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Moldova is EU's Fastest-Reforming Neighbour
Source: http://www.europeanvoice.com/article/2013/march/moldova-is-eu-s-fastest-reforming-neighbour-/76743.aspx
Source Date: Thursday, March 21, 2013
Focus: Institution and HR Management
Country: Moldova
Created: Mar 21, 2013

A “very mixed picture” of reform in the EU's neighbourhood emerges from an EU review of 2012.

Moldova and Georgia emerge from a European Commission survey as the European Union neighbours that did most in 2012 to push through reforms agreed with the EU.

The Commission generally adopts a very neutral tone in the appraisals – the reports are not a scorecard or a ranking, it says – but its latest assessments, published yesterday (20 March) were notably more positive for Moldova and Georgia than those for the other ten countries reviewed. In private, too, EU officials single out the two countries, Moldova in particular, for their performance last year. They did “pretty well”, was the view of one senior official.

Overall, the reports paint “a very mixed picture” – to use the report writers' words – of progress in relationships with five eastern and seven southern neighbours, with sharp words of criticism for Ukraine and a subdued tone about developments across the southern neighbourhood.

The reports, which are based on tailored national action plans agreed with the European Commission, typically itemise steps taken to consolidate democracy, improve governance, align legislation, reform the judiciary, open markets, and control the movement of people.

Ukraine struggles

The biggest discrepancy between stated ambition and action was probably in Ukraine. Ukraine last year completed the technical aspects of a trade deal and an association agreement with the EU, agreements that await ratification by the EU's member states. Nonetheless, the report writes that “Ukraine did not address most of the key recommendations” made in the report for 2011. In a number of instances, the language used is significantly more forceful than in other reports, recommending, for example, that the government “reverse the backsliding which occurred in 2012 on public procurement and budget transparency” and a number of other areas. There is also a greater sense of urgency, with calls for “early steps to establish a reliable electoral system” and action to address “the cases of politically motivated convictions without further delay”.

Action on both those sets of recommendations – on electoral law and the judiciary – were identified by the EU as preconditions for ratification of the association agreement and trade agreement this year. At an EU-Ukraine summit on 25 February, EU leaders said Ukraine's government needed to show an “unequivocal commitment” in these areas by May to ensure that the Commission recommends ratification of the association agreement at a summit of the EU's eastern neighbours in November. The agreement needs the support of all 27 EU member states.

Middle East

Though “an effort was made in 2012 to inject greater dynamism in the partnership”, the report on Israel is a snapshot of a relationship in limbo, with “no significant changes” in the areas of concern for the EU. The price of the lack of progress toward a deal between Israel and Palestine is evident in the report on Palestine, which contains a stark statement that “the challenges imposed primarily by the [Israeli] occupation and the deepening fiscal crisis continued to have an impact on the [Palestinian Authority], threatening its viability and undermining its ability to deliver essential services to the population”. Palestinian leaders have made progress in “some” areas, but there was little action in “most” of the areas where action had been agreed upon.

The impact of the war in Syria is mentioned in two reports, most prominently on Lebanon. “In 2012, implementation of Lebanon's reform objectives advanced only slowly on the backdrop of the on-going crisis in the neighbouring Syria,” the Commission writes. The report on Jordan mentions the country's “vital role in providing support and hospitality to the ever increasing number of Syrian refugees”, but, by contrast with the report on Lebanon, does not directly connect the war with the slow pace of reform.

North Africa and Azerbaijan

The reports occasionally indicate obliquely how the political ferment since the Arab uprisings has diverted political leaders' and policymakers' attention away from reform, noting, for example, that “outbreaks of violence by some extremist groups have sometimes put pressure on advances in terms of freedom of expression” in Tunisia.

The political problems are referred to most prominently in Egypt, where “significant milestones” in the country's democratic transition are counterpoised with “serious setbacks”, such as the dissolution of parliament and a “lack of progress on human rights”.

“Egypt addressed only some of the key recommendations contained” in last year's report, the Commission states.

Azerbaijan too is described as having “addressed only a few of the key recommendations”. The report notes Azerbaijan's unwillingness to discuss the issue of political prisoners, states that journalists and civil-society activists face “harassment”, says that legislation on free speech and elections fall short of international standards, and also says that the judiciary is not independent.

The progress

Since 2011, the EU's neighbourhood policy has been guided by the principle of ‘more for more', with extra funds made available for the countries that do most to advance a reform agenda. Last year, the Commission made €1 billion available for use as an incentive.

The Commission did not indicate which countries received additional money, but a sense of the countries that have made most progress slowly emerges from the reports.

The longest itemisation of progress comes in the assessment of the efforts made last year by Moldova's government, which collapsed this month. The report notes “ambitious reforms” in the justice system, and reforms of the civil service, health and education. On the electoral front, the handover of power to the opposition in Georgia after October's shock defeat of President Mikheil Saakashvili is praised, and while the elections in Moldova, Georgia and Armenia are described only in lukewarm terms, they were good enough to contribute to an overall assessment that “countries in the east increasingly take different paths”. (The countries lagging behind are Ukraine, whose parliamentary elections “constituted a deterioration”, and Azerbaijan.)

Across the region, progress was most prominently made in talks on trade and on visas.

The Commission is currently negotiating wide-ranging trade deals with Georgia and Armenia. In both cases, it described the progress on trade-related issues as “significant”. In north Africa, preparatory discussions with Morocco progressed far enough in 2012 for the Commission to start talks on 1 March this year. Tunisia is also moving toward the launch of talks, possibly by mid-year.

Progress toward easing visa restrictions was “substantial” with Ukraine and Moldova and talks with Georgia began. More preparatory discussions with Tunisia, Morocco and Jordan also started.

The reports cover 12 countries. However, 16 countries are formally covered by the EU's neighbourhood policy. For reasons ranging from war to a lack of willingness, the four other countries – Algeria, Belarus, Libya and Syria – have not agreed action plans with the EU.

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