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Questioning the irreversibility of European integration: implications for Moldova

For most of the last 30 years, the process of European integration has been seen as an irreversible one, with the creation of a strong justice system through reforms and the guarantee of the rule of law being one of the key endpoints. The assertion that “the process of European integration is irreversible” has long been present in the public space and has been taken over by the pro-European government in Chisinau. However, recent experiences of some European countries prove otherwise and demonstrate that democracy is not guaranteed, even in the European Union.

September 25, 2023 - Cristian Bolotnicov - Articles and Commentary

Ursula von der Leyen and Maia Sandu in Chişinău, 2023. Source: EC - Audiovisual Service

Emerging out of the devastation of the Second World War, the EU remains to this day a project that has truly transformed the old continent, guaranteeing and consolidating peace, cooperative relations and prosperity among its member states. The importance of the EU cannot be underestimated, as it still provides real freedom for the movement of people, goods, and ideas, changing and shaping the lives of millions of Europeans. However, often seen as a permanent process towards unity and the rule of law, the post-accession experience of some countries like Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and Poland, challenge this belief.

In the last decade, these countries have experienced various levels of deviation from the basic principles and values of the EU, raising many questions about the true nature of European integration and creating a lot of disappointments at the same time. 

 A brief history of the process of European integration

Emerging as a result of ideas of unity that have endured for centuries and in the aftermath of two world wars that have further devastated and divided the old continent, the process of European integration has its roots in the early years following the Second World War.

A first step in this direction was taken in 1951, with the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), followed six years later, in 1957, by the European Economic Community (EEC). Over decades and into the early 1990s, especially towards the end of the 2000s, this community evolved into what we know today as the EU, which has not only expanded its membership but also the scope of policies over which it has control.

The wave of EU expansion took place especially in Central and Eastern Europe, which after 1989, free from communism and eager for freedom, chose the path of European integration. In this context, in 2004, Hungary and Poland joined, as a part of the largest wave of expansion, followed three years later by Romania and Bulgaria.

The rise of these four countries in the EU has not only given rise to new opportunities but also to serious challenges. On the one hand, membership has provided access to the European single market, facilitating trade, bringing tens of billions of euros in investment to the countries, and offering real economic growth. At the same time, citizens have benefited from free movement within EU borders, creating employment opportunities, education and cultural exchanges. Moreover, these states have also enjoyed significant European funds, which have promoted regional and economic development.

On the other hand, EU membership status came with a set of requirements, which entailed the adoption or harmonisation of national legislation with community law, along with adherence to the basic principles and values of the EU, such as democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Given the presence of elites, many coming from former communist regimes and with conservative or nationalist tendencies, this led to the accumulation of tensions between national governments and Brussels.

To these are also added economic challenges, especially the transition from a centralised economy to a market one, which brought about significant social change. This led to the implementation of painful, sometimes failed, reforms, which not only fuelled the perception of a loss of national sovereignty but also led to an increase in scepticism and disillusionment in the idea of the EU project among some layers of society. Following the implementation of rigorous economic reforms, the substantial 2008 financial crisis and the 2012 sovereign debt crisis, there has been a notable surge in public backing for far-right and populist parties. This shift presents a considerable challenge to the longstanding political entities, especially those responsible for shepherding their nations into the EU. 

Pre-accession reforms hit public confidence

Ultimately, it falls upon politicians and the larger political class, particularly in nations where societal consensus is robust, to navigate a country’s accession into the EU, acting as the custodians of popular will. Yet, this will be no monolithic entity; it ebbs and flows, often worn down by the harsh waves of economic reform, as history bears witness.

Consider, for instance, Romania under the reign of the CDR centre-right government from 1996 to 2000. A series of sweeping social and economic reforms effectively shuttered several large, communist-era factories, leaving scores unemployed. In the vacuum created by this economic upheaval, Romania stood precariously on the precipice of becoming an Eastern European nation under the radical, nationalist presidency of Corneliu Vadim Tudor in 2000. Nonetheless, despite the electoral triumph of Ion Iliescu, the reins of power were seized once again by former communist officials, resulting in subsequent postponements of the anticipated reforms. Eurosceptic rhetoric found fertile ground in this climate of discontent, resonating powerfully with a public scarred by economic transition and a high level of political corruption.

