Moldova’s EU Accession: A Challenging Journey

by | Jan 25, 2024

The country’s basic aspects

The Republic of Moldova has a population of around 2.53 million. Which primarily speaks Romanian; however, a significant portion of the population is fluent in Russian. Maia Sandu is the Head of State, having been elected President in November 2020, while Dorin Recean has held the position of Prime Minister since February 2023. The current government has at his favor the pro-European values, the necessary seed to influence the path towards potential EU membership.

On August 27, 1991, Moldova declared its independence. Nevertheless, in December of the same year, the self-proclaimed Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, well-known as Transnistria, located in the eastern part of the country, also declared its independence from Moldova and sought incorporation into Russia and Ukraine. This declaration came after a brief civil war, coinciding with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, marking this as a “frozen conflict” since the country’s history is tied to the former USSR. This region lacks international recognition for its independence, this smaller region, with a population of approximately 465,000, is acknowledged as part of Moldova, nonetheless it continues to have a presence of Russian troops.

Urgency in one transformative journey

President Maia Sandu emphasizes,  “We cannot remain in this situation for another 30 years, with no consolidated democracy and no high standard of living”. Her unwavering commitment to securing a prosperous future for Moldova is intrinsically connected to the aspiration of EU membership as a unified entity. This steadfast dedication remains resolute, despite the multitude of challenges faced by the country.

The most significant challenge has been Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent influx of refugees into Moldova. Often hailed as “a small country with a big heart,” Moldova has been a significant host for these refugees. Despite being surrounded by countries that are part of the European Union and regardless of not being yet part, Moldova stands out as the nation receiving the largest number of individuals escaping the conflict in Ukraine. At the present, refugees make up approximately 4% of Moldova’s population totaling around 100,000 people. Notably, an outstanding 95% of these refugees have found shelter within homes.

Among the recent challenges, there also have been several warnings that mention a possible “Russian-staged coup d’ état against the country’s pro-European leadership”. Furthermore, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have been escalated efforts to orchestrate plans aimed at destabilizing Moldova’s sovereignty and independence. This has involved individuals with ties to Russia, supporting invasion’s interests within Moldova.

Desire for EU membership

The interest in joining the EU arose due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Prior to that, the government had shown pro-European inclinations, but the prospect of EU membership hadn’t been seriously considered. However, more than a geostrategic motive, it’s a concern about the potential reuniting of the former USSR. Being one of the ex-USSR members, Moldova fears being the next target of Putin’s expansionist aspirations. With missiles invading Moldova’s territory and lacking NATO protection, unlike its neighbor Romania, Moldova finds itself in a precarious situation. The enduring issue of Transnistria, a region with Russian troops and pro-Russian sentiment, further exacerbates Moldova’s sensitivity. In a precarious position akin to being “in the wolf’s mouth”, Moldova grapples with a sense of vulnerability and uncertainty, not being a member of either NATO or the EU.

President Maia Sandu explained her decision, made just a week after the conflict began in the neighboring country, stating, “We want to live in peace, prosperity, be part of the free world.” She further added “While some decisions take time, others must be made quickly and decisively, and taking advantage of the opportunities that come with a changing world.”

Stones in the shoe in EU accession

Considering adversities and the imperative need for change, Tom de Wall, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, highlighted one of the foremost challenges in the EU accession, which is the issue of corruption. Addressing this concern, he mentioned, “They will need to overcome this oligarchic culture that has operated for 30 years where everything is informal, institutions are very weak and large parts of the bureaucracy are made viable by vested interests.”

The problem of the separatist Transnistria could pose a challenge in the path to EU membership. However, drawing an analogy with the situation in Cyprus sheds light on a potential resolution. Cyprus became an EU member despite the Turkish occupation in its northern region, which has persisted since 1970s. This historical example suggests that complex territorial disputes need not be an unbeatable barrier to EU accession.

