Call us

Moldova's European future: A call to open accession talks

Republic of Moldova / COMMENTARY
Ionela Ciolan

Date: 04/10/2023
Failing to open EU membership negotiations with Moldova by the end of the year would be a strategic mistake and would be exploited by Russia. A stable, secure, and pro-European Moldova will strengthen the security and stability of the EU’s Eastern Flank. Thus, it is time for the EU to adopt a more pragmatic and geopolitical enlargement policy.

In June 2022, Moldova received EU candidate country status. It was a major achievement for Moldova's pro-Western leadership, which, in two years, put the country on an anti-corruption, pro-reform, and pro-European course. However, moving ahead with accession talks is conditional on Chișinău meeting nine requirements in the European Commission’s opinion on Moldova's application for EU membership.

Yet, meeting the required reform criteria for open accession talks is only half the battle. A major challenge is pushing back against Russian hybrid efforts to destabilise the country and undermine Moldova’s European integration efforts. Thus, EU support for Moldova is more crucial than ever.

Resisting Russia’s hybrid war

Moldova's toughest year after independence was 2022. The “watershed” moment of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine had a devastating and reverberating impact on the tiny country. In addition to a security crisis caused by multiple violations of its airspace by Russian missiles and their debris falling on its territory, Chișinău had to deal with a large multi-layer situation. Using its traditional energy blackmail, Russia’s Gazprom cut 30% of gas imports. In comparison, Moldova endured an electricity crisis due to the Russian-backed Transnistria region cutting supplies by up to 73%. Skyrocketing inflation and deteriorating living conditions also had a devastating impact on the already impoverished population. Additionally, Moldova faced wave after wave of disinformation campaigns and psychological warfare, along with instrumentalised political protests by the country’s pro-Russian Shor Party and Russian loyalists, 400 bomb threats, and an attempted coup to topple the government.

The Kremlin wanted to crush support for the EU. However, Moldova didn’t blink an eye. The country’s pro-Western forces reinforced their European integration efforts. Joining the EU is viewed as the only way to increase security and stability, with 63% of the population favouring EU accession. In response to Russia’s aggression, the EU significantly stepped up its support for the country.

The European Union - A partner in need

The phrase “Moldova is not alone” was heard throughout last year. Brussels’ response to Moldova’s multiple crises was exemplary. The EU’s €1.6 bn financial aid in the last two years was crucial in relieving the pressures of the energy, economic, and political crises during the Winter of 2022 while also increasing the country’s resilience and stability.

Brussels did not respond in its characteristic bureaucratic way but rather acted as a geopolitical actor by launching an EU Partnership Mission and establishing a new sanctions regime targeting individuals active in destabilising the country. The Partnership Mission aims to strengthen the security sector and resilience in hybrid threats, crisis management, and foreign information manipulation and interference. The sanctions framework targets seven persons involved in undermining democracy in Moldova, among them the Moldovan oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc, the main organiser of the famous “Bank Fraud”, and the pro-Russian Ilan Shor, leader of the Shor Party, involved in several Russian hybrid activities against the government. The EU response was also a strong political message to Russia. Brussels will not stand by and watch as Moscow tries to thwart the democratically elected government of one of its candidate countries and a future member state.

Ardent pursuit of European integration

Moldova has long desired EU membership. However, until Russia’s war against Ukraine, it was never on the cards. The country had to be content with implementing an Association Agreement and Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the EU.

After submitting its EU membership application on 3 March 2022, Moldova established a National Commission for European Integration (NCEI) in April 2022 to overview the membership bid. After the European Council granted Moldova candidate country status in June 2022, the NCEI published a detailed Action Plan comprising 60 targets to fulfil the nine conditions demanded by the European Commission.

