The overall assessment of EU policies towards Moldova presents a mixed yet evolving picture. Until recently, Brussels’ approach was distinctively high-level, focusing on relatively ‘blind’ budget support that aimed at the implementation of the AA. This lofty stance, which was heavily reliant on the local pro-EU elites for the Europeanisation of Moldova, made it very difficult for the EU to monitor implementation, thus making it more vulnerable to geopolitical blackmailing by these elites, who were always keen on playing the ‘Russian threat’ card to water down enforcement of the EU’s conditionality.
However, the last couple of years have seen a gradual evolution towards a more pragmatic approach. Aware of the pitfalls of its previous stance, the EU has been strengthening its conditionality in what could be defined as an operational shift in focus from negotiation/adoption to actual implementation: from ‘we support, you reform’ to ‘you reform, we support’. There has also been growing emphasis on EU member states’ joint initiatives, also often involving the private sector, which have been crucial for ensuring the coherence and eventual achievement of the EU’s goals. In this regard, while such goals are ultimately stability- and security-related, a more ‘strategically patient’ approach that prioritises concrete results in less politically sensitive areas is likely to yield greater returns. A greater focus on performance is all the more relevant in the Transnistrian issue, considering the low priority that is attached to reintegration by both capitals, Tiraspol and Chişinău. In addition to initiatives fostering economic ties across the Dniester River, CBMs – particularly those promoting direct engagement from both sides – offer a decidedly positive example of successful EU contribution. Success could be further increased if the EU takes more direct responsibility, instead of contracting out to UNDP, and thereby increases its own visibility on the ground. EU member states should use their influence inside other international organisations, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to ensure continued adherence to strict conditionality, and should not give in to arguments of geopolitical blackmailing, which somehow seems to have a stronger influence on other players like the United States.
In this light, what is therefore needed is a fine balance between normative Europeanisation and strategic patience. How can that balance be struck?
– First, the EU should rely less on budget support, and instead further develop case-specific AA-oriented cooperation programmes and actions ‘on the ground’. In order for this to be feasible, more EU personnel are required, particularly for monitoring tasks, including in Transnistria where the EU should act as a genuine honest-broker. 26 The Europeanisation of Moldova: Is the EU on the Right Track? | Clingendael Report, July 2016 In the context of the ongoing implementation of the reviewed ENP, the possibility of some friction between this pragmatic need and the EU’s declared aim to increase local ownership should be taken into account.
– Second, as the implementation of EU-funded technical reforms is being hindered by Moldova’s weak institutions, the EU should prioritise institutional capacity-building in order to become more effective.
– Third, constructive engagement by the EU member states, aimed at achieving better synergy between their initiatives and the overarching EU goals, is essential. The EU and its member states should better coordinate their efforts so as to minimise overlap, and should focus on their respective areas of expertise, where they can contribute more added value while ensuring maximum coverage across the key areas highlighted by the Single Support Framework. In order to achieve this, enhanced coordination with the relevant directorate-generals (DGs) of the European Commission is also crucial. This would also imply that budget support is not viewed as purely the competence of the EU Commission, but that member states’ views are taken into account when talking about (ultimately political) conditionality. In order to improve coordination, the EU should consider establishing mechanisms along the lines of the Ukraine Support Group.
– In addition, the member states could play a vital role in addressing the severe lack of specialised expertise among many local officials, particularly on the Transnistrian side, which poses a considerable obstacle to both the negotiation and implementation of EU-driven reform and, as a result, further reduces the likelihood of even a minor ‘thaw’ in the Transnistrian conflict. Several EU countries have highly authoritative institutions that could provide the much-needed know-how, particularly in the very technical field of trade diplomacy.
– For instance, the Netherlands, whose engagement has been very limited compared to its relative size, could spearhead initiatives in the fields of rule of law, human rights, and possibly some institution-building in, for example, the financial sector and/or agriculture.
Should the EU and its member states succeed in reforming their approach towards Moldova on both the strategic and the practical levels, the gradual Europeanisation of Chişinău via the implementation of the AA would undoubtedly make considerable progress. Moreover, Moldova would provide the EU with a useful test bench in its ongoing European Neighbourhood Policy review.
The current geopolitical situation, particularly in light of how Russia’s dwindling clout is forcing it to revise its positions, offers new options by broadening the window of opportunity for the EU to step up its game in Moldova.
– First, it could help foster some form of closer cooperation between the EU and Russia in the Shared Neighbourhood. In this respect, Moldova has been showing some promising signs, namely by restating its neutrality in order to allay Russian fears of potential expansion by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and 27 The Europeanisation of Moldova: Is the EU on the Right Track? | Clingendael Report, July 2016 by indicating its willingness to cooperate more closely with the member states of the recently established Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Similarly, some Russian experts seem to envisage the possibility of developing some (limited) cooperation between the EU and Russia – possibly including the EEU – provided that such cooperation makes full use of the flexibility of the AA in order to protect Moscow’s (economic) interests.
– Second, on this basis, some form of trilateral dialogue (that is, involving the EU, Moldova and Russia), along the lines of the similar dialogue with Ukraine, could be helpful in this respect, provided that the political will to do so exists on all sides.
Disclaimer: The material above comprises the conclusions and recommendations from the July 2016 Clingendael Report of the Netherlands Institute of International Relations. The views expressed belong to the authors: Francesco Saverio Montesano, Tony van der Togt and Wouter Zweers. It is published here upon the request of one of the authors.