Interview with Pirkka Tapiola: “The first challenge is to be a diplomat in the Republic of Moldova”

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Interview with His Excellency Mr. Pirkka Tapiola, EU Ambassador to Chisinau, conducted by political analyst and contributor to IPN News Agency Dionis Cenușa, and published on 11 July 2017.

– Mr. Tapiola you have had a huge experience dealing with your mandate of the chief of the EU Delegation therefore all my questions will be related to your experience and work as diplomat in Moldova. So my first question would be about the biggest three challenges that you have faced during your mandate?

– The first challenge I would say is to be a diplomat in the Republic of Moldova and I will explain what I mean by that. Our relationship is incredibly close and this may to be turned into three challenges. This means that we are close to what happens in this country. In addition to the political relations, we have a lot of EU money involved. A lot of our funds are there in order to enable, change and make progress. We have a DCFTA to open markets and there are success stories. So, you have of course the normal challenge on how you get all the instruments to work in a way in which it delivers on our major goals, which is to help this country to work in favour of the citizens, to grow economically, and where people feel empowered and where they have real opportunities.

Building on the above, I would like to remind that, a diplomat, by definition, is an outsider. He is not part of the domestic political process. Sometimes the boundaries in this county are very difficult to understand. From one side, government is using terms like pro-European, other politicians are using terms anti-European or pro-somebody else. So in a way there is an expectation that we would be involved in the political processes. I have been asked by the politicians what I think about this coalition, what I think about this and that person as prime minister and so on. From day one, I have taken a policy, which has been a policy from Brussels as well, that Moldovan domestic politics remains Moldovan domestic politics. Where we do get involved is if we see problems in terms of the implementation of our shared values and so on. Even that is very often at the level of statements trying to discuss with people, to influence in the direction of the implementation of those European values and principles and to say that we have a shared value system. But it is still a role of an outsider.

So let’s say that the biggest challenge in this job has been maybe to communicate that even if our relationship is incredibly close I am not part of Moldova’s domestic political processes. I do not work for the Republic of Moldova, I work for the European Union in building our relationship based on the EU values and interests, which luckily in our case are the same things.

Of course, when you are so close, the second challenge is that in fact you care and that is also for yourself to say at times: “Look, it is their country and you can do only so much”.

The third challenge – with a very volatile region – has been to try not to work based on stereotypes and very easy narratives, but trying to get to the bottom of events and to understand as objectively as possible, and using as many sources as possible to explain also to Brussels what is really happening in the country. That in fact is one of the core tasks of a diplomat.

– I imagine that in Moldova you had much more than that because Moldova is not an easy country. We have a lot of complications and complicated situations. So anyway you worked hard and many noticed that. Many praised you, many criticized. You worked hard and you were sometimes for somebody too visible.

What do you think has improved and what has worsened since you started your mandate?

– I would say that what has improved is the understanding, and this is where I am becoming so philosophical, the understanding of the boundaries between us being the European Union, 28 Member states, with many different nuances sometimes, but still a very shared set of values, interests and policies. I would say that there is more clarity on what the policy of the EU is in reality within many parts of the society.

I would say that our relations have become very honest…

– It also means more mature?

I would say that it is clear that it improved. I think we had improved at looking, from one side, at our values and interests, and what are the local aspirations, from the other side. There is an understanding and clear boundary between that.

I would also say that later during my mandate we have managed to also get into for example the priority reform action road map last year and with IMF agreement that enabled us to resume payments of budget support. We managed based on honesty in our relationship to get there where I would say the linkages between delivering certain things and our ability to support and assist those changes has been there.

What I think was a big improvement was that we managed to square the circle on how to link the Transnistrian region into our trade agreement with the Republic of Moldova, in a way which has enabled Transnistrian exporters to benefit from the DCFTA.

On what is worse. I say this with a lot of sadness. Yes, there were tensions and a bit of polarization inside the Republic of Moldova when I started my mandate. I see that the political narrative has become increasingly polarized and that I think is the biggest problem. To which extent this polarization really reflects reality is a matter of debate and I am not going to go into that, but I have my views on that.

I have known the Republic of Moldova for long time since 2005…
– Do you mean geopolitical polarization?

 Yes, geopolitical polarization, linguistic polarization, identity polarization… But in reality I remember when I started coming here in a different capacity I saw that people get along with each other on personal level.

– It’s interesting that people get along, in reality they are not that dispersed. So actually they can do many things together, but at the same time we have enemies. Who are the three main enemies of Moldova’s progress?

– There is a simple explanation that goes into the geopolitical situation and goes to foreign propaganda, Russian one. This is a theme which is being played on. But, in reality, this is more complex.

I would say that for the countries of the former Soviet Union to succeed there is a need to be a stronger realization at all levels of society that the national interest has to come first and vested interests cannot play such a major role, and we said that in EU Council’s conclusions in February 2016. We talked about the influence of business and other interests in political life. It needs to be depoliticized.

The second enemy is the lack of efforts in creating a “we”. I mentioned that what makes me very worried is the polarized narrative. The more the narrative gets polarized the more polarization will take place at the level of citizens as well. That’s the atmosphere. This doesn’t help for the sense of “we”.

