Moldovan President about Visa Regime with the EU: Between Wishful Thinking and Irresponsible Politics

Moldovan President about Visa Regime with the EU: Between Wishful Thinking and Irresponsible Politics

August 6, 2007 (

By Andrei Popov,
Executive Director, Foreign Policy Association of Moldova (APE)

At a press conference on July 25th President Vladimir Voronin spoke in rather optimistic terms about the possibility of liberalising visa regime with the EU by the end of this year, so that “Moldovan citizens could travel in the Schengen area in the same conditions that citizens of the new EU member states do”. In particular, President Voronin made following points:

The Visa Facilitation Agreement with the EU is already in force. Now work is being done to extend its provisions over all categories of citizens and to obtain full visa liberalisation regime “like other EU member states have”. European Union would have promised Chisinau that by the end of this year it will try to settle in a positive way this issue. For this it is important to convince not only the Bruxelles, but also all EU member states and that to this end, Moldova would organise in Chisinau on August 24th a conference with all European deputy ministers. Moreover, half of the EU deputy ministers have already confirmed their participation. This initiative represents an excellent opportunity to convince EU to grant Moldova a visa liberalisation regime.

President is right in one thing: when he stresses that it is important to work with all EU member states, not only with Bruxelles. It is so. However, until now, in the majority of the European capitals where Moldova has diplomatic missions, it produced an opposite impression, namely that Moldova disconsiders the role of member states (otherwise it would not have allowed itself the luxury of sending to these countries such inadequate and incompetent ambassadors).

The rest of Mr. Voronin’s statements are in divorce with reality: The Visa Facilitation Agreement is not in force. This will happen only in January 2008. The European Union has never promised that it would help us obtain visa liberalisation and even less so by the end of this year. Moldova is nowhere near from getting a visa liberalisation regime with the EU. The conference of deputy ministers is organised not in Chisinau, but in Bruxelles. It is not at all “an excellent idea”, but rather an unfortunate one, that besides is being implemented in a clumsy way. Not even close to “more than half deputy ministers who have confirmed participation”. In general, it would be good if at least some 4-5 could come. This conference could not bring any changes to the EU policies towards Moldova in general and in particular on the issue of the visa regime. Advancing Moldova’s relations with the EU is done not through organising conferences, but by actions and reforms.

Let’s take a more detailed look at this situation and start with clarifying the status of the Visa Facilitation Agreement. This document was initialed on April 25 and will enter in force in January 2008, after it would be signed and ratified. It envisages simplification of the procedure of obtaining visas only for a number of categories of persons, visa free access for holders of diplomatic passports, keeping the visa fee at the current level of 35 euro and fee-exemption in certain cases, multi-year visas with longer period of validly for those who travel frequently and a series of other facilities of a secondary nature (for example, reduction by several days of the visa request examination period).In parallel with Moldova, the European Union negotiated and initialed similar agreements with all Western Balkan countries (except Croatia that has visa free regime). Such an agreement has already entered in force with Russia and will soon enter into force with Ukraine. Some Moldovan officials and diplomats rushed to publicly boast that Moldova has managed to obtain from the EU much more facilitations then Ukraine. However, until comparison could be made between the two documents, it is safer to rely on European Commission’s representatives who say that Moldovan agreement is practically identical with the Ukrainian one.

Moreover, Moldovan document practically wasn’t thoroughly negotiated at a technical level, but was initialed following minor changes based on the draft proposed by Bruxelles. In reality, the Agreement with Moldova seems to be the least and the most rapidly negotiated one out of all other similar agreements. In a paradoxical way, after it started negotiations with maximalistic requests, insisting on full visa liberalisation, Moldova ended up negotiating the same facilitation agreement, but which was concluded hastily in a sprint of only 3 negotiations rounds (while other countries even had up to 6 and 9 rounds; not to mention Russia that negotiated for several years).

Some European experts assert that if Moldova would have not screwed up at the beginning pressing for some absurd demands and would have instead adopted a reasonable position, engaging in well prepared negotiations within the framework of the mandate given to Commission in December 2006, it could have obtained even more facilities. But Chisinau has chosen the tactic of the “shock diplomacy”. In fact at the first negotiations round on February 9th, Moldovan Deputy Foreign Minister came not to negotiate, but to present to the Union a true ultimatum: “we don’t need visa facilitation, we accept either visa liberalisation or nothing”. Commission’s first reaction was not at all “constructive” and “receptive” as was described by the Foreign Ministry’s press release, but rather full of stupefaction.

