CENUSA: Geopolitics prevails in the EU accession agenda for Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova

CENUSA: Geopolitics prevails in the EU accession agenda for Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova
European and Ukrainian flags raised in front of the Berlaymont building to commemorate the second year of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. / European Union, 2024
By Denis Cenusa April 3, 2024

The destabilisation of Eastern Europe, under the pressure of the Russian war against Ukraine, determined a paradigm shift in terms of enlargement and security within the European Union (EU). 

After Russia's revisionist protests produced serious ramifications for regional security beyond Ukraine’s borders, the process of European enlargement towards the East became an acceptable geopolitical strategy at European level. In addition to the perception that the geography of enlargement includes non-Balkan territories, the EU also implied that the inclusion of Eastern European countries in the enlargement package is aimed at securing the neighbourhood. In other words, the impossibility of expanding the coverage of Nato's collective defence umbrella means there are instead efforts use the European project to remove Eastern Europe from the "grey zone" of Russian influence.

The EU's attention to bilateral relations with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia is focused on several aspects, such as the immediate war needs, the management of humanitarian and economic crises (diverting trade routes and restoring energy security, among others), as well as the formation of a coalition around Ukraine, which implies adherence to sanctions against Russia. 

Although the reform agenda has not disappeared from sight, the EU has taken a differentiated (and somewhat uneven) approach to assessing the progress made by the governments in Kyiv, Chisinau and Tbilisi. Under pressure from Eurosceptic national capitals within the EU (Hungary, Slovakia, etc.), European institutions have called on Ukraine to implement reforms in several sensitive areas, especially those related to the legal framework covering national minorities. 

As in the case of Ukraine, but for different reasons, the EU has been demanding reforms in Georgia. The return of oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili to Georgian politics and the government's political opposition to the EU's reformist pressures created delays in Georgia's pre-accession schedule. 

Until now, Moldova had the easiest path, with respect to which Brussels did not apply the same level of demand as in the case of Ukraine or Georgia. The interference of criminal political actors (chiefly fugitive businessmen and politician Ilan Shor) and their alignment with Russian interests limits the EU's ability to show decisive objectivity towards the actions of the Moldovan government. Consequently, the EU faces the difficult task of guaranteeing the balance between the demand for comprehensive reforms and unconditional support for the government in Chisinau, mainly due to the geopolitical positioning of the latter favourable to the European vector.

Both the approval of the accession negotiations of Ukraine and Moldova and the granting of candidate country status to Georgia highlighted a drastic revision of the EU enlargement policy with regard to: first, the speed of the adoption process of political-bureaucratic decisions; second, the prevalence of geopolitical calculations; and third, the political favouring of pro-European regimes in the candidate countries of the eastern neighbourhood.

First of all, Brussels resorts to a "utile haste" to set the speed with which the European bureaucracy addresses the enlargement policy towards the East. Precisely in this context, the EU institutions granted Ukraine and Moldova candidate country status less than six months after submitting their applications for membership. Therefore, the speed with which the EU integrated its Eastern European neighbours into the "enlargement package" was twice as fast as that of North Macedonia, where the decision took almost a year (between 2004 and 2005). The discrepancy is even more significant when compared to the highly polarised Bosnia & Herzegovina, where the EU took six years to grant candidate country status (between 2016 and 2022), which is 12 times slower than in the case of Ukraine and Moldova. The EU favoured Ukraine and Moldova even compared to other countries in the region, such as Georgia, which achieved candidacy in about 18 months or more than three times slower.

The second characteristic of the EU's enlargement policy, which is in a process of profound metamorphosis, consists of the predominance of geopolitical reasoning over the transformative objective and the gradual Europeanisation of the candidate states.

Ukraine's rapid progress towards the prospect of accession denotes strong EU inspiration in crisis management approaches, where containment and minimisation of contagion risks prevail. The EU's "open door" policy towards Ukraine aimed above all to combat security threats generated by Russian military aggression. As a result of the adjustment of the former function of enlargement policy, that of transformation, the EU loads the connotation of the future wave of enlargement with a geopolitical reasoning based on the need for security. These changes already require the revision of the enlargement methodology, which will facilitate a gradual institutional-sectoral integration in the EU, even if actual accession to the EU may become more complicated. At the same time, during this process, the EU is ready to proactively challenge the Russian sphere of influence over the Eastern Partnership states. Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are the countries on the front line of the geopolitical dispute, where they could eventually be joined by Armenia, whose dialogue with Moscow is in continuous decline.

The third aspect that characterises the current mindset regarding EU enlargement policy refers to geopolitical favouritism towards the national governments of the candidate countries. Pro-European rhetoric must be combined with a rejection of strategic relations with Russia, at least during Russian military aggression against Ukraine. For this reason, the EU approaches reforms in the area of the rule of law (justice, etc.) more rigorously if the governments of the candidate countries show Euroscepticism. The manifestation of the latter may include initiatives that undermine European values (civil society, media, LGBT rights, etc.) or seek to improve sectoral relations with Russia (trade, transport, etc.). 

In this sense, Georgia represents a completely opposite example to that of Ukraine and Moldova. Currently, the Georgian government is discussing the adoption of restrictive legislation related to LGBT rights (the so-called fight against LGBT propaganda) and at the same time facilitating the intensification of trade ties with Russia. This has translated into an influx of Russian citizens and an increase in Georgian wine exports. Under the impact of this evidence, the EU's willingness to draw more attention to the quality of reforms in Georgia is clearly greater than in the case of Ukraine and Moldova. 

Regarding Ukraine, the EU admits the existence of limitations due to the war situation. However, the Ukrainian side is implementing reforms in the area of the rule of law, because access to external financing depends on them, not only the dynamics of EU accession. 

The most complex situation is in Moldova, where reforms related to the judicial sector are dragging on and the EU refrains from openly criticising deficiencies. This inhibition can be explained by an exaggerated fear that EU criticism could contribute to the erosion of the legitimacy of the Moldovan government ahead of the autumn 2024 presidential elections and the 2025 parliamentary elections. 

In all three cases, the EU's critical approach to the quality of reforms depends on the behaviour of domestic civil society, which shows the highest degree of impartiality towards government actors in Georgia, followed by Ukraine. The most modest level of impartiality is recorded in Moldova; NGOs with a significant impact on the public agenda rarely resort to condemning the government for failed reforms, citing the same argument as the EU: the presence of Russian hybrid risks.

In conclusion, although geopolitics determined the opening of the EU's enlargement policy towards Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, the continuation and deepening of this process will depend not on the degree of alignment of these candidate states with the EU in the security dimension, but on the results that occur in the area of reforms. Excessive geopoliticisation of the accession agenda can undermine the quality of the EU's monitoring of real progress. Geopolitical security issues should be managed in parallel with meeting accession requirements and carrying out necessary reforms, not before or instead of reforms.

Denis Cenusa is an Associate Expert at Think-Tank EESC in Lithuania and Moldova, and a PhD candidate at Justus-Liebig-Universität in Germany. He tweets @DionisCenusa.