Moldova’s EU integration path

Since the early 2000s, successive Moldovan governments have tried to balance their relations with Russia by seeking closer cooperation with the European Union. The EU itself had become more interested in Moldova prior to its 2004 eastern enlargement round, which would make the country a direct neighbour. As such, the EU launched the European Neighbourhood Policy in 2004 with Moldova as one of the initial members. In 2005 the EU and the PCRM government in Moldova agreed on an ENP action plan for Moldova and in the same year the EU established its presence on the ground through a newly opened EU delegation in Chișinău. The same year also saw the creation of the European Union Border Assistance Mission to Moldova and Ukraine (EUBAM) on the Moldovan-Ukrainian border, including the Transnistrian section, to facilitate adequate border management and to counter smuggling that was widespread at the time.[89]

Cooperation between the EU and Moldova deepened when in 2009 the EU set up the multilateral Eastern Partnership to guide relations with the Eastern Partnership (EaP) six (or EaP6), which as well as Moldova included Ukraine, Belarus and the three republics in the South Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia). While providing for relatively close cooperation with the EU, an accession perspective would not be seen until 2022. After a successful visa dialogue, Moldova in 2014 became the first Eastern Partnership country to attain visa-free travel to the EU for its citizens. The EaP has been an instrument for Moldova to secure adequate attention from the EU even as, particularly in recent years, different paths of the EaP6 have stood in the way of effective cooperation.[90]

Moldova’s EU integration path was accelerated with the 2014 Association Agreement (AA) that established close cooperation in many fields as well as an approximation of Moldova with the EU acquis and which came into force in 2016. The AA aimed to political association and economic integration with the EU and demanded that Moldova step up its work on democratisation and anti-corruption efforts and on adopting European values. The AA also included an economic component, the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) that replaced earlier preferential trade schemes between the EU and Moldova. This set in motion an export reorientation of the Moldovan economy, leading the EU to become Moldova’s largest trade partner by far. Importantly, as the DCFTA includes Transnistria, it has had a similar economic reorientation effect in that region.[91]

Figure 7
Moldova’s trade with the EU, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and other countries
Moldova’s trade with the EU, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)  and other countries

Source: National Bureau of statistics of the Republic of Moldova, “External trade of the Republic of Moldova (1997-2021)”.

Pro-European forces in Moldova have long wished to attain an EU membership perspective, and have been supported by several central European EU member states. However, given the problematic Western Balkans enlargement process and a series of EU internal crises, various EU member states, especially in north-west Europe, remained hesitant or outright sceptical. Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Moldovan authorities themselves had accepted that a membership request would stand little chance, and instead focused on already-gained benefits and reform challenges related to the AA/DCFTA.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine changed everything. Not only had the geopolitical imperative for closer EU-Moldovan integration become painfully explicit, but the Commission was also convinced by the pro-reform minded government efforts to combat corruption and foster democratisation. As such, after applying for EU membership on 3 March 2022, the Commission issued a positive Avis (opinion) on 16 June.[92] Nominally, this convinced the hold-out member states, including the Netherlands, that had not yet spoken out in favour of Moldova’s EU candidate status. In practice, (geo)political considerations, and the fact that France connected Moldovan candidate status to that of Ukraine, may have been a more decisive factor leading the European Council to grant Moldova candidate status on 23 June 2022.[93]

Box 1
EU-Moldova cooperation timeline

1998: EU-Moldova Partnership and Cooperation Agreement

2005: Inclusion of Moldova in ENP; ENP Action Plan launched

2005: Start EUBAM border mission

2009: Start Autonomous Trade Preferences

2009: Start EU Confidence-Building Measures programme Transnistria (in UNDP framework)