After the initial shock, the European Commission warned Moldova that it was playing with fire and was risking to not being able to conclude even the facilitation agreement, which would mean that Moldovan citizens would have the most difficult access regime to the Schengen and would have to pay an almost double fee of 60 euros. Moldova scaled back its demands and adopted a reasonable position, only after President Voronin had been told by the very top European official about the consequences and costs for Moldova if it persists in refusing to negotiate on the basis of existing mandate.

Following this, Moldovan position changed over the night. Without obtaining anything but a damaged image of an unserious country and with a maneuver room reduced to minimum, Moldova speedily concluded negotiations. The Visa Facilitation Agreement was initialed on April 25th on the occasion of Commissioner Franco Frattini’s visit to Chisinau. Europeans left with a unpleasant taste, but at least they thought Chisinau had finally understood what are the rules of the game and from now on would no longer behave in an adolescentin and irresponsible way. However, here we are, exactly three months after this, on July 25th, President Voronin out of a blue again raised this subject declaring that visa free regime with EU could be obtained by the end of this year. While the initialed visa facilitation regime has not yet entered into force, the head of state without any basis raises population’s expectations, encouraging it to believe in something that is a priory impossible. This thing was conveyed to him by the EU on countless occasions, directly and through the Foreign Ministry. The sad reality is that not by the end of this year, not in 2008 and, probably, not even in 2009-2010, Moldova would have a visa liberalised regime with the Schengen states. What has made President Voronin return to old himeras that have already did so much harm to Moldova’s and his personal credibilty?

Part II.
One can understand the motives why President Voronin speaks of the need to obtain a complete visa liberalisation regime with the EU. Undoubtedly the much desired abolition of the visa requirement for entering the Schengen area – similar to what Romania and Bulgaria got in January 2002 – would be extremely good news for all citizens of Moldova, whose access into the West has become even more complicated after Romania joined the EU. This has contributed to the sharpening of the feelings that Moldova belongs to a different world, that it would not have future and that the county and its leadership are incapable of ensuring the basic needs of its citizens. Exasperated, people are willing to pay thousands of euros to intermediaries that promise to get them into Europe through various illegal schemes.

Motives could be understood but not justifiedThe visa facilitation regime that enters into force in January 2008 doesn’t solve this problem. It covers only a limited number of categories of people, probably about 5-7% of those interested. Under these circumstances, the Romanian passport naturally appears for many like the only hope to be able to travel freely and in decent conditions to Europe. This explains the significant increase in the number of persons who have expressed over the last year their wish to regain Romanian citizenship.

The leadership of the Republic of Moldova perceives - quite wrongly - this process as a major threat to the country’s statehood. Moreover, it was exactly the threat of “loosing citizens in favour of Romania” that was cited by Chisinau as the main argument when in February it requested from the European Union, in an almost ultimatum like way, to make an exception for Moldova and grant it the visa liberalisation regime. As President Voronin declared at that time “if European Union sees no problem for 4 million Moldovan citizens to receive Romanian passports, then I am sure we will find a solution to allow those 4 million to travel to Europe without visas but with Moldovan passports”.

These statements and, in general, Chisinau’s insistence on obtaining a travel regime “identical to that of the new member states” could not represent convincing arguments in favour of obtaining visa liberalisation regime. Instead, they could only demonstrate that Chisinau doesn’t understand the way EU functions and takes decisions.

What official Chisinau doesn’t understand

For example, it doesn’t understand that today the EU is not prepared to give anything more than visa facilitation regime, even to countries of the Western Balkans (except Croatia), although their relations with the European Union are more advanced than of Moldova. It doesn’t understand that from the political point of view, for the EU it is impossible to create now a precedent with Moldova (that would be tomorrow called not only by Western Balkans, but by Ukraine and Russia as well). It doesn’t understand that the EU functions on the basis of some rigid rules (that, in a certain way, define the Union) and therefore it could not make a major exception, particularly for a country that has so many shortcomings in the implementation of its own commitments undertaken in the Action Plan. It doesn’t understand that there could be no comparison with Bulgaria and Romania that prior to getting a liberalised visa regime in 2002, first became candidate countries and then underwent major reforms in justice, police, public administration etc. that made them eligible for lifting visas.

For all these motives, Chisinau’s insistence on immediate visa liberalisation is a false road, a dead end and a perilous mirage. We can’t succeed on this road, neither today, nor in the next 2-3 years. The latter official Chisinau understands this, the worse it would be for the country, because it would further discredit itself and waste in vain limited resources, instead of concentrating on what can be changed and what depends first and foremost on internal possibilities.

