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Wider Europe Briefing: A Conversation With Maia Sandu Over Moldova's EU Chances; 'Ukraine Fatigue' At Forum 2000


Moldovan President Maia Sandu speaks with RFE/RL's Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak during a visit to RFE/RL's headquarters in Prague on October 16.
Moldovan President Maia Sandu speaks with RFE/RL's Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak during a visit to RFE/RL's headquarters in Prague on October 16.

Welcome to Wider Europe, RFE/RL's newsletter focusing on the key issues concerning the European Union, NATO, and other institutions and their relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe's Eastern neighborhoods.

I'm RFE/RL's Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak, and this week I'm drilling down on two issues: Moldova's EU accession challenges and this year's Forum 2000 conference in Prague.

Brief #1: Maia Sandu And Moldova's EU Aspirations

What You Need To Know: Last week, I interviewed Moldovan President Maia Sandu during her state visit to the Czech Republic, which took place nearly seven years to the day after I sat down with her for the first time. Back in 2016, she visited Brussels to meet with various EU officials ahead of a presidential election later that year, which she contested on a pro-Western, anti-corruption ticket.

She was relatively unknown in the EU capital back then, having enjoyed a three-year stint as education minister in a government beset by internal quarrels and tainted by a bank fraud scandal that cost Moldova more than $1 billion -- around one-eighth of the country's GDP. And while she eventually -- and narrowly -- lost the election to the Moscow-friendly Igor Dodon, people in Brussels told me to keep an eye on Sandu as she seemed to have impressed people in town and was solidly backed by the center-right European People's Party (EPP) -- the epicenter of EU politics and home to influential politicians such as the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and several of the bloc's prime ministers and presidents.

In 2020, she became president after defeating Dodon, and next year she is seeking reelection. She is doing so having secured EU candidate status for Moldova last year, shortly after the start of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine -- a watershed moment in European history that suddenly opened the EU door to former Soviet republics. Now widely recognized by several EU politicians and diplomats as the driving force behind Chisinau's EU push, she is eyeing membership in the exclusive club in record time.

Deep Background: All indications I have from sources familiar with the topic but who can't speak on the record is that the European Commission, when presenting the annual EU enlargement reports on November 8, will recommend that Moldova and Ukraine start EU accession talks.

Chisinau has fulfilled most of the nine recommendations that the commission set out for the country a year ago. There also is enlargement momentum in the bloc that will most likely result in the 27 EU member states unanimously endorsing the commission's recommendations when Europe ministers meet in Brussels on December 12 and rubber-stamping them two days later at summit of EU heads of state and government.

This means that the start of EU accession negotiations can happen by the end of this year or in early 2024. Now the question is how long these negotiations will last. Charles Michel, the current president of the European Council, recently said that the EU could be ready for a new enlargement by 2030, if necessary institutional reform is done on the EU side and candidate countries do their homework. Sandu confidently told me that "Moldova will be ready earlier than 2030" and that she hoped "that the EU will be ready to accept Moldova in the next few years."

That is very optimistic. Firstly, because the accession process is usually a hard slog. Take the two current "front-runners" in the accession process -- Montenegro and Serbia -- which in 10 years of negotiations have just "closed" talks in three and two policy chapters, respectively. But secondly, it also has to do with two very specific issues concerning Moldova: the breakaway Transdniester region and its relations with Ukraine.

