Hidden concerns of EU and adaptability of government

The long chain of shortcomings and the necessity for Chisinau to double efforts were at the core of the messages transmitted by the European Union in the third meeting of the EU – Moldova Association Council held in Brussels (Gov.md, March 31, 2017). Europeans’ emphases were yet offset by the Moldovan authorities that balanced out the constructive, but subtle criticism of the Europeans and the pro-reform commitments and rhetoric.

The pro-governmental press presented the March 31 meeting of the Association Council as a success of the government, which, according to Prime Minister Pavel Filip, stabilized the country in 2016, while in 2017 will focus on the implementation of reforms. The statements made by the European officials and the final document of the Association Council are yet more critical of the government’s performance. In other words, Europeans’ appraisals are rather reserved, but are simultaneously objective and balanced.

Thus, Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn emphasized the necessity of ensuring tangible results for the people, continuing reforms and the authorities’ plenary commitment (European Commission, March 31, 2017). An extended analysis of the reform agenda and its implementation quality is presented in the joint statement following the third Association Council meeting. The statement details the neuralgic sectors and also points to several minor accomplishments attributed to the authorities (EU Council, March 31, 2017).

Hidden concerns of Commissioner Hahn

Commissioner Hahn no way expresses particular concerns in a trenchant manner in his remarks on Moldova. However, his speech reveals a series of fears of the EU.

First of all, he refers to the implementation of the Association Agreement and DCFTA, noting that the goal should be to satisfy the needs of the Moldovan citizens, not to please the EU. The European official is aware that the durability of the EU-Moldova relationship and more the EU’s image depend rather on the way in which the people feel the direct effects of the Association Agreement.

The continuation of reforms is the second source of concern that can be deduced from Hahn’s remarks. He noted that the EU, together with other donors, is ready to provide assistance for structural and sustainable reforms. The emphasis placed on judiciary and anticorruption is not at all accidental. Without this, the durability and continuity of the other reforms is impossible.

The government’s decision to modify the electoral legislation is the third deduced concern, which derives from the fact that the initiative to introduce the uninominal voting system does not enjoy broad support among the political forces in Moldova. Moreover, Hahn alludes to the fact that civil society is not sufficiently engaged in the process, suggesting that the Moldovan authorities should ensure genuine consultations with the NGOs sector.

The fourth reason for concern seems to be related to the central authorities’ dialogue with the local minorities. Otherwise, Commissioner Hahn wouldn’t have underlined the role of the policies devoted to the national minorities, which should reach out to all segments of Moldovan society and to different parts of the country.

Last, but not least, Commissioner Hahn stated his position on the media sector, insisting on the reform of the audio-visual code. This time, the concern results from the fact that the government’s legislative actions can affect media pluralism.

Six crucial aspects of statement of Association Council

The March 31 meeting of the EU – Moldova Association Council was the third in number and the first after the entry into force of the Association Agreement (July 2016).The event summed up the results achieved until March 2017 and reiterated the priority reforms on which the EU and Moldova will focus during the next two years. The statement of the Association Council adopted in the meeting shows how ramified and dense the Moldova – EU dialogue is and also how exact Europeans’ requirements towards the Moldovan authorities have become.

The reforms requested by the European side, which are described in the statement, are diverse and range from security, justice, the mass media to energy, business environment and even the Transnistrian issue.

1. Resilience of the state. The Association Council said societal resilience in Moldova will remain at the core of the EU-Moldova political dialogue. It is a correct decision as practically all the sectors of the country are fissured and vulnerable and this thing worsened after 2010. In particular, the statement mentions the economy, capacity of institutions, relationship between civil society and the authorities and also the energy sector. The EU is increasingly aware that Moldova’s fragilities should be seriously addressed.

2. Continuation of reforms. The EU wants reforms to be continued, in particular in such sectors as justice (including prosecution service), the media, energy and the business environment. The EU noted that a continued concerted fight against corruption and conflicts of interest in all these sectors, together with strong support for the rule of law, is essential. The EU stressed the importance of implementing the adopted legislation in a faithful and practical manner and further advance reform processes in consultation with civil society.

3. Banking frauds. The EU highlighted the need for comprehensive, impartial and effective investigations on the banking frauds. The EU stressed the importance of proceeding decisively and in a transparent manner, with a view to ensuring that all persons responsible are brought to justice and light is shed on the schemes used, through open trials. The authorities have for now avoided such steps, both as regards the comprehensive investigation of those who are liable (Ilan Shor, ex-governor of central bank and others) and enhanced transparency of hearings.

4. Efficient use of EU funds for direct benefit of citizens. The Association Council recalled the importance of making the best use of EU assistance, with a view to improving the living conditions of the citizens of Moldova in a visible and tangible manner. The EU noted that EU assistance to Moldova is based on strict conditionality, being linked to satisfactory progress in reforms. The pending €100 million in macro-financial assistance will be disbursed according to more exact and robust conditions.

5. Inclusive approach. The Association Council agreed on the importance of intensifying policies that aim to include all segments of Moldovan society. This area is among the few ones where the Europeans welcome the efforts made by the authorities, including in relation to ATU Gagauzia. In reality, in 2016-2017 the relationship between the central authorities and the autonomous unit went through a series of tense moments.

6. Implementation of DCFTA. Statistics show positive trends. Moldova’s exports to the EU in 2016 rose by 9% to 65% of total exports. However, it was underlined the need to advance in a number of sectors, including sanitary and phytosanitary measures, as well as to improve market conditions in the field of energy, public procurement, access to finance for SMEs, intellectual property rights. The EU recalled its readiness to assist and provide expertise to the Moldovan authorities in this regard, but the latter should also take concrete steps to modernize customs infrastructure, simplify the procedure for issuing permissive documents, rationalize inspections, etc.

Instead of conclusion…

The meeting of the Association Council held in Brussels showed that the authorities do not shirk from the reform agenda. On the contrary, they promise to deliver results. But this is powerfully opposed to the reality as the reforms are often partial or unfinished (prosecution service, energy, the media etc.).

Chisinau’s zeal for reforms is due to the need for European assistance, which, for its part, paves the way to other development partners. The multiplication of assistance one year before the 2018 parliamentary elections is important as this can indirectly stimulate economic growth (e.g. infrastructure projects financed by EIB and EBRD). Any positive perception is a value added for the government, which is totally involved in the restoration of the image of the Democratic Party and Vladimir Plahotniuc.

At the same time, on the occasion of the Association Council, the Moldovan authorities have tried to exploit the geopolitical phobias of the EU, presenting the Eurasian approaches of President Igor Dodon (Euroactiv, March 2017). But the pro-European crusade of Prime Minister Filip against the Eurasian course in Moldova wasn’t appreciated by the Europeans.

Ultimately, the EU – Moldova Association Council showed that the government gradually managed to overcome the external isolation witnessed in 2016. The conditions imposed by the IMF and the EU remain practically the only efficient instruments by which the pro-EU opposition and independent mass media can model and/or temper the non- linear behavior of the government. To amplify the impact of pressure, efforts should be synchronized and the government should be intensely monitored as this becomes more ingenious and adaptable to the new constraints.

This article was initially published on IPN News Agency on April 3 2017

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