And for visas, Europe should be built in Moldova

Bringing closer the day when citizens with blue Moldovan passports could travel freely to Europe is done not by declarations, but by actions and real Europeanisation of the country. In the area of visas, our efforts should be focused on taking maximum possible advantage from provisions of the recently initialed Agreement that enters into force in January, in order to create a platform from which to launch our efforts of convincing the EU, may be as early as in 2008-2009, to extend the number of categories of persons covered by the visa facilitated regime. Gradually and in exchange for real progresses achieved by Chisinau on the road of reforms.

It was exactly in terms of developing such kind of relationship between Moldova and the European Union, realist and responsible one, that President Voronin spoke with leaders of the European Union in Bruxelles and Luxemburg on June 18-19: before advancing any new requests Moldova first should demonstrate that it can take full advantage of all possibilities offered by existing frameworks and mechanisms of cooperation.

Then why did Mr. President make these “strange” declarations at his press conference on July 25 claiming that Moldova is very close to obtaining complete liberalisaton of the visa regime with the EU.

Part III.
To force the Europe’s hand?
May be Mr. President deliberately distorts the truth, thinking that such promises could lift people’s morale and give them new hopes. This might be so, but only in the short run. But they also increase their expectations. What will happen after, when it would become clear that these were just some nonrealistic expectations based on empty promises? Wouldn’t it lead to an even bigger disillusionment?

Or, may be, it is a tactical move, a situation artificially created to attempt to force the hand of the European Union, saying: “Gentlemen, we are sorry, but we have no other option but to find a solution, because we have already promised to the people and we can’t disappoint them?”

Or, may be, Mr. President lost touch with reality and, simply, no longer understands what is going on in this important foreign policy file, while the “professionals” that should have helped him to understand, don’t do their job properly (Either out of the lack of courage, or because they are themselves prisoners of some illusions in this matter)?

In case of the visa regime with the EU, but also more generally in what regards Moldovan policy towards the Union over the last years, I think that it is through the prism of this last explanation that President’s declarations about visas could be interpreted. In this respect, the way in which Mr. Voronin spoke about the upcoming conference of all European deputy-ministers of foreign affairs that Chisinau is organising on August 24th it is more then telling. According to him, it offers a wonderful oportunity to convince member states to grant Moldova a visa liberalisation regime.

However, very much contrary to what President said in very positive terms about this conference, its organisation in the midst of European vacation is not at all such a good idea for the following reasons:

• The European Union expects from Chisinau not conferences, but reforms and concrete actions. Therefore, in Bruxelles and in many European capitals the idea of holding such a conference was a negative surprise and is likely to receive the following reaction: “instead of focusing on reforms, Moldova is wasting time and its limited resources on staging festive actions with no practical meaning”.
• Everything that the EU had to say on this subject was already conveyed to Moldova on July 18-19. And it was done not from a deputy minister to a deputy minister, but from the highest level directly to President Voronin. During one month that passed since then, absolutely nothing has changed (political atmosphere has became even worse), in spite of President’s assurances that reforms would be stepped up immediately upon his return to Moldova. Therefore, it makes no sense to expect from this conference changes in the European Union’s position.
• Even if one decides to organise such an event, one must first consult those on whose participation it relies and with whom one thinks to co-organise it (in Bruxelles, by the way, and not in Chisinau, as President mistakenly announced). Not only this was not done, but key actors from the Commission and the Council learned about this conference very late, practically simultaneously with Moldovan journalists. Worse, some important countries and, apparently, even Portuguese EU presidency, were initially not invited at all, and received letters from Chisinau only several days ago.
• Nothing close to “more then half of deputy ministers who had already confirmed attendance”, as Mr. Voronin declared. It is just not true. And it looks very uncertain that Portuguese presidency or some of the most important European countries would sent their vice-ministers. It is also highly improbable that the most appropriate person for a meeting at such level, a deputy Director-General in the Commission responsible for European Neighborhood Policy and relations with our region, would be able to come.
• Events of such importance are not organised in a few weeks and at dates arbitrarily chosen depending on Chisinau’s agenda. There is a need for months of thorough preparations to identify an optimum timing and ensure that those invited have time to pencil it in their busy schedules. Besides, today’s EU agenda is overloaded with a number of pressing subjects – from Kosovo to Darfur or to the Reform Treaty. What has Chisinau done to convince the European vice ministers to push aside, even for a day, these burning files and to fly to Brussels to speak about Moldova?
• And, finally, an important detail that seems to have escaped the organisers’: Friday, August 24 is in the midst of the summer vacation and is probably the most unsuitable time, after Christmas and New Year, to organise such an event in Brussels.

Are there no competent and honest people around President who could tell him what is the real state of affairs and who could tell him, at least from time to time, that the “king is naked”? If not for the sake of the country’s interests, at least for that of President’s own image.

For the Info-Prim Neo –

2007-09-02 12:22:31


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