Moldova is located in the middle of Europe and is considered a small country not only in size but in economy as well.  It’s often called or perceived as one of the poorest countries in comparison to the rest of Europe. The reasons behind this classification can be descripted essentially by his fragile economy, which was further weakened by the worldwide pandemic. Moldova was in the process of recovery when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine dealt it a severe blow. The twin setbacks significantly impacted Moldova’s economy and left long-lasting consequences.

Additionally, the country which heavily relies on Moscow for its energy needs, experienced a sharp surge in gas prices, widely viewed as a form of economic coercion by Russia. This gas price escalation led to a staggering 28.7 percent inflation rate in 2022.

Process to the EU accession

Initiating the process, Moldova submitted its application for EU membership on March 3, 2022. A pivotal moment occurred on June 23, 2022, when EU leaders granted Moldova EU candidate status during the European council meeting. Subsequent affirmations of support were evident in a statement by the European Council on March 23, 2023, emphasizing assistance for the country in its path towards EU accession.

Looking ahead, in April 2023, the European Parliament announced that the EU accession talks were slated to commence by the year’s end, pending Moldova’s fulfillment of the nine necessary criteria to open negotiations. Notably, a manifestation in Chișinău in May 2023, drawing seventy-five thousand participants, showcased a pro-European sentiment, with the presence of President Roberta Metsola.

As the timeline progresses, preparations for negotiations with the EU have been underway. A diplomatic statement highlighted the need of experts to prepare for negotiations by several areas, underscoring the significance of readiness for any potential accession.

During the upheaval caused by Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine, the European Union offered comprehensive support to Moldova, including humanitarian aid, civil protection mechanisms, financial assistance, trade measures, agreements, and dialogues, signifying a deep-rooted partnership between the two entities.

In November 2023, there was a notable development as the European Commission issue a recommendation to start the negotiations with Moldova. (See our earlier report on the subject here!) This positive momentum reached its culmination in December 2023, when EU leaders decided to formally engage in accession negotiations with the country.

When we reach March of 2024, we will witness the culmination of one of the last steps. The comprehensive assessment of the progress in completing reforms will take place and may lead to the final adoption of the negotiation framework.

Shaping Moldova’s future: key elections

The voice of Moldova’s citizens resonates with diverse opinions on the country’s potential EU membership. A recent study by Chișinău-based pollster CBS Research in February revealed intriguing insights. Nearly 54% of Moldovans express a willingness to vote in favor of EU membership, indicating a substantial pro-EU sentiment. However, around quarter of the citizens leans toward favoring closer alignment with Russia, reflecting a divided stance among the population.

In the local elections held on November 5,  the pro-Russian party was spotted and the Moldovan authorities accused Russia of having influenced these current elections, through several ways, but especially vote buying and campaign financing. These allegations were related to IIan Shor, so the pro-Russian party was expulsed of the game, two days before the final vote. After all, the votes supported mostly the candidates aligned with pro-European vales, as Maia Sandu. The decision’s outcome painted a revealing picture, that could emerge as a window of opportunity for the European integration.

The Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS), led by President Maia Sandu, stands as the solitary political force vocally advocating for Moldova’s EU membership. For PAS, securing a relative majority in the City Councils hold a paramount importance. An electoral setback might indicate weaker-than-expected backing for pro-EU integration, and a negative impact on subsequent parliamentary elections in 2025. The public’s affinity toward EU integration largely hinges on the influence of these elections.

Reflecting the current electoral trend and considering the PAS’s considerable lead over the Bloc of the Communists and Socialists (BECS) by approximately 17 percentage points, the PAS appears well-positioned to dominate the forthcoming 2026 elections. Their consistent edge in popularity signifies an ongoing preference for this party, a predilection sustained by its consistent stance on pro-EU and anti-corruption reforms.

The future landscape of Moldova’s political direction is intricately intertwined with these impending elections. The upcoming presidential elections and the subsequent parliamentary elections in 2025 carry substantial significance in charting Moldova’s trajectory toward becoming an EU member state. The elections will ultimately decide the nation’s fate in terms of EU integration and its future political landscape.

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