Some good things have also happened in this regard. The adoption of National Minority Integration Strategy was one of them and it was a very important step, and the EU and member states have been pushing for it. It is important to create the sense of identity, civic identity, I am not even saying national identity or something else. This is all about what is there which unites us.

The third one links to my first point about boundaries of a diplomat and that you are not part of the domestic politics. Without this sort of “we” which needs to be forged between people with very different personal experience, self-identification and so on, there is an expectation that somebody else at the end will come and in a way take care whether it is Russia, the European Union or for instance a member of the EU. That somehow somebody from the outside can come and take care.

All these link together when that sense of identity is getting stronger. When one decides that one lives on this part of the territory and is responsible for his/her own fate, one puts pressure on vested interests. This also breaks the chain that somebody from outside could in fact solve your problems. A help can come from outside. We are there to help, support, fund, give advice and so on, but the rest should come internally.

– So the EU is ready to help and is doing a lot, but at the same time, I believe and many would agree with me, something is missing in the process of the European integration. Do you agree with this statement and if yes then what is missing and what can be improved?

– I would like to speak here about the experience of the European integration. But I would not speak at this moment about European integration as a process of EU membership application because there is no consensus on the future of enlargement.

When I was working with Baltic states in 1990s, and since then I was following what is happening, it was not that much on the EU side which drove a European integration process. We are not expansionists, we are very bad at trying to want a new country to join us. We try to get our house pretty much in order. But what happens was that with identity, a fixation to returning the hope feeling, countries pulled together and they built consensus on certain style of reforms, of wanting to get things done, put the vested interests aside, and to build-up the European societies.

These processes were not easy, it included justice system reform, rule of law. These are difficult things, especially if you come from an authoritarian background. The new things don’t grow automatically, and very often justice sector is one of the latest really to get reformed. This process builds institutions, genuinely makes them function.

So it is the case of showing in practice that things are really moving.

Many things are happening. This morning I was talking to companies from both banks of Nistru that are exporting to the EU. You know I admire these companies, I admire the solutions they find, the way they managed to use the tools that are available, the way they manage to export, create jobs, create that added value. But more of it will happen when it will not have only the legislative framework, but when public administration reform will start really working for institutions to become deeper with societies. That is the way to come closer and build Europe at home. In this case the relationship will somehow form itself, and you will become integrated in the EU even without the membership.

– Moldova is very volatile, things are changing quickly, we are polarized, you mentioned about that. Do you think that the EU should change something in its approach to make the European agenda more efficient, to increase the efficacy?

 I would say that the EU’s policies towards the Republic of Moldova has been evolving in any case. And I think that it has been evolving in the right direction. I am not going to blame our earlier policies, because I think they were right and continue to be right, including our assistance policy. For instance, the governments of the last 7-8 years were presenting really well thought-through and prepared strategies, based on which we started to put our assistance. But if you look at the report of the European Court of Audits then you have the feeling that maybe this assistance didn’t bring quite the results, which we all hoped for and all of us wanted. Some say that the government didn’t have the ownership and so on. But when you are in that situation, things are different. We were looking more at the design of our programs, in benchmarking, in looking at indicators of progress and of implementation.

For instance, at an earlier stage, one could have said that we discussed a strategy that as vividly presented to us, and we put benchmarks like the adoption of the law. So you expect that when a law is adopted you implement it fully and it has effects, and it is communicated. Or, when we have laws changed in the EU there is an information campaign saying that this and that law has changed and this is what it will mean in practice to you. For example changes on taxation that are followed by simulations in newspapers on how that taxation percentage will affect a person either single, or with a family, with that income or another one, how much per month, per year and so on. So there is a very clear communication on reforms.

What we have changed is that we look at our European agenda in a much more results-oriented way, and we don’t anymore sort of expect automatically that the law leads to some kind of changes. We also try to explain where the EU stands. One thing that you have heard from our representatives that we are really working on European values and principles because our geopolitics is the geopolitics of transformation. For our security, stability and for the EU interests what matters is that our neighbours and partners grow economically, have rule of law, live better, provide opportunity for the citizens, work on popular satisfaction, in sustainable terms not in populistic way.

I hope that it will be a growing understanding also in the way how we promote and communicate the EU’s agenda. That all this it is really about EU norms, rules, principles, not 19th century geopolitics, not spheres of interests, and it’s really about Europe, a European Moldova, which delivers to its citizens, and which is well governed.

Of course, we need to a certain extent to counter the external propaganda, which we all are dealing with, according to EU’s East StratCom (a EU communication unit focusing on Eastern Europe), with fake news coming out from certain channels. But we also need to very closely look at where are the hooks on which fake news can be created, where is the resilience of the country, where we can create change on the ground. Building resilience in society so that people feel that they have better life is a better way of countering propaganda. Or, people will look around and will say: “I am living pretty ok, I have opportunities, I have rule of law.”. The effect of maliciousness from outside becomes much less. Overall, the idea is to play by the rules not with the rules. We have to remember this in everything we do.

