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December 2023 EU Summit: Is it a watershed moment for Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova and Georgia?

EU enlargement / COMMENTARY

Date: 18/12/2023
Last week’s much-anticipated EU Summit marks a watershed moment for Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova, and Georgia.

Two years ago, these countries could hardly fathom the prospect of EU enlargement perspective (which they acquired in June 2022), much less EU membership. Now, in a bold and decisive move, EU leaders have decided to open EU accession talks with Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova and grant candidate status to Georgia.

This decision has been anything but predictable in Brussels and among the Eastern Trio. Uncertainty also prevailed in the General Affairs Council (GAC)’s conclusions, released on 12 December. While the document acknowledged the European Commission's recommendations for these countries, it vaguely stated that the Council takes note of them without providing a clear direction for the final decision by indicating that the note was taken.

Rule of law, funds, and vetoes

Ambiguity has reflected the major disagreement among member states on the matter. For example, Hungary’s Prime Minister Orban has spoken out against additional aid and the start of membership talks with Ukraine, suggesting a strategic partnership with the country as an alternative. But Orban is hardly the only dissenting voice on the EU’s enlargement. Slovakia’s pro-Russian Prime Minister Fico has also expressed skepticism about Ukraine’s readiness to start negotiations. And Austria warned the EU about the risks of diverting attention from the Western Balkans by only focusing eastward.

Orban's tone was eventually softened, thanks in part to Brussels' decision on the eve of the Summit to unfreeze €10 billion in cohesion funds, about a third of the money withheld from Budapest over the rule of law concerns. Orban used the legal option defined in Article 235 TEU and abstained from voting on whether the EU should open accession talks with Ukraine. As TEU defines, this abstention did not prevent the Council from adopting a favourable decision.

Yet, Orban vetoed the preliminary agreement of the EU leaders on the Ukraine Facility, a €50-billion fund combining €33 billion in low-interest loans and €17 billion in grants, intended for monthly disbursement between 2024 and 2027. EUCO President Charles Michel proposed revisiting this issue in January. Though it is unclear at this stage whether Orban will reconsider his stance or if the EU26 will need to push forward with an agreement.

Ukraine's EU journey

The fact that the Council gave the go-ahead for membership talks to begin with Ukraine is strong proof of the Union's support for Kyiv during Russia's war. This decision is particularly crucial when Ukraine desperately needs additional support and a clear political message, especially considering Washington's reluctance to extend further aid. Failure to endorse Ukraine's bid for EU membership would have likely weighted down on the morale of the Ukrainian people, who have consistently been told they were fighting for EU values.

The importance of the decision also extends far beyond political symbolism, as it is fundamentally linked to Ukraine’s motivation and ability to implement political reforms. While offering a solid basis for economic relations, the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, does not cover the extensive judicial and public administration conditions that the accession process sets. The start of talks is therefore likely to allow and incentivise Ukraine to keep pursuing difficult and costly political reforms. The continuation and intensification of these reforms is also hard to imagine without deeper sectoral integration and gradual access to the EU’s internal market, which can ensue during accession. Improved trade and economic relations between the EU and Ukraine can then help the former’s economic recovery, severely affected by the war.

Moldova's EU aspirations

The stakes have been high for the Republic of Moldova as well. A potential ‘no’ for the start of EU accession talks with Chisinau would have likely jeopardised the country’s integration efforts. The EU leaders' decision is a continuation of the EU’s robust support for the Republic of Moldova, exemplified by the allocation of €1.6 billion in financial aid in the Winter of 2022 and the initiation of the EU Partnership Mission to enhance security and resilience against hybrid threats and foreign interference. It also stands to increase the EU's credibility among the Moldovian people since only half of them currently favour EU membership.

The EU's signal arrives at a critical time for the country, which is gearing up for presidential and parliamentary elections in 2024 and 2025. These votes will put the Republic of Moldova's EU integration plans to the test. The potential resurgence of pro-Russian parties could lead to a national referendum against EU membership, derailing the country's European trajectory. From this perspective, the EU’s consent could help to diminish the chances of pro-Russian parties gaining power.

Moreover, the EU's decision could significantly impact the Republic of Moldova's relations with the Transnistria region. With Russia's support dwindling the prospect of reintegrating Transnistria into Moldova becomes more attractive. However, Brussels faces the challenge of articulating a cohesive external message. While the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy advocates for the country’s path to be independent of the situation in Transnistria, the EU Ambassador to Ukraine contends that resolving territorial disputes is essential for the Republic of Moldova's EU membership.

A pivotal moment in European integration

Regarding Georgia and its people, widely known for their adamant support for EU integration, this decision is monumental. Georgians view EU integration and reunification as a return to the European family, to which the country feels it has always belonged. Georgians’ fervent EU aspirations were recognised by the GAC conclusions, which advised the EU to maintain unwavering support for the country’s progress and hinted at a potential regression in case of the contrary.

Yet, the political context in Georgia remains volatile. On the one hand, EU candidate status could act as a catalyst in reducing Georgia's long-standing issue of political polarization – its Achilles' heel in political governance. It could foster a more conducive political environment, encouraging collaboration and constructive dialogue among diverse factions. Furthermore, it could dynamically reshape the political landscape, invigorating pro-EU factions and the opposition and propelling them to intensify preparations for the 2024 parliamentary elections.

On the other hand, the candidate’s status might also be politically exploited by the government for electoral gains, claiming it as their very success. Given the accusations of the ruling party’s harsh EU rhetoric, incumbents could also use this decision to justify the relevance of their narrative.

In the broader geopolitical context, granting candidate status to Georgia sends a resolute message to Russia, which continues its illegal occupation of 20% of Georgian territory. Closer relations between Brussels and Tbilisi will amplify the EU’s transformative influence in the strategically important South Caucasus region, enhancing regional connectivity, economic cooperation, and the Union's ability to enforce conditions and accountability, also in relation to the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), where Georgia is lagging behind.

The Summit’s positive outcomes for the Trio offer these nations an opportunity to embark on a journey that will reshape Europe's political geography. However, as a next step, EU leaders must be honest in engaging with the Eastern candidate countries. Despite the palpable momentum for enlargement, the membership process will be long, arduous, and possibly disappointing at times (as the prevailing opinion shows in the Western Balkans). The surge of far-right and populist votes within the EU, potentially also at next year’s European Parliament elections, is likely to complicate the prospect of EU enlargement even further. European public opinion seems divided: a recent ECFR survey across six member states indicates the lack of a clear majority among Europeans in favour of EU accession of any enlargement countries.

Therefore, if the EU leaders are keen to advance EU enlargement, they should embrace a coherent message on EU external representation and learn to manage expectations both in their domestic contexts and in the candidate countries.

Teona Lavrelashvili is a Policy Analyst and Coordinator of the Task Force on EU enlargement at the European Policy Centre.

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

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