Drilling Down

  • So far, the European Commission and member states have decided that Moldova and Ukraine are "coupled." The thinking is that it's better to treat some countries as "a package" considering that they have similar challenges and that a group of countries seeking membership has a greater chance of getting attention and succeeding in joining. Think of the eight Central and Eastern European countries becoming EU members back in 2004 or Bulgaria and Romania three years later.
  • In the current enlargement process, Albania and North Macedonia are, so far, also proceeding toward Brussels together. But herein also lies the disadvantage of such an approach. Due to North Macedonia's bilateral problems with Bulgaria, it looks like there will be a holdup on their EU accession path, and, out of fairness to Tirana, EU member states are currently thinking of "de-coupling" them.
  • Would Moldova consider the same, taking into account that, for example, Ukraine's pace of reforms could be affected by the ongoing war? Sandu told me that "we do hope to go together. It is important for us that the EU include also Ukraine. And I do believe that it is important for Ukraine that Moldova is also part of the EU." But then she added, rather tellingly: "In the end, it's a merit-based approach, and we are going to work hard, and we do hope that the same is going to happen in Ukraine."
  • But Moldova, of course, also has its own territorial problem: the Moscow-supported Transdniester region, a sliver of land stretching from the left bank of the Dniester River to neighboring Ukraine. I asked Sandu if she would consider a so-called "Cyprus solution" for Moldova -- meaning that the entire island of Cyprus was admitted to the bloc back in 2004, but de facto EU rules and laws only apply to its southern part.
  • Interestingly, she didn't rule it out. Diplomatically, she noted, "Of course, we would like to become an EU member state as a reintegrated country." And then she hinted that a Ukrainian victory against Russia might pave the way for a solution in Transdniester as well: "There might be a geopolitical opportunity in the next several years because things depend on what's going to happen in the region, and we are ready to use this geopolitical opportunity."
  • Of course, she cautioned that Chisinau wouldn't use any force to achieve this goal, stressing "that the peaceful solution is the only acceptable solution." But then came the really interesting bit: "On the other hand, if this first scenario does not happen, I do believe that we should consider integrating Moldova into the EU into two steps. First, the right bank of the Dniester and then the left bank of the Dniester." When I pressed if this, then, would be a "Cyprus solution," the cryptic answer was, "We should discuss this."
  • Now, EU diplomats tell me that this isn't an issue right now as Moldova is still far from joining. But it will be intriguing to see how Brussels will deal with this in the accession talks. Serbia has, for example, an extra negotiating chapter compared to Montenegro -- No. 35 -- called "relations with Kosovo." That means that this bilateral issue must be solved before Serbia can become an EU member.
  • Another interesting aspect is the much-debated paper written by French and German think-tankers on enlargement and EU reform published in September in which they stated that "the accession of countries with disputed territories with a country outside the EU will have to include a clause that those territories will only be able to join the EU if their inhabitants are willing to do so."
  • This was just a discussion paper and not the official line of Berlin or Paris, but this sort of scenario would mean that some sort of referendum or vote would have to take place in Transdniester, where inhabitants, at least so far, have shown very little inclination of wanting to reintegrate with the right bank -- let alone joining the EU.

Brief #2: Forum 2000 Grapples With 'Ukraine Fatigue'

What You Need To Know: Prague hosted the annual Forum 2000 conference on October 16-17. A brainchild of the late Czech President Vaclav Havel, the forum has become the city's premier think-tank event, bringing together politicians, officials, academics, and journalists to debate and dissect the latest in current affairs.

Given the Czech Republic's prominent role since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine over 600 days ago -- hosting half a million Ukrainian refugees and pushing for more sanctions on Russia and quicker Ukrainian integration into the EU and NATO -- I went there to find out one thing: Has the "Ukraine fatigue" that I hear so much about in conversations with various people now finally set in?

The concept of this "fatigue" truly gathered pace, at least in my observations, after the NATO Vilnius summit in July. The big talking point then, apart from Ukraine's crushing disappointment in not getting a clear pathway to membership, was the caustic remark by Ben Wallace, the British defense minister at the time, about not being an Amazon delivery service for Ukrainians and the need for Kyiv to show more gratitude toward the West for the support it is providing.

With Wallace being one of Ukraine's biggest supporters, this opened the floodgates of complaints. Suddenly, I heard a variation of the same message from my sources, sounding something like, "I know that it sounds horrible to say with Ukrainians dying every day while we sit here and sip cappuccino, but there is a real fatigue on this topic both among the general public and policymakers."

Deep Background: In a sense, this has do with two things: Firstly, that there isn't enough bandwidth -- politically or in wider society -- to give this war priority anymore after 18 months of fighting. Concerns over increased migration and the growing conflict in the Middle East now get most of the attention.

Former Croatian Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic, speaking at the closing session of the forum, put it rather succinctly: "[Russian President Vladimir] Putin has got his second front in Gaza that he always wished for." And it certainly has tied Brussels up in knots in recent weeks. First, a very public fight between European commissioners about whether aid to the Palestinians should be cut or not and then ire among several EU member states that European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who rushed to Israel to express support for the country, did not emphasize the need for the country to show restraint and respect international law in its response to the terrorist attacks by Hamas.

But there is also another explanation. Western institutions have for now run out of headline-grabbing initiatives for Kyiv. Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, former vice prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration and current opposition MP, summed it up by noting that "we are in the plateau of support for Ukraine now."

