Massive financial and technical support is needed to accelerate reform and prevent backsliding during the long negotiation process.

On the evening of December 14, a significant moment unfolded for the Republic of Moldova. Ukraine and Moldova formally began negotiations to join the European Union, marking a historic milestone. This event carries immense importance because it aligns with the current European Commission’s desire to leave a lasting legacy—something tangible and historically significant—before its mandate concludes in June 2024. This move is particularly crucial for Ukraine, a nation persistently fighting for its independence, and for Moldova, which is strongly impacted by the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

The decision to open accession talks with Moldova and Ukraine hung in the balance until Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was convinced at the 11th hour to refrain from using his veto, thereby enabling Ukraine and Moldova to pursue their aspirations of joining the EU. Orban did exhibit his contrarian stance on Ukraine in another way by using his veto power to block the 50 billion euro support package.

Moldova now faces extensive negotiations with the European Commission. Anticipating this, the government in Chisinau had already assembled 35 inter-ministerial working groups and opened a separate Office for European Integration. These groups aim to transpose the acquis communautaire—the enormous body of EU laws and regulations—into national legislation and drive essential reforms within Moldova. The urgency stems from the need to achieve substantial progress in the first half of 2024, coinciding with the June European Parliament elections. During this period, Moldova will benefit from the full backing of the Commission and its current leadership. Securing progress before the elections is critical, given that the political landscape may undergo a major shift after the elections, necessitating continuity in the support received from European leaders.

A Third Man in Tbilisi

As the European Council prepared to vote on 14 December, Orban briefly left the room for “a coffee”—reportedly German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s idea—allowing the necessary unanimous approval for Ukraine’s and Moldova’s bids from the other 26 leaders. Several factors drove Orban’s decision: the desire not to be seen as a constant obstruction to enlargement, the assurance of unblocking 10 billion euros of cohesion policy funding, and the agreement to bring Georgia back to the table by giving it EU candidate status. Orban visited Tbilisi and met with Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili in October, shortly before the Commission made that decision, at the same time that it recommended opening accession negotiations with Kyiv and Chisinau—steps which can be seen as creating a trio of EU allies with the aim of preventing Georgia from gravitating in the future closer to Russia.

It seems likely that Georgia has regained the attention of the 27 EU leaders thanks to Orban’s growing interest in the Caucasus state. Hungary sees itself as Georgia’s primary ally within the EU, symbolized by the signing of a strategic partnership last year. His October visit, following Garibashvili’s trip to Hungary in June, strengthened the rapidly developing partnership between Hungary and Georgia, based on Christianity and “traditional values”—a direction each had already adopted in domestic affairs. As for Georgia’s chances of EU membership, they remain unclear. Orban could strengthen those chances or even undermine them permanently.

Enlargement Under Fire

The EU’s enlargement policy accelerated as a consequence of the Ukraine war. Just weeks after Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022, Moldova applied for membership and secured candidate status by June. The EU’s decision to open negotiations came a mere one and a half years after the application was submitted. This swift process makes a sharp contrast with the example of neighboring Romania, where the opening of negotiations for full membership had to wait nearly five years after its application was submitted in 1995.

If Moldova is to move with equal speed through the tortuous negotiation process, technical and financial support is crucial. Expertise in European funds is necessary to maximize pre-accession funds, requiring specialists adept at drafting projects. Engaging a broad spectrum of Moldovan civil society is no less vital. Their involvement will be instrumental in advancing Moldova’s reform path.

Finding a resolution to the sensitive Transnistrian issue is another crucial step in Moldova’s journey toward EU membership. European decision-makers place a high priority on clarifying this issue. Presently, there’s alignment between European officials and the current Moldovan government regarding a two-step integration plan into the EU, initially without Tiraspol. This stands as the most foreseeable scenario.

Moldova requires enhanced financial and technical assistance, and it must also visibly intensify its reform initiatives in the light of President Maia Sandu’s political commitment to achieve EU membership by 2030. Starting with justice reform and the eradication of corruption, which are part of the European Commission–backed “deoligarchization” package, these initiatives will naturally trigger evaluations by European institutions.

This acceleration aims to prompt the Commission to draft an accession road map and call an intergovernmental conference between Moldova and the EU as early as possible in 2024. Simultaneously, increased support from partners such as Romania, other EU states, and the United States is needed in order for Moldova to remain stable and capable of the institutional changes required to fortify its capabilities against hybrid threats from Russia.

This article was first published by Transitions on December 20, 2023.