Turn then to the parallel narrative in Bulgaria, where the nation faced its own crucible of reform: the decommissioning of the Kozloduy nuclear reactors. Considered incompatible with European safety standards, the reactors represented an insurmountable obstacle in Bulgaria’s journey toward EU accession. Indeed, following 1999, Bulgaria acceded to decommission the four older reactors at Kozloduy as a precondition to commencing its accession negotiations with the EU. The EU’s uncompromising stance against countries operating outdated Soviet-era reactors – the ilk of those at Kozloduy, deemed financially infeasible to upgrade – stood in stern testament to its unwavering commitment to safety.


Major “irreversible” changes: the economy

Before joining the EU, Hungary went through significant economic reforms in the 1990s to transition from a planned economy to a free market one. These reforms included the privatisation of state enterprises and trade liberalisation. After joining the EU, Hungary gained access to the single market, which boosted its exports, especially in the automotive and pharmaceutical industries. Yet, one of the challenges it faced after integration was the global financial crisis of 2008, which hit Hungary hard and led to a significant contraction of the economy.

After joining the EU, the country experienced an increase in foreign direct investment and economic growth. The country became a leader in the pharmaceutical and medical technology area in Eastern Europe, as well as in the automotive industry. However, corruption and the weak rule of law remained persistent challenges which in many ways affected the democracy in that country.

Romania became a member of the EU in 2007. Like Hungary and Bulgaria, it went through economic reforms to transition from a planned economy to a market economy before joining the EU. After joining, Romania experienced significant economic growth, driven by sectors such as information technology and car manufacturing. However, problems such as corruption and a lack of investment in infrastructure represented setbacks. 

Poland joined the EU in 2004. Before joining the EU, Poland also transitioned from a planned economy to a market economy. After accession, Poland experienced significant economic growth, becoming one of the fastest-growing economies in the EU. However, challenges related to judicial independence and the rule of law emerged, especially since 2015 and the election of the Law and Justice party which has often been in conflict with Brussels regarding those issues as described below. 

  1. The Polish government’s ability to appoint and remove judges: The European Court of Justice (ECJ) decreed on June 5th 2023, that the Polish government’s ability to both appoint and dismiss judges during trials constitutes a breach of EU law. Under reforms propelled by Warsaw, the Polish Justice Minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, wields the authority to advance judges to superior courts – a process known as secondment. Additionally, he reserves the right to conclude their provisional appointments arbitrarily, without being obligated to provide a reason or recourse. The ECJ highlighted that judges, during their secondment period, are devoid of the usual guarantees and independence expected in a state underpinned by the rule of law.
  2. Political control over judicial decisions: The ECJ has underscored the absence of defined legal guidelines for the determinations made by the justice minister. This void leaves room for potential political influence over judicial verdicts, lacking the crucial safeguards required to mitigate such risk. The convergence of judicial and executive powers poses a formidable challenge to the autonomy of the judicial system. The ECJ further noted that the potential for prejudice from the appointed judges threatens the essential presumption of innocence for the defendants they preside over.
  3. Fines and financial implications: The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has levied a substantial penalty on Poland following a decree from its constitutional tribunal, asserting that Polish law takes precedence over EU law. Poland’s conservative administration leveraged this ruling to overlook the EU’s demands to disband a disciplinary chamber for Supreme Court judges. Detractors argue that this entity permits the government to expel judges based on political considerations. Poland has defiantly pledged not to comply with the fine. More recently, the EU affirmed its decision to penalise Poland for contravening EU law through its 2019 judicial reforms. Although the daily penalties have been discontinued, Poland remains obligated to settle the accumulated fines.