January 2010: Start of negotiations on AA/DCFTA

May 2010: Moldova joins Energy Community

June 2010: Start EU-Moldova Visa Liberalisation Dialogue

April 2014: Moldovan citizens gain visa-free travel to the EU

June 2014: Conclusion of AA/DCFTA and provisional application

June 2014: ENP Action Plan replaced by Association Agenda

July 2015: EU suspends budget support after bank frauds for a year

July 2016: AA fully into force

July 2019: EU resumes budget support to Moldova after a two-year break

March 2022: Moldova applies for EU membership

June 2022: Commission publishes positive Avis

June 2022: Moldova gains EU candidate status

The prospects for opening accession negotiations will depend on Moldova’s ability to fulfil the conditions stressed in the Opinion, which may take several years. These include the successful implementation of comprehensive justice reform, progress in the fight against corruption, and elimination of oligarchic influence over the country. Moldova is also expected to strengthen the fight against organised crime, increase the capacity of the public administration, complete public financial management reforms, enhance civil society participation in decision making, and strengthen protection of human rights.[94]

Naturally, growing linkages between the EU and Moldova have enhanced EU leverage over the country. That is the case through the economic reorientation as a result of the DCFTA and also through the conditionality, or carrot-and-stick mechanism, that the EU applied when offering Moldova the prospect of closer integration through visa liberalisation and the AA/DCFTA. Conditionality dynamics will only grow now that Moldova’s engagement with the EU takes place in the context of accession.

The intersection of democratisation and geopolitics

The EU is strongly engaged in democratisation and anti-corruption efforts in Moldova. Article 1 of the 2016 Association Agreement outlines its objective to contribute to the ‘strengthening of democracy’ as well as ‘reinforcing the rule of law and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms’.[95] Through the Association Agreement, the EU has put in place a political dialogue and stepped up financial support for capacity building in public institutions such as the judiciary. When it comes to the latter, the EU is actively supporting a vetting process to counter corruption and political and kleptocratic influence. Lessons from earlier vetting processes in, among others, Albania are taken into account to ensure continuity in the functioning of the judiciary and ensure solid outcomes.[96]

Moldova’s EU integration and democratisation are intrinsically linked to geopolitical tensions, as reform processes search to strengthen institutions against undue influence.[97] While democratisation is hence an effective instrument to counter Russian influence, there is a risk that it is taken hostage by geopolitics.[98] In the past decades, Moldovan elites have played the geopolitical card to defer attention from corrupt practices and have used a pro-European discourse to extract funding for personal benefit and power. More recently, political campaigns and citizens’ voting patterns on domestic issues indicate a shift towards socioeconomic issues, democracy and rule of law, even if in the light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine the domestic focus is again under pressure. While the EU should refrain from ‘re-geopoliticising’ Moldovan politics, it has a clear interest in helping the current government to withstand Russian pressure.

Politically, the EU should nonetheless not repeat its mistakes from the previous decade and retain some caution in order to see whether self-declared pro-European politicians put their money where their mouth is. Experts indicate that misuse of public funds and clientelism are not yet eradicated in Moldova.[99] Indeed, not all officials from previous governments, including those with a dubious rule of law record, have left political positions. This does not necessarily reflect a lack of genuine intentions, as eradicating state capture dynamics while simultaneously trying to ensure institutional continuity presents decision makers with difficult dilemmas. Nevertheless, the EU would do well to not only build good relations with the current governing majority, but also try to foster political pluralism and an adherence to the principles of multi-party democracy in the country.


Energy security may be the most tangible and pressing vulnerability affecting Moldova’s stability. The EU has therefore been widely engaged on the issue. In a period that should have served as a wake-up call for the EU’s energy dependency on Russia as a whole, High Representative/Vice-President (HR/VP) Josep Borrell said in October 2021 that ‘gas is a commodity and (…) cannot be used as a geopolitical weapon’.[100] The EU did rise to the occasion and helped Moldova with technical advice as well as 60m EUR to subsidise heating bills and avoid social unrest in the winter of 2021/22. In June 2022 the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) provided Moldova with a loan of 300m EUR to strengthen its energy security, of which 100m EUR is meant to be used to acquire strategic gas reserves; the remainder is an emergency tranche to be used should there be supply disruptions.[101] The EBRD also financially supported the construction of a gas interconnector between Moldova and Romania through the Ungheni-Iași-Chișinău pipeline, which could in theory supply Moldova with 1.5 to 2.2 bcm per year and meet most of the demand for gas in right-bank Moldova – except in the coldest months. But as Moldova lacks gas storage facilities this gas must be stored either in Romania or in Ukraine.