Drilling Down

  • To illustrate this, look at the draft conclusions for this week's EU summit (October 26-27) in Brussels seen by RFE/RL. The text on Ukraine is more or less ready already and it offers precious little that is new. There is the usual support for Ukraine's Peace Formula "with a view to holding a Global Peace Summit" and repeated calls for "the work to continue" to establish a tribunal for the prosecution of war crimes and on more restrictive measures on the Kremlin. It also simply states that "Russia's ability to wage its war of aggression must be further weakened, including through sanctions." Old phrases, no initiatives.
  • At Forum 2000, the many discussions on Ukraine reflected this clash between Ukrainian hopes and Western reality -- notably on two particular fields: Ukraine's EU and NATO integration and efforts related to the reconstruction of the country.
  • Alyona Getmanchuk, the director of the Ukrainian think tank New Europe Center and one of her country's most prominent voices for Euro-Atlantic integration, argued forcefully that the issue of Ukraine's NATO membership must be on the agenda again when NATO leaders assemble in Washington in July 2024.
  • She noted that it gives Russian President Vladimir Putin "great motivation to continue the war" if the military organization insists that Ukraine can't join NATO until the fighting is over and that the fastest way to the negotiating table is to create a threat for Putin to lose Crimea or the war in general. She also expressed dismay about the stories that I also have heard from well-placed European officials that the United States is still considering a future status of Ukraine as a neutral, non-NATO country to be a useful bargaining chip with the Kremlin in future talks.
  • Countering that, Michael Zantovsky, one of the Czech Republic's most recognized diplomats, pointed out that "while the direction of travel is clear for Ukraine and NATO, the pace is not," and cautioned about membership while the war is ongoing since the core of NATO is Article 5, the mutual defense clause, and that this clause must remain credible -- something Moscow would test if Ukraine joined the military alliance under current circumstances.
  • When it comes to the EU, it was a similar story: All agreed that it is likely that Ukraine will soon start accession talks, but the pace of that process will depend on a lot of things, including the EU's internal reform process and the fact that more Central and Eastern EU member states will have to chip in. Martin Dvorak, the Czech minister for European affairs, acknowledged this problem by noting that he "wants the Czech Republic to be a net payer to the EU budget and would be proud of it," but admitted that it would be complicated to sell because for a large part of the Czech public, the EU is a cash pot.
  • On reconstruction of Ukraine, the mood was similarly downbeat. The World Bank estimated over the summer that Ukraine would need over $400 billion for reconstruction in the next decade, a number that is growing with each day of the war. And while many at the conference hoped that some of this reconstruction could be paid from seizing frozen Russian assets in the EU, which are estimated to be worth some 200 billion euros, it has proven impossible so far due to legal hurdles involving state property.
  • Even a possible enactment of a levy on extra profits of the frozen assets has proven elusive in the EU as the European Central Bank (ECB) has warned that this could undermine the euro as a global currency if no other big currencies mirrored these steps as well.
  • Getting European private companies to invest in Ukraine is also proving difficult. Alexander McWhorter, the chairman of the management board at Citibank Ukraine, noted that firms, especially in Central and Eastern European countries, have shown interest in the Ukrainian market but wanted to be sure of the security situation before committing. Mariia Ionova, a Ukrainian MP, summed it up nicely: "A New Ukraine, yes, but for that we need people to return and for that we need security." EU and NATO membership could solve that, but judging from the mood at the forum, that doesn't appear too close.

Looking Ahead

On October 23, EU foreign ministers will gather for their monthly meeting, this time in Luxembourg. There is now hope that they can sign off on another tranche worth 500 million euros ($540 million) of military aid to Ukraine, but for that to happen Hungary would need to lift its veto, which has been in place since early summer. Budapest has so far refused to give the green light, citing the need for Kyiv to remove the Hungarian bank OTP from a blacklist produced by Ukraine's National Agency on Corruption Prevention that labels it as an "international sponsor of war" as it continues to do business in Russia.

Three days later, EU leaders will meet in Brussels for a two-day summit. Migration will continue to be one of the hot-button issues the heads of state and government will grapple with. Expect them to discuss the escalating conflict between Israel and Hamas at length as well. It is also possible that some will confront Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban over his meeting and handshake with Putin in Beijing last week.

That's all for this week. Feel free to reach out to me on any of these issues on Twitter @RikardJozwiak, or on e-mail at jozwiakr@rferl.org.

Until next time,

Rikard Jozwiak

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.

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About The Newsletter

Wider Europe

The Wider Europe newsletter briefs you every Monday on key issues concerning the EU, NATO, and other institutions’ relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe’s Eastern neighborhoods.

For more than a decade as a correspondent in Brussels, Rikard Jozwiak covered all the major events and crises related to the EU’s neighborhood and how various Western institutions reacted to them -- the war in Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, the downing of MH17, dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, the EU and NATO enlargement processes in the Western Balkans, as well as visa liberalizations, free-trade deals, and countless summits.

Now out of the “Brussels bubble,” but still looking in -- this time from the heart of Europe, in Prague -- he continues to focus on the countries where Brussels holds huge sway, but also faces serious competition from other players, such as Russia and, increasingly, China.

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