The major post-EU “irreversible” changes: Justice

Judicial reform has been and continues to be the most important chapter of EU accession and a significant cornerstone in the case of Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and Poland. Although these reforms have provided the judicial system with high independence, efficiency and effectiveness, aligned with the standards of the EU, the situation has not remained the same.

The arrival of the Fidesz government, led by Viktor Orbán in Hungary, which has obtained a constitutional majority since 2010, resulted in a series of legal reforms, consolidating political control over judges to the detriment of the independence of the justice system. Under these conditions, despite the reforms made in the 1990s, Hungary found itself again in the previous situation, before most of the mandatory judicial reforms were made, being criticised by the European Commission and the European Parliament, which even adopted a resolution qualifying the country as an “electoral autocracy”. Moreover, in Budapest’s case, Article 7 has been invoked, which can lead to the suspension of voting rights in the European Council.

Five years later, in 2015, the rise to power in Poland of the conservative party “Law and Justice” put Warsaw at odds with the European Commission. The party’s attempt to control appointments in the leadership forums of magistrates and at the Constitutional Court, as well as the creation of a disciplinary court, led to tensions between Warsaw and Brussels and also brought it closer to Budapest. The war in Ukraine has entirely cooled this relationship, and on some elements of the judicial reforms, Warsaw has backed down, more as a result of its desire to receive European funds from the National Recovery and Resilience Plan (NRRP).

On the other hand, Bulgaria and Romania entered the EU with justice reform still incomplete. In this respect, the existence until 2022 of the tool called the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) can serve as an example, which was intended to monitor the progress of the two countries in the field. Although it has guaranteed some successes, most of the CVM reports have consistently shown a series of problems and deficiencies in ensuring the independence of the judicial system. A notable example is the attempt in Romania of the PSD government, under the leadership of Liviu Dragnea, to amend important chapters of the Penal Code by emergency ordinance, which in the end, partially succeeded, even though the former PSD leader was sentenced to prison with execution. Even though it was lifted in 2022, the CVM was only replaced by the monitoring and verification mechanism within the National Recovery and Resilience Plan (NRRP).

Why is there democratic rollback?

As noted by Dionis Cenusa, a respected foreign policy analyst, the recent rollback of democratic processes within EU member states is multi-faceted in origin. One of the central issues is that upon achieving EU membership — a status which signifies the fulfilment of all accession conditions — EU institutions are bereft of mechanisms to penalise or intervene in member states that choose to enact policies undermining democratic values.

An additional layer of complexity arises from political monopolies. The concentration of power within a single party often leads to a democratic deficit, as the dominant party can suppress opposition voices, stifle public discourse, and exploit the systemic limitations of EU oversight. The multifaceted nature of these issues calls for an intricate understanding of internal and external dynamics, a comprehension vital to the sustainability of democratic principles in EU member states.

“On the other hand, in some cases, democratic institutions can be undermined by the monopolisation of power by a single political force. This is especially characteristic of states with an authoritarian past, as in the case of Poland and Hungary, where it was determined by the communist regimes, controlled by Soviet power,” Cenusa told me.

The reasons behind this democratic and rule of law regress are complex and multifaceted, involving a combination of internal political dynamics, socio-economic factors, and global geopolitical shifts. In both Hungary and Poland, there has been a rise in populist and nationalist politics. Leaders in these countries, such as Hungary’s Fidesz and Poland’s Law and Justice, have capitalised on public discontent with globalisation, economic inequality and perceived threats to national identity to consolidate power.

In Hungary, a report from Freedom House noted a further deterioration in democracy under Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Hungary’s score has fallen more than any other country in the region, with the country being 43% democratic compared to 45% a year earlier. The report denounces the conduct of the last parliamentary elections, highlighting irregularities, administrative abuse, and media distortions. It also pointed out the growing intolerance for dissenting voices under the Orban regime.

Recent legal developments in Poland highlight these issues as well. The EU’s top court ruled that Poland’s judicial reforms breach the bloc’s norms, while a new law setting up a commission to investigate Russian influence in Polish politics has been criticised for potentially being used to silence popular opposition figures. These concerns are exacerbated by the fact that the Law and Justice party, in power since 2015, is aiming for an unprecedented third consecutive term in the forthcoming parliamentary elections​.