True to the saying “strike while the iron is hot”, Chișinău has made important progress over the last 15 months. This includes completing the pre-vetting exercise of candidates for the Superior Council of Magistracy; approving legislation on prosecution, trial, and conviction in absentia, which led to Ilan Shor being sentenced to 15 years of prison for the bank fraud case; launching the Moldova-EU Hub for Internal Security and Border Management; increased the administrative capacity for the EU membership process by hiring new civil servants and created 35 inter-institutional working groups reflecting the EU accession criteria. The NCEI has also adopted a plan for de-oligarchisation to limit the excessive influence of private interests over the political, economic, and public spheres as requested by the European Commission.

Furthermore, the reforms have strengthened media freedom, the rule of law, and the fight against corruption, financial stability, and gender equality, as showcased by Moldova’s upgraded stance in numerous independent rankings. For example, on media freedom, Chișinău advanced 49 positions in the World Press Freedom Index from 89th in 2021 to 40th in 2022. In the fight against corruption, Moldova has climbed 14 places in the Transparency International Corruption Index since 2021.

More is still to be done, and the level of implementation varies. The European Commission's extraordinary oral hearing on Moldova's progress in June 2023 confirmed that Chișinău has met three requirements (reform of the judiciary and the electoral code, strengthening gender equality and increasing the role of civil society in decision-making) and has made good progress on another three criteria: reform of the justice system, public finance management and de-oligarchisation. Plus, additional work is needed in the fight against organised crime, public administration reform and the fight against corruption.

In addition, the reintegration of the pro-Russian Transnistria region remains a priority. In June 2023, High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell stated that Moldova’s EU membership is independent of Transnistria. "Cyprus became a member of the European Union with a territorial problem. Moldova can do the same". Nevertheless, the authorities in Chișinău will still have to plan a long-term strategy for resolving the Transnistrian issue. This should include an effective campaign focused on the economic benefits of EU membership. There is a good starting base because the DCFTA is already implemented in Transnistria.

To move forward, Moldova needs to complete the implementation of outstanding measures, as time is running out. On 31 October, the European Commission will publish the Annual Report on Moldova's accession progress. However, when deciding whether to recommend opening accession negotiations, Brussels needs to be more pragmatic and realistic about what Moldova can achieve in a year in the context of this permacrisis.

Moldova's European future is a geopolitical imperative

There are high hopes and expectations among Moldovans. More than 75.000 people gathered on 21 May 2023 for the National Assembly "European Moldova" declaring that “EU accession is the only way that can bring our country stability”. But Brussels should not take the high European sentiments for granted. Any delay or indecision by the EU will be used by the Kremlin to weaponise anti-European rhetoric.

The Russian affinity is already visible: 31.6% of Moldovans do not support European integration, and the pro-Russian Communist-Socialist bloc and the Shor party are second and third, respectively, in Moldovans' voting preferences. On the one hand, 52% of Moldovan citizens do not follow EU news and have limited knowledge of the Union; on the other hand, Russian propaganda has effectively created social tensions through its staged protests and numerous hybrid attacks on Moldova's European leadership. That makes the upcoming November 2023 local elections and the 2024 presidential elections increasingly dangerous since they could jeopardise the European integration process.

Moldova is on the frontline in the clash between the democratic West and Russian authoritarianism. Keeping Chișinău on the right track should be a priority for the EU. The alternative - a pro-Russian dominated Moldova - would create numerous vulnerabilities for the EU and bring significant security threats to Ukraine's southwestern border. Therefore, Brussels should use this historic window of opportunity to cement the European future of Chișinău by showing its geopolitical might. It is time for Brussels to walk the talk and start the accession negotiations with Moldova as soon as possible.

Dr. Ionela Maria Ciolan is a Research Officer-Foreign Policy, Security and Defence at Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies and ReThink.CEE Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

This Commentary is part of the EPC's Task Force on EU enlargement.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

Photo credits:

The latest from the EPC, right in your inbox
Sign up for our email newsletter
14-16 rue du Trône, 1000 Brussels, Belgium | Tel.: +32 (0)2 231 03 40
EU Transparency Register No. 
89632641000 47
Privacy PolicyUse of Cookies | Contact us | © 2019, European Policy Centre

edit afsluiten