A meeting of the EU-Moldova Association Council reaffirmed the EU’s commitment to supporting Moldova, even if actual membership will have to wait.
As far as the European Commission is concerned, Moldova can currently do little wrong. One of Europe’s poorest countries, Moldova was, along with Ukraine, given EU candidate status in 2022, and has since won plaudits for the calm, effective way that it has dealt with the considerable fallout of Russia’s invasion of its neighbour.
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This week, Moldova’s prime minister, Natalia Gavriliţa, visited Brussels to meet with senior EU officials, including Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, to discuss Moldova’s candidate status, with a focus on political dialogue and reforms; economic and sectoral co-operation, in particular in the energy sector; trade and trade related matters; as well as cooperation and convergence in the field of foreign and security policy.
The meeting coincided with release of a highly positive report assessing the current EU-Moldova Association Agreement, and the signing of agreements on customs, fiscal co-operation, and health. The report is the last of its kind, as Moldova will feature in the EU’s enlargement assessments from the autumn onwards.
“European integration is a guarantee of resilience, development, modernisation and security,” said Gavriliţa after meeting Borrell. “We are on the right track.”
Moldova has been pushing the EU for help with boosting its security for some time. Officially neutral, the country would need a change in its constitution to begin the process of NATO membership: a move which even after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine looks unlikely, although Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu this week admitted that Moldova’s neutral status was “insufficient”.
The report and agreements come just two weeks after the EU vowed to increase its ongoing macro-financial assistance (MFA) to Moldova by up to 145 million euros.
The increase brings the total amount of ongoing MFA support to the country to 295 million euros. Macro-financial assistance is part of the EU’s wider engagement with neighbouring and enlargement partners and is intended as an exceptional crisis response instrument.
According to the EU’s enlargement commissioner, Olivér Várhelyi, since the last association council in 2021, the EU has pledged over 1.09 billion euros in assistance for Moldova. The EU now wants to speed up the implementation of its Economic and Investment Plan for Moldova, which aims to unlock 1.6 billion euros of public and private investment.
The report and the new money are signals that the EU is standing by Moldova as the country continues to implement its reform agenda, while at the same time facing the fallout from Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, battling an energy crisis, and hosting a high number of refugees from Ukraine.
The increase in the MFA will help the country cover part of its additional funding needs in 2023, support macro-economic stability and provide, it is hoped, for further reforms.
Moldova is one of the countries most affected by the war in Ukraine, not only because of its physical proximity but also because of its inherent vulnerabilities as a small, landlocked economy with close linkages to both Ukraine and Russia. The influx of refugees to Moldova has resulted in additional fiscal costs, squeezing resources for long-term development priorities.
Unsurprisingly, the economy contracted sharply in the second half of 2022 and will only emerge slowly from recession in 2023. According to the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies (wiiw), international and bilateral donors almost trebled their financial support in 2022 to about five per cent of GDP, highlighting the importance of the EU’s recent decision to increase the value of its MFA.
Moldova continues to be critically reliant on natural gas imported from Russia, including for powering its energy needs. The Vienna Institute suggests that while lower gas prices on the international markets may bring some relief, that depends on Russia’s Gazprom sticking to the current price mechanism.
“The country thus remains vulnerable to Russian policy on gas supplies, since replacing Russian imports with Western sources will take over a year to complete,” warns wiiw.
‘A clear will for reform’
Siegfried Mureșan, a Romanian MEP who is vice-president of the European People’s party and chair of the European Parliament’s Moldovan delegation, says that the report confirms what he has seen on recent visits to Chișinău, that there is a clear will for reform and modernisation.
“Clear progress has been made in key areas such as strengthening justice, despite all obstacles caused by recent crises. We in the EU will continue to help the Moldovan authorities overcome the difficulties they face and support all measures that bring concrete benefits to Moldovan citizens.
“We will support all measures that contribute to Moldova’s European integration.”
Actual membership is still an awfully long way off, however, and highly unlikely before 2030 – at the earliest. For all its praise and support, the EU made it clear as early as last year, when handing Moldova candidate status just a couple months after it officially applied for membership (the process usually takes years), that from now on everything would be done by the book.
Ukraine is in the same position, but as much as both countries (and their supporters within the EU) will continue to insist that they deserve special treatment and quick expedition of accession talks, they will be left disappointed. There are currently too many opponents of expansion – any expansion – in too many EU capitals.
Agreements such as those signed in Brussels this week, increased trade (the EU is already Moldova’s largest partner), financial support and – perhaps most importantly – continued reform in Moldova will nevertheless tie the country irreversibly to the EU. The paperwork may take a decade or more to complete, but Moldova increasingly looks like a de facto EU member.
Photo: Natalia Gavrilița speaking in Brussels on February 7. © European Union.
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