What Moldova needs to learn

Thus, considering the above, it is clear that many of the difficulties faced by the Republic of Moldova relate in particular to the reform of justice, economy and the chances of a new government to give up this process.

In terms of justice, Moldova faces a number of challenges in implementing a serious reform, which is considered essential to open accession negotiations as over half of the European Commission’s conditionality refers to the field of justice. Although it has adopted the Albanian justice reform model, in which each judge and prosecutor is evaluated by an independent committee, the results are still awaited, since the process is slow and laborious, and the system shows resistance in this regard.

The experience of countries such as Hungary and Poland clearly highlights the importance not only of an independent and strong justice system but also of legal guarantees. However, even these might not be sufficient, as we see, the pro-Fidesz constitutional majorities in the Hungarian parliament have demolished many of the guarantees introduced during the EU accession process.

Moreover, factors such as democratic backsliding, the erosion of the rule of law, and growing Euroscepticism can endanger the integration process. Moldova should be aware of these potential pitfalls and strive to maintain its commitment to EU values and principles, even after it becomes a member of the EU. This would involve ongoing efforts to strengthen democratic institutions, protect human rights and promote a culture of responsibility and transparency.

Powerful institutions, more important than politicians

According to Cenusa, “Firstly, any reform requires strong institutions, which need time in the process of consolidation, institutional continuity and protection against political interference of any kind. Secondly, European integration is a complicated process and involves costs for the state. It must ensure that it has competent human resources for the public sector, national companies capable of withstanding competition at the European level, and a robust economy to offer competitive salaries and stop brain drain.” 

The final cog in this complex machinery of EU integration is, undoubtedly, state resilience and the aptitude to cultivate strategic sectors crucial for maintaining a fully operational public administration system. As part of its journey towards becoming an EU member state, Moldova is poised to concede certain elements of its sovereignty in return for gaining access to the EU’s structural funds.

However, such a transaction necessitates Moldova to establish an efficient and reliable infrastructure across key sectors. From harnessing sustainable energy and modernising its agricultural practices to developing a robust healthcare system and beyond, Moldova must ensure these foundational pillars are firmly in place. Only then can it weather potential crises and achieve the intricate feat of EU accession.

Thirdly and lastly, according to Cenusa, a major aspect focuses on state resilience, which depends on the development of strategic sectors for the functioning of the state in the accession process and subsequently as a member state. Even if Moldova is to delegate elements of its sovereignty to the EU in exchange for access to structural funds, the state must ensure minimum conditions to withstand crisis situations. In this regard, Moldova needs the smooth functioning of the energy, pharmaceutical, food, and transportation sectors, without which EU accession will be difficult to achieve.”

In these circumstances, Moldova’s accession to the EU by 2030 seems to be an open question, largely dependent on the country’s ability to implement the necessary reforms and meet the accession criteria. Given the complexity and challenges of the integration process, as learnt by the cases of Poland, Hungary and others, it is difficult to predict with certainty whether Moldova will become an EU member by 2030. However, sustained political will, public support, and regional cooperation can significantly improve Moldova’s accession prospects within this time frame. In this sense, the years 2023-2025 will test this idea at the polls, as the country heads for local, presidential, and parliamentary elections.

In this situation, it is necessary to be critical of the assertion that the European integration process is irreversible, since a change of power to a pro-Russian party, for example, could annul all the progress made. Therefore, it is essential that political decision-makers, civil society, and citizens remain actively involved in this process. This means not only addressing immediate challenges but also striving for a deeper understanding of underlying issues that can undermine the progress of the European project. By learning from past experiences and promoting a culture of responsibility, transparency, and respect for democratic principles, the EU can continue to evolve and prosper as a community of common values and aspirations.

Cristian Bolotnicov is a Moldova-based journalist for Agora.md. He specialises in topics related to politics and history writing in-depth analyses and uncovering underreported issues from politics, justice, economy and technology.

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