Moldovans’ perceptions of the EU had already changed by the time of the pandemic /// Newsletter FPA

Interview. Iulian Groza, Executive Director, Institute for European Policies and Reforms, for newsletter edited by Foreign Policy Association together with Friedrich- Ebert-Stiftung.

Though some sang its funeral before it was borne, and others continued to so for years to come, the Eastern Partnership has developed and strengthened. So, for three of the six member-states, it resulted in an Association Agreement, a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area and cancellation of visas … And, once the first decade was over, it set out to draw new perspectives that will open new horizons for the Republic of Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia (EU partner countries), but also for Belarus, Armenia and Azerbaijan. What is the place of our country today in the Eastern Partnership? Do we still have the chance to get rid of the “failing student” label as we were recently called in a study, after having lost the title of the “eminent student”, but also that of the “success story”, if you remember?.. I discussed about all this with the political analyst Iulian Groza, executive director of the Institute for European Policies and Reforms.

The spirit of relations with the EU is not ambitious enough

Mr. Groza, our discussion is taking place the day when six years ago the Association Agreement of the Republic of Moldova with the European Union was signed. How was in your opinion this relatively short period: was is successful or rather unsuccessful?

Whether we like it or not, it is obvious that today we are not where, six years ago, we imagined we would be … To blame are the objective challenges facing any state and any society, but also the multiple internal problems that we could have avoided had there been the necessary political will. A retrospective look shows us, however, that despite the impediments that have not allowed us to move forward as we would have liked, our connection with the EU today is much stronger. The European Union continues to be the largest development partner and the largest trading partner of the Republic of Moldova – and with it, the country’s strongest and most open friend. And people see this, as evidenced by the latest survey conducted in the six Eastern Partnership countries, which shows that 63% of our citizens trust the European Union. At the same time, over 74% of Moldovans assess the relationship with the EU as positive; about 82% are aware of the financial support provided by the EU, of which 58% believe that the support is also effective. Ultimately, for 61% of our citizens the EU has a positive image, compared to 29% neutral image and only 9% – negative. I think this result is also due to the fact that, in the last three years, Chisinau’s relationship with Brussels has been redirected from the advanced political dialogue, as it was until 2014, to a relationship focused mainly on people.

Don’t you admit that, de facto, the change of perspective took place “due” to the pandemic crisis, during which the EU came with substantial aid?

It is a reality that we cannot rule out, especially since in the last few months the European Union has actively expressed its solidarity with the neighbouring countries, including the Republic of Moldova. And it did it despite the complicated political relationship with Chisinau … At the same time, if we look closely at the technical data of the survey, we see the mentioning that the face-to-face interviews were conducted between February and March 2020, respectively before the COVID-19 crisis. So something had changed, in terms of perception, already before the pandemic, and the massive support provided by the EU and the Member States – both the humanitarian aid for the health system and the financial instruments to mitigate the effects of the economic crisis – could only strengthen this attitude. It will do it for sure.

Why has this unprecedented response, offered by the European Union at a time when the EU countries themselves were fighting the pandemic, clashed nonetheless, more than once, with the almost icy reactions from the government in Chisinau?

Probably because the European Union has remained consistent and has not given up, even during the pandemic, on the key objectives in the Republic of Moldova – to support reforms and actors of change, to help citizens and local public authorities. So, despite the arrows that regularly flew, I would say that the EU has managed to maintain dialogue. It exists both at the community level and within the cooperation and implementation formats of the Association Agreement. But the spirit of these relationships is less ambitious and not all opportunities are exploited …

Fortunately, Brussels is not talking just to the Chisinau government

What kind of ambition are you talking about?