Another important achievement in terms of energy was the synchronisation of the Moldovan (and Ukrainian) electricity grid with that of the rest of continental Europe, the ENTSO-E, shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine. The shift from the Russian to the European network reduces energy dependency on Russia and thereby enhances the energy security of the country.[102] The EBRD is funding further efforts to better connect Moldova’s energy grid with that of Europe by upgrading power grids between Balti (Northern Moldova) and Suceava (Eastern Romania), and between Chișinău and Moldova’s south.[103] The EU has furthermore assisted Moldova through projects aimed at reducing energy dependency by promoting the use of renewables in public buildings.[104]

Still, in the short term Moldova remains very vulnerable to disruptions to its gas deliveries, which could cause soaring energy prices that could harden the attitudes of citizens and cause social unrest. As such, continued EU support is needed.

Minority issues and language rights

The EU traditionally advocates for the protection of minority rights as part of its neighbourhood policy, and Moldova is no exception. Already in the AA, the EU and Moldova agreed on the importance of linguistic diversity.[105] However, as described in Chapter 2, Moldova’s policy on linguistic diversity, and protecting minority languages such as Russian, has not been as proactive as the AA suggests. In its 2021 AA implementation report, the Commission notes under the header of human rights issues that ‘actions announced by the authorities failed to deliver improvements’, thereby pointing to the fact that Moldova adopted the Law on the functioning of languages in Moldova but its Constitutional court later declared it unconstitutional.[106] Interestingly, the Commission’s Avis on Moldova’s application for EU membership states that the country has ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, while in reality this is not the case.[107] Such a rather painful mistake signals the absence of the EU in past years on language-related issues in spite of commitments made in the AA. Even if questions related to minority rights persist, the Avis does not specifically mention the issue in the recommendation on human rights. Moreover, an overview of EU-funded projects in Moldova does not show any EU project on language-related issues.[108] This is at least partially due to the fact that in Moldova, national minorities are largely perceived as eurosceptical and susceptible to Russian narratives.[109] This makes both pro-European governments in Chișinău and EU officials less interested in promoting the language rights of Russian-speaking minorities. Rather than ‘geopoliticising’ minority rights by selectively overlooking particular linguistic communities, the EU should push for a more proactive integration of Moldovan society as a whole. This means promoting both the linguistic rights of national minorities as well as a proactive policy to promote knowledge of the state language and the full participation of minorities in public life, including in national politics and central government institutions. The accession context opens up enhanced opportunities for the EU to apply conditionality to pressure Moldova in this direction.

Media and disinformation

The EU is already active in the media in Moldova, for example, through support for mass media and projects to improve media literacy of Moldovan citizens.[110] It strives to counter disinformation in the EaP, including in Moldova, through the EUvsDisinfo project of its East StratCom Task Force.[111] In response to the war in Ukraine, the EU has also adopted crisis response measures to enhance cyber security and shield the country from disinformation.[112]

As identified in this report, there is a particular need to develop professional Russian-language media that can provide unbiased news and good-quality content to Russian-speaking communities. EU member states such as the Netherlands support such media, though more could be done to compete with programmes rebroadcasted from the Russian Federation. The Moldovan ban on Russian news programmes offers a window of opportunity for the EU to step up its support. Not only private media, but also the public broadcaster could benefit from support to create both Moldovan- and Russian-language high quality entertainment content. The Moldova 1 TV station is in need of reform to reduce costs and improve quality.

Moreover, to reduce political and oligarchic influence over the media landscape, the EU would do well to support media ownership transparency in Moldova. EU member states have experience of supporting media ownership monitoring. The Federal German Ministry of Economic Development and Cooperation, for example, sponsors the ‘Media Ownership Monitor’ which is, among others, active in Ukraine.[113] The EU could develop similar activities in Moldova.

