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The European Union and its enlargement policies: the case of Moldova

Updated: Apr 8

The opening of negotiations on Moldova's future accession to the European Union on 14 December 2023 consecrates decades of work on the Union's enlargement policies, and constitutes a major turning point for a country historically and innately torn between East and West. But this also opens a chapter littered with uncertainties and challenges.

by Maddalena Magnante et Enzo Colomer


Moldovan President Maia Sandu and European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen on 31 May 2023 in Chisinau © in-cyprus

On 14 December, Charles Michel, President of the European Council, announced in Brussels that the 27 Member States had unanimously agreed to open negotiations on the future accession of Ukraine and Moldova to the European Union. Described as a "historic moment", this decision represents the outcome of years of partnership between the EU and its eastern neighbours, and strikes a powerful chord towards Putin's Russia. As such, the prospect of these countries joining the EU in the future is no longer just a dream seen as unrealistic, but a concrete desire shared by the Member States of the Union. And it follows in the footsteps of the EU's enlargement policies, enshrined at the European Summit in The Hague in 1969. Nevertheless, it seems obvious to underline the historicity of this process, made up of decades of work, agreements and milestones, and that Moldova's potential accession to the European Union would not be without implications and consequences.

Between East and West

Soviet republic until 1991, Moldova was one of the poorest countries in Europe at the dawn of its independence. In 1992, it was torn apart by the Dniester war, which split its territory between what is now Moldova and Transnistria, a pro-Russian separatist region and part of the "New Russia". Already historically riven, Moldova was from then on to face an inherent dualism, placing the country, geographically, demographically and politically, on the borders of two spheres of influence, between East and West. Member of the Russian zone of influence, of the Commonwealth of Independent States, observer within the Eurasian Economic Community and populated by a large Russian-speaking community, the "country of mining cities" nevertheless began to move closer to the West in the mid-1990s. In 1994, it joined NATO's Partnership for Peace (PfP), which was set up to facilitate dialogue with, and even membership of, the countries of the former Eastern bloc. Since 1997, the country has also been a member of the Organisation for Democracy and Development (GUAM), keen to move closer to the European Union. And despite a political life based on alternation between pro-Romanian and pro-Russian parties, as illustrated by the Communist political domination under the presidency of Vladimir Voronin (2001-2009), the EU's Eastern Partnership, a component of the EU's neighbourhood policies, was established in 2009.

As part of this partnership, Moldova also signed an Association Agreement (AA) with the European Union in 2014, strengthening political and economic ties. In other words, the commitment to a series of reforms designed to develop good governance and move closer to European theoretical and practical standards, particularly in terms of justice, freedom and the CFSP. And the establishment of a free trade area (FTA) and a common market, leading to extensive sectoral cooperation and the grant of macro-financial assistance (MFA), enabling the EU to become Moldova's main trading partner, accounting for 52% of its trade, as well as its biggest investor. Finally, this association agreement also signalled the end of Moldova's dualism in terms of spheres of influence, definitively distancing Chișinău from the possibility of joining Moscow's Eurasian Union.

Maia Sandu's election and the European consecration era

While the results of the "best pupil of the Eastern Partnership" were for a time thwarted by the pro-Russian presidency of Igor Dodon (2016-2020), even leading the European Union to suspend the payment of macro-financial assistance (MFA), the election of Maia Sandu in 2020 and of her pro-European Action and Solidarity Party (PAS) in the 2021 parliamentary elections definitively anchored Moldova's European turn.

The PAS-dominated parliament approved the nomination of Natalia Gavrilița as Prime Minister and supported her ambitious programme to bring the post-Soviet country out of a prolonged political and economic crisis and closer to the Union, its main foreign policy priority, by fully implementing the EU-Moldova Association Agreement. Moldova's proximity to Ukraine has made it particularly vulnerable to Russian aggression against Ukraine. This situation has severely affected the country.

In this context, Moldova achieved an historic milestone with its formal application for EU membership on 3 March 2022. Candidate country status was granted at the European Council meeting on 23 June 2022, marking the start of a new strategic phase in relations between the EU and Moldova.

In January 2022, the Commission proposed a macro-financial assistance programme of €150 million for Moldova (of which two tranches were disbursed in 2022-2023), while on 24 January 2023 it suggested increasing this amount to a maximum of €145 million. The European Parliament adopted this proposal on 9 May 2023. The provision of macro-financial assistance will be conditional on the implementation of the IMF programme and the policy measures agreed in the Memorandum of Understanding. The Moldovan authorities are intensifying their reform efforts to implement the nine conditions set out in the Commission's Opinion on Moldova's application for EU membership and to meet the objectives set out in the EU-Moldova Association Programme, which remains a driving force for reforms and alignment with the existing EU framework. The recommendations contained in the Commission's analysis report of February 2023 are also guiding the country's reform and rapprochement efforts.


The seventh meeting of the EU-Moldova Association Council was held on 7 February 2023. During this meeting, the EU and Moldova reaffirmed their determination to strengthen their political association and deepen their economic integration. Moldova also expressed its determination to meet the necessary requirements in order to start accession negotiations as soon as possible. The Commission reported on Moldova's state of preparation for its next enlargement package in October 2023.

