Ukraine and Moldova’s long road to EU Accession

Amidst the euphoria that surrounded Ukraine and Moldova’s elevation to EU candidate status in June 2022 and the subsequent opening of accession negotiations in December 2023, it is important to note the many requirements that remain outstanding in both nations’ pursuit of EU membership.

Ukraine’s Predicament

As EU membership candidates, Ukraine and Moldova present a set of unique geopolitical circumstances that require careful and intense consideration. The ongoing war in Ukraine has devastated the nation and its people at every conceivable level, with a recently released report placing the economic cost alone at an estimated $486 billion as of 31 December 2023. As these estimates apply specifically to the reconstruction efforts required in Ukraine over the next decade or so, they remain extremely volatile and are highly likely to increase further; perhaps even exponentially, with some estimates already ranging as high as $1 trillion.

Given the Ukrainian economy’s heavy dependence on its agricultural sector, the considerable damage to Ukraine’s farmland will greatly hinder any attempted economic recovery. The destruction of much of the nation’s infrastructural network will also serve as a major impediment, as will the shortage of human resources created by the extreme levels of emigration Ukraine has experienced in the little over two years since the war began. As of January 2024, an estimated 6.3 million refugees have been officially recorded from Ukraine, with a further 3.7 million people displaced internally.

Moldova’s Territorial Fault Lines

While not on anything like the scale of the current conflict in Ukraine, Moldova is facing a number of territorial issues of its own. Foremost amongst them is the ongoing situation in Transnistria, a separatist region of Western Moldova bordering Ukraine that has retained strong ties to Russia in the post-Soviet era. Political relations between Transnistria and the State of Moldova have remained tense since Transnistria’s declared secession in 1992, with Russia having maintained a continuous military presence in the region in the time since.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the strategic importance of Transnistria’s geographical positioning on Ukraine’s Western border raises concerns over the prospect of further, larger-scale Russian military intervention in the region. With the Russian government having recently voiced its willingness to consider such action in the event of any attempts by the Moldovan State to retake the territory of Transnistria by force, ongoing events in Ukraine indicate that this is a threat that must be taken seriously.

Barriers to Accession

While the European Commission’s most recent report on the progress of Ukraine’s application for EU membership rightly lauds the substantial efforts Ukraine has made in attempting to meet the specified criteria, it also sets out some of the practical difficulties faced in implementing such changes. Specific concerns are noted with regard to the measures taken to reduce corruption and the ability of Ukraine’s existing institutions to curb the influence of Oligarchs in its public and commercial spheres. The Commission also notes the undeniable impact the war has had in slowing much of Ukraine’s attempted progress in these key areas.

Many of these same concerns are echoed in the Commission’s latest report on Moldova’s own application for membership. Improving the ability of Moldova’s institutions to tackle endemic corruption successfully and eliminate what the Commission describes as “the excessive influence of vested interests” in Moldova’s political and commercial sectors are cited as key outstanding objectives. Naturally, the process of actually achieving these goals will be neither quick nor easy.

Historical Precedence in the Western Balkans

The specific issues cited in relation to both Ukraine and Moldova’s membership applications mirror many of the obstacles faced by Croatia during its own journey to EU accession. Having been granted candidate status in early 2003, Croatia was also tasked with implementing a slew of key reforms aimed at improving the functionality and impartiality of its judiciary, with the imposition of more effective anti-corruption measures serving as another key proviso for its EU membership approval.

Croatia was also notably tasked with resolving a number of outstanding border disputes before it was ultimately granted EU member status in July 2013. The theme of territorial disputes and geopolitical complexities is one that has emerged consistently throughout EU accession negotiations in the Western Balkans. The state of seemingly perpetual limbo that Serbia has occupied in the 12 years since its EU candidacy was first announced in 2012 serves as an effective reminder of the obstructive effect such disputes can have on the path to EU accession. As aspiring EU members, both Ukraine and Moldova would do well to heed the contrasting outcomes and resulting timeframes in both cases.

Existing EU Supports

The EU has already contributed €93.3 billion in financial and economic support to Ukraine in the time since the war began, rising to €138 billion when a wider range of support actions are taken into consideration. These economic measures are accompanied by the ongoing administrative support that the EU provides to all pre-accession candidates as they strive to meet the required membership criteria. Since 2021, Moldova has also received a considerable €1.2 billion in economic assistance as it attempts to deal with various challenges to its own political and economic stability resulting from the war in Ukraine.

The ultimate aim of these packages, which include measures to increase Moldova’s energy security, assist in the handling and support of refugees, and strengthen its overall administrative capacity, is to enable Moldova to first withstand these challenges, while simultaneously allowing it to continue the reforms necessary to accelerate its integration into the EU. These support packages will be further supplemented by the provisions of the EU’s Economic and Investment Plan (EIP), which will invest a further €1.6 billion in support aimed at improving innovation and raising the overall competitiveness of Moldova’s economy.

Capacity to Compete

These supports gain additional importance when viewed in the direct context of the EU’s membership requirements. As outlined in the Copenhagen criteria, prospective members must demonstrate “the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union”. The developing status of Ukraine and Moldova’s economies coupled with the significant disruption caused to both by the ongoing war in Ukraine makes this an extremely challenging objective to meet.

The EU’s establishment of the Ukraine Facility, a newly announced support program that promises up to €50 billion in aid to Ukraine between now and 2027, represents a strong signal of support and underlines the seriousness with which Ukraine’s goal of accession is being treated. However, in light of the recent suggestion that the cost of Ukraine’s reconstruction could easily exceed $1 trillion, it is also a stark reminder of the daunting economic challenges Ukraine faces in the years and even decades to come. Moldova’s economy will also require significant modernisation and diversification if it is to prove capable of successfully competing with its more developed contemporaries. Improving perceptions of transparency and trust must, therefore, remain a major priority if Moldova is to attract the kind of foreign investment necessary to increase its current economic capacity.

Uncharted Territory

Of additional practical concern with regard to both Ukraine and Moldova’s membership applications are the provisions of the EU’s mutual defence clause cited in Article 42(7) of the Treaty on European Union, which explicitly states:

“If a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power”.

To date, this clause has been triggered only once in the history of the Union, in the aftermath of the Paris attacks in November 2015. The fact that Ukraine is actively at war means that were its membership to be formally ratified while the conflict with Russia remains ongoing, Article 42(7) would automatically be invoked, mandating an appropriate response from the other EU nations. This would represent uncharted territory for the EU, a point of which it no doubt remains acutely aware. While the current tensions in Moldova may not appear as immediate in the context of the provisions of Article 42(7), recent history suggests that the situation there must continue to be monitored very closely.

The Long Road Ahead

Despite the significant progress made by Ukraine and Moldova in their respective journeys towards EU accession, the formal ratification of both nations’ EU membership remains an ongoing aspiration rather than an immediate reality. The major reforms required in the public sector, judiciary, and economic structures of both nations will be a slow and painful process requiring patience and discipline from all involved.

Although the generous backing afforded to both nations to date has no doubt proven extremely useful in helping them navigate this extremely challenging period, dedicated and ongoing support will continue to be needed to facilitate both nations’ transitions to full-fledged EU member status. This aid must be accompanied by an earnest and sustained effort on the part of the Ukrainian and Moldovan governments to ensure the necessary reforms and measures are put in place to ensure the resources provided are allocated appropriately. While it is a long road that lies ahead for both Ukraine and Moldova, there is light at the end of the tunnel.