One step forward, two steps back? – Or a brief assessment of the status of Ukraine and Moldova as EU membership candidates
This blog post tries to demonstrate why the European Union (henceforth abbreviated as the EU or the Union) considers enlargement policy as a key domain these days – whether it considers it as a foreign policy or geopolitical instrument, and how this relates to Ukraine and Moldova’s candidate status.
Russia's unprovoked and unjustified military attack against Ukraine (a year ago) became a strong motive for strengthening the geopolitical component in the EU's foreign policy. This conflict encouraged European countries to re-evaluate their security strategy – because for many years the Western countries thought they were able to maintain the balance between Russia's containment and constructive practical cooperation with Ukraine (and the Eastern region), but today they cannot see any solution to restore the balance of the previous decades. The EU's responses to Russia's actions are products of provocation, as European countries consider Ukraine as a part of their community, and the aggression against Ukraine an attack against them. This demonstration made it possible to meaningfully discuss Ukraine's application for membership – for some time there has been a serious debate in the EU regarding whether it meets the conditions for membership and the need to comply with procedural rules, but in the end, the political line in favour of accession prevailed. The speed with which the Commission drew up its conclusions on the possibility of granting Ukraine candidate status, which it was granted at the meeting of the European Council on June 23-24. 2022, is significant. The decision can be shored up by geopolitical arguments – thus this previously hidden dimension of the enlargement policy became more and more prominent.
Since it is not yet clear how soon and under what conditions the armed conflict in Ukraine will be resolved, it is difficult to work out the details of the progress of its EU membership. In addition, the EU has many basic tasks for the successful enlargement process – it should reform its institutions and decision-making process (the last reform in this direction is included by the Treaty of Lisbon). The most urgent element of this reform is the further expansion of qualified majority voting and the reduction of the number of decisions requiring a unanimous decision, given that the EU becomes hostage to the vetoes of some countries in areas such as the common foreign and security policy, the multiannual financial framework or enlargement. Increasing the number of the member states would further complicate the situation. It would be expedient for expansion decisions if the beginning and end of the process, the granting of candidate member status and the admission of the new member after the negotiations, were still based on the principle of unanimity; all intermediate stages, such as the opening and temporary closure of negotiations on individual chapters, would be voted by a qualified majority based on the opinion of the Commission. A change like this would ensure that the enlargement process is guided by merit-based criteria and minimize abuse of the veto for domestic political purposes.
It is not the first time in the history of the EU that the enlargement perspective meets the need for deepening integration, but it would be wrong to assume that there is a contradiction between the two, given that the European Union needs both, as they are two sides of the same coin.
In addition to Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova (henceforth abbreviated as Moldova) also got attention in the EU's enlargement agenda. As a result of the recent changes – after the overwhelming success of PAS in July 2021, the presidential victory of Maia Sandu – Moldova is striving for closer relations with the EU.
Moldova's intention to join dates to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and its subsequent independence. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) provided a framework for the development of political and economic relations; it also emphasized the importance of democratic values, human rights and the market economy as essential elements of the partnership. This pact was replaced in 2014 by the association agreement (Moldova – European Union Association Agreement), the objectives of which included the support of future political union and economic integration between the two parties, the increase of Moldova's participation in EU policies, programs and agencies, as well as increasing the economic potential of Moldova by establishing the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA). The European Council provided further support to Moldova to meet the expected standards in the EU, including representing two multi-annual action plans in 2013 and 2017 – both focused on the justice sector, the fight against corruption, media pluralism and media freedom.
Examination of conditions for membership in Moldova
The stability of the institutions that ensure democracy was examined during the parliamentary elections held in April 2009, when the winning Party of the Communists of the Republic of Moldova was accused by the opposition of obtaining most of the votes by fraud. The triumph of the party with communist ideals was followed by public disturbance – among the approximately 15,000 protesters, the general belief was that the votes had been bought or doubly counted. The recount led to the same result, but the people and the opposition parties were still dissatisfied with this outcome, so they boycotted the upcoming presidential election, and as a result, the parliament could not elect a new president; this led to the dissolution of parliament and early elections. Corruption can be considered as one of the country's biggest problems, which presents in most public sectors, such as healthcare, education and the judiciary – "bribes" are a common phenomenon. The general public opinion is that the government is handling this question very poorly or not at all. Bribery can be said to be rooted in culture, as a "legacy" of the Soviet Union, which is gradually disappearing but change takes time. In addition, Moldova is (also) known for one of the biggest bank frauds in history, which is known locally as "country theft" and internationally as the "billion-dollar bank fraud". The Council called on Moldovan authorities to investigate the 2014 fraud cases involving the country’s banking system thoroughly and impartially, with the aim of recovering the stolen funds.
And why is this a pivotal point in the enlargement policy? Just like Ukraine, Moldova also has geopolitical relevance. The former Soviet republic bordering Ukraine has also been involved in the war – the part beyond Dniester is controlled by Russian separatists. Transnistria is a separatist autonomous region that announced its secession from Moldova in 1990, but after all is a "product" of the Transnistrian War of 1992. The real motive behind the incident can only be guessed, but since the region has strategic importance to the Russians, the growing danger that it could fall into the hands of its European rivals could have served as a sufficient explanation for the conflict. In addition to Donbass, Russia also aims to conquer the southern part of Ukraine, which would thus create a connection between it and Transnistria.
In its conclusions of December 2022, the European Union recognized Moldova’s efforts to achieve the goals that form the basis of its EU candidate status and encouraged it to continue the reforms; however, Moldova enjoys much less support, and even among those who support Ukraine's accession, some have taken the position that it directly hinders the work of Kyiv.
The Russian-Ukrainian conflict in 2022 and the resulting decision by Ukraine to submit its application for official EU membership gave a strong impetus to the transformation of the enlargement policy. The logic of projecting the norms and values (previously prevailing in the European Union) and the transformation of the partner countries has faded into the background, giving way to a geopolitical perspective that guarantees the security of the countries of the "European family". What can be the aim of the European Union with the enlargements? Presumably, the EU also aspires to a global "career", but can it get closer to this by accepting two states that do not meet the conditions for membership in many ways? It is certain that the two candidate countries, examined by the article, came to the forefront of the enlargement policy due to geopolitical considerations. To the question of whether this factor is worth so much that the EU in return "takes on" the problems of these countries and provides them (considerable) help in areas that need development, I think we will only know the answer if Ukraine and Moldova advance from the candidate queue to members. However, in my opinion, the principles and values laid down by the EU over many years are not negligible, they should not be ignored for any reason.
Author: Petra Olesnyovics, law student, University of Debrecen Faculty of Law
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