Since February 2023, Russia has stepped up its hybrid war against Moldova and is now openly attempting to destabilise the pro-European Moldovan government, using its proxy forces to conduct cyber attacks, spread disinformation, sow social unrest and issue false bomb threats. President Maia Sandu has publicly warned of a possible Russian-backed armed coup masquerading as an opposition demonstration. In response, the EU is strengthening its security and defence cooperation with Moldova and deploying an EU Partnership Mission in Moldova (EUPM Moldova) under the Common Security and Defence Policy.. 

Moldova also hosted the second summit of the European Political Community in Chișinău on 1 June 2023. Deciding that the summit will be held in Moldova is a powerful political signal that underlines the country's importance to the Union. However, the issue of the breakaway region of Transnistria, which unilaterally proclaimed independence in 1990, still remains a major challenge for Moldova. The challenge is all the greater in the context of the war in Ukraine, due to the presence of Russian troops and Moldova's dependence on electricity from Transnistria. The EU is participating as an observer in the Transnistrian conflict settlement process. Although the negotiation process has been de facto suspended since 2022, the EU remains in favour of a comprehensive and peaceful settlement, based on Moldova's sovereignty and territorial integrity, with a specific status for Transnistria. In addition, the already tense relations between the autonomous region of Gagauzia and the central government of Chișinău have been further complicated by Russia's invasion of Ukraine and will continue to be problematic.

As part of the "Enlargement 2023" package, adopted on 8 November 2023, the European Commission has assessed the progress made by several countries, including Moldova, towards accession to the European Union. Significant progress has been made towards Moldova's accession to the EU: according to the European Commission, Chisinau has achieved "more than 90%" of what was asked of it in terms of the fight against corruption, respect for minority rights, independence of the judiciary and measures to reduce the influence of oligarchs in power.

Uncertainty is the order of the day

In 2014, Jean-Claude Juncker, former President of the European Commission, stated that "The European Union needs to take a pause in its enlargement process in order to consolidate what has been achieved in the Twenty-Eight". A decade later, enlargement seems to be back on track, despite the fact that consolidation among the 27 is far from a foregone conclusion. While we can only be pleased about the success of the Eastern Partnership and the Union's openness towards new countries, de facto threatened by a geopolitical context that has brought war to the gates of the Old Continent, it is worth mentioning that Moldova's accession to the Union would not be without consequences.

The country still has to contend with a number of internal challenges, such as Gagauzia and the autonomous separatist region of Transnistria, which remains under strong Russian influence and is protected by a fragile status quo. Moreover, its economy is still energy-dependent on Russia and is beset by numerous difficulties. Besides, Moldova is attached to a status of neutrality, guaranteed by its constitution (cf. Finland and Sweden). However, Moldova's accession to the European Union, against a backdrop of war with Russia and in view of the Union's involvement in the conflict, is likely to be perceived as a provocation, fuelling Putin's theory of containment, when, by virtue of its geographical and historical characteristics, Moldova is perceived as Moscow's near abroad, if not its outcast oblast. Ties with Russia remain a major dividing line within Moldovan society, as demonstrated by the pro-Russian opposition to Moldova's accession to the EU, the ever-increasing waves of hybrid attacks, and the outbreaks of violence in Transnistria.

On the other hand, Moldova's future inclusion in the 27 is likely to upset an already precarious balance. The Union would then be forced to step up its budgetary and monetary balancing act, already handling 27 sometimes radically different economies, while Moldova, in 2022, was the poorest country in Europe in terms of GDP per capita and human development index. Risk is that of a race to the bottom, even though the European construction has always rejected this approach. Added to this is the depression of the principle of solidarity, and particularly budgetary solidarity, notably because of the resistance of the frugal to the less advanced economies, which are de facto less contributing countries to the European budget.

An enlargement to 28 - if not more counting the Ukrainian, Serbian and Bosnian candidacies - is also likely to increase the difficulties of governance of the Union, at a time when decision-making seems ever more complex in a Europe of 27, when the logic of cooperation tends to take over from integration, when the articulation between common policies seems ever more difficult, and when a future of " shifting horizons " seems to be multiplying. In this respect, it is astonishing to observe the (deliberate?) neglect of the logics of integration, deepening and strengthening, of the project of a social and political Europe. We can lament the choice of a realism favouring efficiency over idealism, despite the fact that idealism is central to the European idea.

However, this does not mean that these new memberships should be considered questionable, quite the contrary. As Ursula Von Der Leyen stated, "enlargement responds to the call of history, it is the natural horizon of our EU". But, given the geopolitical context, they seem to be confusing speed with haste, whereas the accession process is, by its very nature and necessity, streamlined. In contrast, the Western Balkans have been waiting in the EU's antechamber for years, possibly even stirring up tensions with them. The next few years will provide the answer, but this future enlargement of the Union is certainly not exempt of challenges.



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