– Everything you mentioned confirms the good willingness of the EU to help Moldova, but at the same time we have noticed the worsening of the image of the EU in Moldova. So what did cause this and who is guilty for that? Currently, EU is facing an image crisis in Moldova. What do you think about that, and maybe you can give some solutions how to solve this?

– I have been working in the region quite a lot, and yes propaganda is one thing which has affected. The disillusionment in society with great expectations from government who have said they are pro-European, the expectations that have failed. That of course is one of the key issues.

At the same time, you noticed that in some other countries in the region the expectations were disappointed and domestic politic shifted like in Ukraine from Yushchenko to Timoshenko, to Yanukovych. But the image of EU remained more or less stable.

But why in the Republic of Moldova we had these big expectations, and shifts? This is again about the boundaries that I mentioned before. I like walking whenever I have free time. I don’t have bodyguards and I can go pretty free around the town. Since Chisinau is a relatively small city and since I am a lot there in the media people tend to recognize me. And then I can get stopped and get this sort of questions “Why didn’t you put this and that person in jail”. Once I was stopped by a person who wished me good luck with the reforms. Another person stopped me and asked if he can come to the office because he has a problem with a gas company and maybe I could help solve it. Then you have the EU flags around. Then one day you realize that it’s the boundaries, it is these expectations which I mentioned of people expecting somebody coming from abroad to take care. And you see it in so many fields.

You see it in people who are pro-Russian, with expectations that Moscow will come and solve problems. You see it in people who have a strong self-identification with Romania, which is a country that it used to be a part of, and in the times of crises you see the growth of the so-called pro-unionist sentiments. Part of it is very understandable, is very emotional, but part of it is also linked to the fact that maybe a neighbouring country could come and take over and take care of you. During my mandate, since you have had governments who said that they have been pro-European you get sometimes to the feeling that it was in fact our responsibility to look at the governance of the country, when we only gave external assistance.

For instance, in the case of Ukraine there was a very clear differentiation of what the European Union is, 28 Member States, it supports us but it is there, and we want to share the values the EU has. Here, in the Republic of Moldova, the pro-European governments have been seen as the EU being part of the country’s governance, which we cannot be, this is not our role. But then our image gets tied up again into the domestic political process. This is something very difficult to us to counter unless we said it at one stage more clearly. I am an outsider here, I am friend who want good for you, somebody who wants you to succeed, but I am representing the EU here and I am not part of your domestic process.

I will end this with an anecdote of mine. Of course, I may have made a mistake that my FB page became sort of almost professional FB page. I don’t mind people knowing more about me. So as good food is one of my hobbies I was at one nice restaurant traveling somewhere with my wife, and then suddenly I got a very angry comment on that page “How dare you with the level of poverty in Moldova representing the Moldovan people in Brussels have such a nice meal”. I said “Wait a second, I don’t represent the Moldovan people towards Brussels, I am representing Brussels and member states here”. Yes, I am trying to work on conditionality, and assistance, precisely in order people to have less poverty and more opportunities. But the boundary is still there.

So if this boundary is not clearly understood our image tends to fluctuate with domestic politics, and I have said that a number of time to politicians from here “You are politicians of this country, I am representing the EU”. You are the Moldovan government, the Moldovan authorities, we may have a personal relationship, we can have a glass of wine sometimes together, and become even friends, but our professional roles and responsibilities are separate. We have different roles here.

– So the solutions would be…?

 The solutions would be to have more discussions. But also it about your own statehood, about taking your own lives in your hands. I see many people doing that, I see small and medium size entrepreneurs doing so, I see business people, and they are doing that. They are taking ownership, leadership. But it has been sometimes difficult to try to see clearly the differentiation. I am not part of your government. I may have a critical view based on certain things related to European values.

We should not get these two things mixed up. If we do, then our image is tied as well.

If you look at the European Union we see abundance of feelings of identity of the European Union. A young man who is getting elected as president in France campaigning not on only accepting the EU but on promoting the EU. We see changes. The EU is feeling quite good. Why are we feeling so good? Because I think we have lost some part of our confidence at some stage on the global arena. Here my boss Federica Mogherini has been wonderful with EU Global Strategy and in many other ways, saying that we, the EU, are a global player. We understand that there is a demand for Europe and that countries need us.

I think there is a reflection among the citizens about Europe as about the most prosperous, most egalitarian in terms of income differences, which I am very proud of, most enabling and in a way most protective at the social level, part of the world. And, this exist because of our values. I think that our own people start to believe slowly that despite the challenges, like migration and so on, we have all of these good things. Well, we don’t have the employment of the 1970-80th, but what life would be without that. Would we have these opportunities, competitiveness, critical mass to be on the global stage, would we have peace?

I think that the EU has nothing to be ashamed of in the way we have acted. We should look at the EU as our achievement. What we have managed to do is quite unique in the European and world history. We should look at that and not get mixed with this and that political party or power struggle inside a country which is our neighbor, a country that we want to succeed. And we are also struggling to see how to best help, support you.

I can ensure you that we are not going to disengage, you are far too important for us.

– Thank you for your honesty and for your wise words about EU-Moldova relationship!

– Thank you!

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