First of all, to integrate into the various formats of cooperation that the EU offers through the Eastern Partnership and to take advantage of the existing tools within these formats. Yes, this year has been a complicated one because of the pandemic, but we cannot say that the EU has abandoned us, etc. On the contrary, the European Union has supported us as never before. From what we see, including on the political dimension, it often turned a blind eye or even both eyes to the obvious problems of governance or structural reforms. In addition, in Brussels and other European capitals there are people who are thinking very honestly and very seriously how to help the Republic of Moldova. As a result of these concerns, the European Commission responded immediately to the anti-crisis macro-financial assistance, materialised in that advantageous EUR 100 million loan, which is already being negotiated and whose first tranche we hope will be disbursed in the next future. We should appreciate and capitalize on this attitude.

At the same time, it is already clear that the Moldovan Government has missed the third tranche of assistance negotiated in 2017, amounting to EUR 40 million…

Yes, and the explanation is the lack of clear progress on the reform conditionalities which were agreed
then – and which we increasingly like to call “priority actions” … All the more welcome is the opening of the European Commission to offer the EUR 30 million second tranche in parallel with the mobilization of the Moldovan government – though in the last-minute and without much zeal – that voted the Law on non-profit organizations, laws aimed at combating money laundering and strengthening the banking system, and repealed the Law on Citizenship against Investment. Thus, if we look at the papers, things seem to be moving forward. But if we look more closely at the quality of the dialogue with the EU, you understand that there is not much room for goodwill or gratitude on the part of Chisinau. At least, on the part of the country’s president who prefers to put the EU in a negative light and diminish the importance of the European support. This may be his ace up his sleeve for the upcoming election period, but it is an approach that contradicts his own commitment to promoting a balanced foreign policy. Because, de facto, our foreign policy is a confused one, and the country is isolated. We do not have a normal relationship with Ukraine, we do not have a normal relationship with Romania. Only Mr. Dodon has a good relationship with Mr. Putin…

Are there any chances for us to make a qualitative break as long as the political “head” says different things?

Because it is more focused on politics, from time to time, the Government is trying to mend fences and balance the things … and the high-level dialogue. From time to time, it succeeds. Prime Minister Ion Chicu, although with periodic turmoil, has a constant dialogue with the European ambassadors accredited to Chisinau. At ministerial level, there are commitments and an ongoing dialogue with the structures of the European Commission and the EU Member States. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration, along with the Ministry of Economy and Infrastructure, maintain the dialogue on their channel – and they do so in a very active way. Even on the part of the Ministry of Justice there is a kind of activisation. It is a good thing, because, beyond the political context, if we want to advance in the implementation of systemic reforms, we need this technical, constructive and pragmatic dialogue.

And also, the active involvement of non- governmental actors, by the way, because today, fortunately, the EU partner in the Republic of Moldova is not just the Government. There is civil society and local public authorities with which the

EU cooperates directly. And it is a pity that, instead of using all the potential for dialogue, all the existing energies at central and local level, and focusing them in one direction – European integration – we often find ourselves as in the fable with the crab, swan and the pike. And this is not effective at all for the country … Our final and common goal should be the reforms and the presence of the Republic of Moldova on the agenda of the EU, which, let’s not forget, has enough problems even without us.

We are still given the chance to modernize and get stronger

The pandemic has turned many things upside down both locally, regionally and globally. How do you see the future of our relationship with the European Union?

The key format of our cooperation with the EU remains the Eastern Partnership. Even if we did not achieve everything we set out at its launch, however, together with Ukraine and Georgia, we managed to move forward – we have an Association Agreement and a visa-free regime, we have strengthened our institutional framework to be able to access more funds in the energy, infrastructure and education sectors. Yes, as 11 years ago, the EU is not ready to discuss accession with our countries. Instead, the EU continues to give us the chance to modernize and get stronger: through the Association Agreement and the Free Trade Area, so that we can position ourselves even more firmly in the common European market; through energy interconnection projects and access to the single euro payments area; by eliminating roaming fees and strengthening the security dimension, ensuring our resilience to external threats. These are realistic objectives, but we should formulate them clearly and give them a logical form so that, at the 2021 Partnership Summit, the European Commission can turn them into deliverables for the next ten years. It’s our big chance.

