closer to accession negotiations. This would mean that the Association Agenda and the national programs for the implementation of the Association Agreement must be synchronized in a balanced way, with an emphasis on the fulfillment of the 13 conditions. Until the opening of accession negotiations, the transposition of the agreement with the EU serves as a single platform to link national and European legislation and practices.
Last but not least, the fourth important aspect is to prevent the government from politicizing the procedures for applying for EU membership. Recently, the government suggested that the formation of the future team of Moldovan negotiators could be possible, depending on progress, closer to 2024. Presidential elections will then be held, in which current President Maia Sandu will stand for re-election. If the government's intention is to adapt the reforms required by the EU to its electoral needs, the risks of transparency and reduced inclusiveness in the reform process will inevitably increase. The party's electoral calendar should not be prioritized to the detriment of qualitative reforms, in the first place, because it could generate resistance or reactions from the citizens, which due to the current crises continues to impoverish, becoming increasingly vulnerable to the anti-EU populists.
Dispersion of popularity versus the need for a national dialogue
Unlike many external partners, the Moldovan public judges the government's performance not by noble intentions, but by concrete results and actions meant to mitigating the effects of the current crises. Although in practical terms the government is taking steps to mitigate the impact of the growing number of emergencies, it is showing some structural deficiencies. These are due to the complete lack of desire to establish cross-party cooperation with forces (outside the parliament's framework) made up of pro-EU supporters of reforms. With the exception of some representatives of civil society, still co-opted by the government to neutralize criticism of government policies and acquire a certain amount of legitimacy in the reform process, the ruling party finds itself in a kind of political solitude at home. The reason for this self-isolation is not necessarily and exclusively geopolitical, but stems from the uncooperative style of government by PAS, inherited from President Maia Sandu. It is for this reason that political support from the EU and other Western partners has played a vital role for the government, which has so far managed to avoid mass protests. Even so, the latest polls show that Maia Sandu's truly prolific foreign activity is no longer able to compensate for falling popularity of PAS, estimated at 22.6% of voting intentions compared to 26.3% for the Bloc of Communists and Socialists.
It is contraindicated that EU candidate status is allowed to become a nationally divisive issue. The government clearly erred in including a limited number of actors (although only an unknown number of non-governmental organizations and an unknown number of diaspora people, some of whom campaigned for PAS during the parliamentary elections, remain significant) in the process of completing the EU. Adhesion Questionnaires. , while the absolute majority was excluded from the process. Learning the lessons of this recent unfortunate experience, the government should create a national platform for EU membership open to any interested actor, regardless of whether they strongly support this geopolitical option or criticize it. Actors from local public administrations, Gagauzian autonomy and Transnistria region (companies, etc.) should be invited to this platform. In this way, local officials, grassroots non-governmental organisations, business associations or individual entrepreneurs can participate in discussions on the current objectives of the government in dialogue with the EU. In this way, the confidence of citizens in the act of government will be nurtured, which can also relaunch support for the EU (now hovering around 53%).
Furthermore, such a national platform will invalidate any argument related to the imposition of a foreign agenda without regard to national sovereignty or in the absence of a referendum. Such ideas belong to the pro-Russian opposition (the Bloc of Communists and Socialists) and to some representatives of the Gagauz autonomy legislature. If the PAS-Sandu government repeatedly ignores both alternative pro-EU forces outside parliament and political rivals with different geopolitical options, then the EU candidate status could be compromised. Instead, dialogue with them could help dispel anti-EU myths, increase political inclusion and familiarize the general public with the details of the process of moving from EU candidate status to the opening of accession negotiations.
In lieu of conclusions…
There should already be the opening of a national political dialogue on European integration. Now such a platform is even more important, because it can bring together all pro-European political forces, but also provide constructive communication channels on European issues with local political actors (Gagauzian autonomy, Chisinau municipality, etc.), representatives of civil society society (avoiding politicized selectivism), the business environment and the diaspora (regardless of political criteria). By doing so, the government will show that it can learn to put transparency and inclusiveness into practice and to the fore, without which EU membership may be unlikely.
By initiating a wide-ranging political dialogue, within the confines of a national platform in favor of the EU, governments can correct and improve the reforms necessary to transform the country and advance the dialogue with the EU, thus preventing its continued legitimacy. Otherwise, by the end of 2022, the PAS-Sandu tandem risks being more popular in Brussels than in Moldova. Since the outcome of Russia's aggression against Ukraine is unknown, the Moldovan authorities are forced to ensure national cohesion, and the EU candidacy is practically the only source of national mobilization available.
This analysis is published for the German Hanns Seidel Foundation and the IPN News Agency.