Big, but Distant Dreams. Political and Legal Implications of Moldova’s Quest for EU Membership

An op-ed by Lucia Leontiev on the Moldova’s application for EU membership

Lucia Leontiev, PhD candidate in international law at Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies of Pisa and Maastricht University. She is the editor of the book entitled State-Building, Rule of Law, Good Governance and Human Rights in Post-Soviet Space. Thirty Years Looking Back, forthcoming by Routledge May 2022.

On 3 March 2022 Moldova applied for EU membership. It happened on the same day with Georgia and came right after Ukraine applied for the so-called ‘fast-track’ membership on 1 March 2022. At the moment of signature, president Sandu said that “it took 30 years for Moldova to reach maturity, but today the country is ready to take responsibility for its future.” Indeed, after the Soviet Union’s dissolution, Moldova started to build its independent statehood based on democratic values. And joining the EU would undoubtedly crown this process. However, the question that arises is whether Moldova reached its political and legal maturity to join the EU. 

Ukraine’s invasion and the seized opportunity

Before 24 February 2022, Moldova could not even dream of applying for EU membership shortly. And this is not for lack of will. In a survey from June 2021, 59 % of Moldovans were in favour of EU integration. Moreover, politically there are all the premises as Moldova is governed by a majoritarian pro-European party supported by president Sandu. However, the ‘European’ dream of Moldova might be not as close as the accession request signed by Sandu may suggest to someone. Fully aware of the amount of homework that Moldova shall undertake to comply with the Copenhagen criteria, Moldovan authorities seized this opportunity on the background of a military conflict in the region. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Ukraine’s membership request for a ‘fast-track’ accession process, was perceived by the governing pro-European party and civil society as the perfect conjuncture for Moldova to do a step further in the Moldova-EU approximation. The membership request was criticized by the pro-Russian opposition party calling it a ‘populist’ move. It may be well true that the accession request lacks solid objective reasons, yet it clearly shows country’s commitment toward Europeanisation and democratic values. 

Transnistria and security challenges 

As good as it sounds the idea of European integration, Moldova has a set of political and security problems that should be addressed in order to reach the European destination in a reasonable time. The existence of a breakaway territory within its borders, Transnistria, represents a serious security issue, especially in the context of an armed conflict in Eastern Europe. Located in the Eastern part of Moldova, at the South-Western border of Ukraine, Transnistria is a separatist entity over which Russia exercises effective control. On 15 March 2022 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, adopted a resolution designating Transnistria as a territory occupied by Russia. This political declaration represents a switch in the existing narrative regarding Transnistria’s status, from an effectively controlled territory by Russia to an occupied one. In its constant case-law, the European Court of Human Rights stressed that Russia’s continued support of Transnistria is not only political and economic but equally military. Transnistria hosts the 14 Russian army and the largest ammunition depot in Eastern Europe. With a pro-Russian orientation, the unilateral decision of constitutional authorities to apply for EU membership was criticized by Tiraspol. The so-called Transnistrian authorities called for international recognition and a full stop to the conflict resolution process. Despite being considered a ‘frozen’ conflict, it might ‘revive’ soon if Russia desires so. Of course, there is no clarity of how the Russian invasion in Ukraine will end, and whether Transnistria will be involved. Yet, some authors believe that once Russia reaches Odessa in its invasion plan, Transnistria will join it and become part of a bigger project, Novorossiya. However, it is submitted here that at the moment Transnistria is not a target, and to date, no military actions were attested from the Transnistrian region. Some voices claim that the existence of such a territorial situation should not be a problem for the EU to grant Moldova the status of a candidate to accession despite the existence of a war of aggression at its borders. It may be well so, as this would show the support of the EU. However, to join the EU, the ‘frozen’ conflict should be solved. It is less likely for the EU to accept among its members a country with a Russian supported conflict within its territory. And given the current war in Ukraine and the magnitude of problems that it sets for Ukraine in special and Europe in general, it is less likely for the EU to offer a membership status to Moldova and the other two candidates. 

Apart from the Transnistrian question, Moldova’s economy and energy sector depends on Russia. This, together with the neutrality status that Moldova is constitutionally compelled to uphold (Article 11 of the Constitution), explains why Moldova did not impose sanctions on Russia in the context of the war in Ukraine, a fact harshly criticized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Kuleba. Russia is the main market for Moldovan fruits and vegetables. Moreover, Moldova is 100% dependent on Russian gas. From October 2021 Moldova is facing an energy and gas crisis. It turned out that these sectorial cooperations considered normal for years became a real threat to Moldova’s security in the last years. Until recently, many Moldovan agricultural products were under the Russian embargo. As for the gas, Russian Gazprom is threatening Moldova with cutting off the gas supply in the case of untimely payment. Moldova should lose up its full dependence on Russia and diversify its sources. Alternatives are necessary to avoid vulnerability.

Legal reforms and the fight against corruption

EU membership request of Moldova was presented during the state of emergency established in Moldova once the war in Ukraine started. Normally, according to Article 75 of the Moldovan Constitution, such decisions shall be decided by population, the “problems of utmost importance confronting the Moldovan society and State shall be resolved by referendum.” As such, the last word belongs to people. Before it happens, currently, the Moldova-EU relationships are governed by the 2014 Association Agreement. Among others, the agreement sets the requirement for the Moldovan laws and policies alignment to the EU acquis. Moldova started its approximation policy once it became part of the EU Eastern Partnership policy in 2009. On paper, Moldova transposed and aligned 60% of its legislation to the EU law. However, problems arise at the implementation stage. But perhaps the main challenge that Moldova is currently facing, is the fight against corruption, especially in the judiciary sector. Systemic corruption is deeply rooted in the Moldovan state institutions. The fight against corruption and the reform of the judiciary were the main objectives from independence onwards. After the 2014 bank robbery amounting to 12% of GDP, corruption and justice sector problems were identified by Moldovans as the biggest problems of Moldovan society. In 2021 Moldovan citizens gave a cart blanch to the president Sandu party to start a comprehensive reform process of the justice system. Apart from adopting new regulatory norms, Sandu asked for international support in fighting against corruption and the judicial reforms process. However, this process is at its rudimentary stage, no advancements were achieved so far. What the Copenhagen criteria states is that “membership requires that the candidate country has achieved stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, rule of law, human rights […].” At this moment, Moldova does not fulfil these criteria. Perhaps what it needs is closer collaboration with the EU institutions and member states in its reform process. 

A long way ahead

On 10-11 March 2022 EU leaders met in Versailles to discuss the accession requests of the Association Trio. They confirmed that EU treaties do not provide for a ‘fast-track’ accession process. As such, Commission will evaluate each request independently and will decide on the potential preparedness of the candidates. Socor argues that an individual assessment for Moldova is much more suitable. He states that Moldova may be best prepared for accession than two other countries from the Associated Trio. It could be so, but it is also true that Moldova has many substantial problems to address in order to become a credible membership candidate. Given current security threats in the region, as well as Moldova’s problems exposed above, a more comprehensive and deep cooperation agreement with the EU, would be more suitable.  

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