What if we talk about short- and medium-term priorities?

They are interconnected and interdependent. However, the Republic of Moldova should be primarily interested in the perspectives outlined by the post- 2020 European Commission: the rule of law, economic resilience, environment and the Green Pact, resilience of societies and community development, energy interconnection … and hence bridges, roads, the single market, the education and health sector reforms. As for the immediate priorities, there are three, in my opinion, and the pandemic has shown that they are vital: post-crisis economic recovery, including with the help of the EU and the financial packages provided to support the business environment; strengthening the health system, and it is obvious that we alone will not succeed; and, in the slightly longer term, the education sector, which has been abandoned. I would like us to have a European school and that the young people don’t have to go abroad, but also to modernize the education system at all levels – kindergartens, schools, universities. And let’s focus on the content, not just the form. We are part of the Bologna process, it is natural for us to have European curricula de facto, not just de jure. For this we do not have to invent the wheel, it is enough to take the experience of EU countries. For without an educated society, without specialists in key sectors, our country will not be able to develop. External assistance will not save us because 1) it will not be eternal and 2) young people will continue to leave. And if there is talk of supporting an Eastern Partnership University in Kiev, why not have a European University in Chisinau?

Several recent studies published by IPRE address the security dimension of the Eastern Partnership. What does this mean in practice?

A close relationship on the security dimension – at least between the three partner countries – would give us more opportunities, and this without any presence in certain military alliances. De facto, we need a security pact with the EU, which is already being discussed. Countries that want this are exposed to security risks not only in the military sector, but also in the banking, information and media sectors. These are hybrid threats, internal political agents, certain external forces that propagate their interests through the media, the church or other social actors, making us vulnerable. We need to create a system to prevent these threats and have a proactive cooperation framework. Obviously, the final decision will depend on the countries involved.

How realistic are these initiatives given the current position of our country? Personally, I did not feel too much enthusiasm in the Prime Minister Ion Chicu’s speech at the video conference of the Eastern Partnership leaders from June 18…

If we look at the three associated countries, we see that the challenges are about the same: corruption, the influence of oligarchs and their connection to state resources. The difference is the approach to the priorities they have set internally and in the EU’s relationship. Georgia today, despite its internal challenges, is seen as the most determined country – it has an active diplomacy, does not hesitate and tries to seize every opportunity. Ukraine is doing the same… We are an EU partner country and no one has given up on this status, but obviously the approach matters here as well. I still believe that it is a period of opportunity in which we can set up concrete projects leading to tangible results. We, as exponents of the non- governmental sector, will do this. We have also started discussions with colleagues from the three countries. But, of course, we also need the involvement of governments as only with joint effort will we approach the standards of a European democracy.

We can and should be generators of solutions. To do this, however, we need to connect the Eastern Partnership’s policy proposals to our development priorities. For example, to the ones of the National Development Strategy 2030. Without a long-term plan to clearly indicate the areas of intervention linked to the sustainable development objectives and to the commitments aimed at approaching European standards, it will be very difficult for us to act as generators of ideas and solutions. We will be chaotic from one government to another and from one party to another… It is a process that requires the support of the political class and high- ranking decision-makers. Unfortunately, it is missing or, at least, there is no consistency. They come to power by pursuing their own or party goals, not the development of the country.

Could the autumn elections change this damaging approach?

Any election offers a chance for change. The presidential election, even if we are talking about a predominantly symbolic function, will determine the future of the Republic of Moldova. We need a head of state to act as an honest broker, to promote the citizens’ interests, to support the Government, including on the external dimension, and to support the development of the country. If we have a president who thinks one thing, speaks another and makes the third, we will remain confused. And that’s when we need, more than ever, a clear and calm internal framework.

Thank you for the interview.

Sorina Ștefârță 27 June 2020