“The EU needs to have a principled position towards tangible deliverables”

An interview with MIHAI POPSOI
Vice President of Moldova’s Action and Solidarity Party (PAS)

We are approaching the tenth anniversary of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) initiative. How would you assess these ten years for Moldova?

Moldova’s record in the past ten years has been mixed to say the least. Initially, it looked like Moldova was going to reject the EaP as President Vladimir Voronin (2001-09) dismissed the new policy as insignificant and therefore meaningless. However, with the change of government in 2009, the successive pro-EU coalitions have taken full advantage of the new policy. Moldova was long regarded as the success story of the EaP, but it soon turned from poster child to whipping boy. Despite there being clear signs early on that the transformation process was not genuine, it took the billion dollar scandal in 2014 to make everyone realize how many things were still rotten in Moldovan politics and that institutions were politicized to their core. Thus, even though the EU stopped turning a  blind eye to bad governance and corruption in 2015, it still gave a pass to the Democratic Party government calling itself pro-EU in 2016, only to end up with the cancellation of a democratic election in 2018. This is a rather disappointing result in light of the tenth EaP anniversary, particularly as things were so promising at the beginning. Still, the EU can draw important lessons from this experience, which appears to be taking place given the much more principled position of Brussels towards Moldova as of late.

In your opinion, what is the key reason for this situation?

The key reason domestically is that local elites did not have enough courage and political will to undertake the needed structural reforms, but instead chose to promote a Potemkin style Europeanization of the country. Worst of all, by virtue of association of these corrupt elites with the European integration process, the EU image in Moldova has suffered major credibility losses among Moldovan voters.

How can the EaP be adjusted to address the needs of the region better?

The EaP needs to formally differentiate the three countries that de facto have a much deeper level of cooperation with the EU, perhaps also including Armenia. From the very beginning, countries like Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine have been disadvantaged by having been put in the same basket as Azerbaijan and Belarus. Equally important, the EU needs to have a principled position towards tangible deliverables or lack thereof in terms of meaningful reforms, particularly in the justice and anti-corruption sectors. The EaP should emphasize more the Democratic values-based components of the EU relationship to these countries, otherwise local elites will continue to perceive this relationship in largely transactional, material terms, which defeats the purpose of the democratization and Europeanization of the region.

What could be a new source of positive pressure for Moldovan authorities after the Association Agreement (AA) and visa liberalization? Or should the EU policy be about incentives?

There is indeed little room for positive pressure now that Moldova has collected the most treasured EU carrots (AA and visa free regime), but negative incentives are also a strong tool to send a clear message to local elites not to take these benefits for granted. Still, positive incentives are usually preferable as they don’t undercut the welfare of the population. There could be smaller incentives, such as the elimination of roaming charges and certainly continuing to provide financial assistance and technical support for better implementation of the AA. Still, the only major incentive left is the membership perspective, but it must be deserved. Otherwise, it could produce largely negative unintended consequences.

What could the EU do to reinforce the internal drivers of change in Moldova?

The main internal drivers of change are the civil society groups and the opposition parties. Since the EU cannot support opposition parties, as this would be considered interference in Moldova’s political affairs, the EU can at least try to ensure that basic democratic standards are being respected and that there is a level playing field for all political actors. Yet, the EU can and should do a lot more to support civil society, particularly independent media and local civic activists, because they are the backbone of a democratic society. Also, promoting the EU’s image and its generous support for Moldova is highly advisable.

What about membership perspective? Of course it is currently not on the table, but would it be in your opinion a good idea to propose a membership perspective for these countries?

The hypothetical membership perspective at this point would send the completely wrong message to the Moldovan public, because it could only be interpreted as an EU endorsement of the current government’s increasingly anti-democratic tendencies. However, there is no such discussion at the moment and given the recent deterioration of relations between the EU and Moldova after the nullification of the mayoral election results in Chişinău, it is unlikely that it will be on the table any time soon. In fact, it is very worrying to see how this government has been reacting to the EU parliament resolution urging for the suspension of all direct financial aid to Moldova’s government. The brazen accusations levied by Chişinău against Brussels, to the point of putting the blame for the failure of the justice reform on EU shoulders and accusing Brussels of interference in Moldova’s domestic affairs by means of suspension of funds, is a dangerous path for Moldova. Hopefully this will change after the upcoming parliamentary elections, provided that, once again, the

This interview was conducted by Kamil Całus (Centre for Eastern Studies – OSW) on 10 July 2018