The EU and Transnistria

The EU’s involvement with the Transnistria question began with a role as a humble observer in the 5+2 format. With the EUBAM mission, however, the EU has managed to influence developments on the ground to some extent as it diminished the opportunities for smuggling. However, it was only with the Association Agreement and the DCFTA that the EU managed to become a key factor of influence in the process. As outlined earlier, through direct dialogue between EU officials and the Transnistrian business community at the Bavaria 2015 conference, the EU managed to convince Transnistria to accept the terms of the DCFTA. In practice, this means that Transnistrian businesses need to register in right-bank Moldova to be able to trade with the EU internal market. The opening of the EU market has been a major reason for Transnistrian companies to reorient their exports and legalise their business models.

When it comes to formal conflict settlement, in the short to medium term the EU has limited prospects of breaking the deadlock in the 5+2. However, the EU could in the meantime support the formal 1+1 process between the parties, as well as more informal talks. The Finnish organisation CMI has been organising confidence-building programmes since 2011 and could benefit from EU support. The EU also boasts of its own programmes aiming to promote dialogue between the parties.[114] The EU could furthermore look for ways to support education cooperation between Tiraspol and Chișinău, even if education systems are currently largely non-compatible and language barriers remain.

Finally, the EU will need to find a model to, as happened in the negotiations on the AA/DCFTA, include Transnistrian authorities in Moldova’s EU accession trajectory. It is clear that Moldova will not be able to become an EU member as long as the Transnistrian issue is not settled. The EU will therefore need to engage Moldova’s left bank to make sure that progress in the accession process of the right bank does not lead to a widening gap between the two. The somewhat dualistic power structure in Transnistria may thereby play to the EU’s advantage, especially as the region’s business leaders have an interest in expanding their access to the EU internal market and benefiting from EU support. Negotiations between the EU and Moldova on issues such as finances, taxes, sanitary and phytosanitary measures, pharmaceuticals, tax rules, environmental standards should therefore be extended to Transnistria. It seems that the best format to do so is to make use of an informal construction similar to the 2015 negotiations on the AA/DCFTA.

The EU and Gagauzia

The EU has been active in Gagauzia via, among other measures, infrastructure investments, including through the EBRD.[115] Moreover, between 2016 and 2018, the EU financed a 7 million dollar project on agriculture and rural development, implemented by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which aimed to increase cooperation between Gagauz and Chișinău authorities, provided support for SMEs in Gagauzia, and contributed to infrastructure development and intercommunity cooperation.[116] Some argue that alleged embezzlement of EU funds has undermined the effectiveness of the programmes, with several interviewees arguing that they have foremostly ended up in the hands of local authorities who funnelled them to their patronage networks.[117] At the same time, as argued earlier, EU investments have not yet managed to substantially alter the perception of the EU in the region. The EU faces competition from, among others, Turkey (through the Turkish development agency TIKA), which has funded the construction of a sports stadium and an educational centre in Comrat.[118] Both Turkish president Erdoğan and foreign minister Çavuşoğlu have visited Gagauzia, with the latter opening a Turkish consulate in the region in 2020. Turkey pursues a strategy based on soft power and development aid to intensify economic and cultural ties with the region.[119]

In spite of its investments in the region, the EU has not been active on the issue of autonomy as such. While the EU and Moldova agreed in the AA to cooperate on issues related to multi-level governance, the specific situation of the autonomy of Gagauzia is not mentioned in the AA.[120] Since the AA came into force, the EU has made various public statements on the need for Moldova to fulfil its obligations regarding Gagauz autonomy.[121] The EU also indicated it ‘stands ready to support the authorities in Chișinău in the implementation of the 1994 Law on the Special Legal Status of Gagauzia, in order to strengthen the institutional functioning of this region within the Republic of Moldova.’[122] Our research suggests that, in practice, such support has been largely absent. Moldova’s EU candidate status offers opportunities for the EU to step up pressure on authorities in Chișinău and Comrat and to become a more active international guarantor of Gagauz the autonomy of Gagauzia. The EU could consider an (informal) model to engage Gagauz authorities in the EU accession talks, making use of its experience in involving autonomous regions in pre-accession negotiations.

When it comes to EU financial support to the region, the EU faces two challenges. The first is to ensure that support is not misused. One interviewee noted that it may be better for the EU to administer grants itself instead of working with local authorities. However, not working with local authorities runs contrary to the EU’s objectives of boosting the capacities and functioning of such authorities. Therefore, the EU can better work with a range of different local authorities, including the Bashkan and People’s Assembly, but also mayors, and ensure its investments are well spent through close monitoring and project audits. A second challenge is that financial support, be it for infrastructure development, SME support or financial support to institutions, becomes more visible and positively affects the EU’s image in Gagauzia. In light of competition from other powers, the EU may therefore consider creating a presence on the ground through an EU liaison office focusing on culture, social issues and economics. Such an office would not only ensure the visibility of EU investments through public diplomacy activities, but could also organise cultural and business exchanges to promote the integration of Gagauzia into Moldova as well as the European Union. The liaison office would work under the authority of the EU delegation in Chișinău to avoid the impression that the EU opens direct diplomatic relations with the Gagauz autonomy.

Francesco Montesano, Tony van der Togt and Wouter Zweers, “The Europeanisation of Moldova: is the EU on the right track?,” Clingendael report, 2016, 8-9.
Bob Deen, Wouter Zweers and Iris van Loon, “The Eastern Partnership: Three Dilemmas in a time of Troubles,” Clingendael report, 2021.
Francesco Montesano, Tony van der Togt and Wouter Zweers, “The Europeanisation of Moldova: is the EU on the right track?,” Clingendael report, 2016, 9-13.
For Macron’s statement, see Davide Basso, “Moldova’s EU bid must not be ‘dissociated’ from Ukraine’s, Macron says,” Euractiv, June 16, 2022.
European Commission, Opinion on Moldova's application for membership of the European Union, June 16, 2022, 16-17. See also: Denis Cenusa, “The EU membership for Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia: Enlargement from the Western Balkans to the Eastern Partnership,” August 30, 2022, 5-9.
Madalin Necsutu, “In Reforming Corrupt Justice System, Moldova Eyes Albanian Precedent,” Birn, February 24, 2022.
Kadri Liik, “How the EU needs to manage relations with its Eastern Neighborhood,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 23, 2017, 6.
Bob Deen, Wouter Zweers and Iris van Loon, “The Eastern Partnership: Three Dilemmas in a time of Troubles,” Clingendael report, 2021.
Clingendael interviews, Chișinău, June 2022.
Vanora Bennet, “EBRD lends Moldova €300 million to safeguard energy security,” EBRD News, June 23, 2022.
Madalin Necsutu, “Moldova, Ukraine Hail Connection to EU Energy System,” BIRN, March 17, 2022.
See for example “Moldova: four schools in Cantemir switch to renewable energy,” EUNeighboursEast.
EUR-LEX, “Association Agreement between the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community and their Member States, of the one part, and the Republic of Moldova, of the other part”, art 124. Article 124 of the AA reads: ‘The Parties shall promote cooperation and exchanges in areas of mutual interest, such as linguistic diversity and lifelong language learning, through an exchange of information and best practices.’
European Commission, “Association Implementation Report on the Republic of Moldova,” October 13, 2021, 6-7.
European Commission, “Opinion on Moldova's application for membership of the European Union,” June 16, 2022, 9. For the ratifications of the European Charter, see “Signatures and ratifications of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages,” Council of Europe.
Projects,” EU4Moldova.
Clingendael policy interviews, Chisinau, June 2022. See also Marcin Kosienowski and William Schreiber, ‘Moldova’s National Minorities: Why are they Eurosceptical?”, IFRI Russia/NIS Center Russie.NEI Visions No.81, November 2014
See the EUvsdisinfo website.
See European Commission Service for Foreign Policy Instruments. “New support to the Republic of Moldova on cyber-security, addressing disinformation and social cohesion,” May 2, 2022.
See the Media Ownership Monitor website.
For a full overview of EBRD projects in Moldova see “Project Summary Documents,” EBRD.
Clingendael interviews, Comrat, June 2022