Moldova: a referendum to solidify EU integration

, by Jules Bigot

Moldova: a referendum to solidify EU integration

In a speech given on 24 December to mark her third year as president, Maia Sandu simultaneously announced that she would be running for re-election in autumn 2024 and that a referendum on EU integration would be organized in parallel. This announcement came a few days after the European Council opened accession negotiations for Moldova. The President has given little information about this referendum, but it should be noted that it is not driven by any legal obligation in the context of EU integration, neither under Moldovan nor European law. Therefore, it would be interesting to delve into the factors that may have pushed Maia Sandu to decide to organize such a popular consultation at this particular time.

In recent years, Moldova has become much closer to the European Union. This process was initiated in 2020 with the election of Maia Sandu as president and with her party’s (PAS) 2021 victory in the legislative elections. However, it was also accelerated by the war in neighboring Ukraine and Moldova being granted its candidate status. This pro-European momentum is confirmed by opinion polls that suggest that support for European integration among the population lies between 55% and 60% and by the promising results of the pro-European party in its national elections. Still, Pro-Russian players have their say in the Moldovan public sphere and are trying, at all costs, to hinder Moldova’s EU accession process. The battle is thus not yet won for the pro-European forces.

By resorting to a referendum, Maia Sandu seems to be trying to provide a legal foundation for the population’s support for EU integration. Indeed, by calling the whole population to vote on this topic, the President ensures that the answer to her question is perfectly clear and that the result is as representative as possible – unlike opinion polls subject to methodological biases. Furthermore, the Moldovan electoral code provides for its diaspora to vote in referendums, which is a key factor given the size of the Moldovan diaspora (more than a third of the population) and its broad support for European integration. By using the referendum as a tool, Maia Sandu is hoping to win popular support (at home and abroad) for accession to the European Union and thus cut the ground from under the pro-Russian opposition.

Another key factor in this referendum is its calendar. The year 2024 will mark the start of an important political cycle for Moldova with presidential elections to be held in autumn of that year, followed by parliamentary elections in 2025. Although the President has given no precise date for the referendum in her speech, the proposed period of autumn 2024 coincides with that of the presidential elections – which raises a constitutional issue as the electoral code prohibits the holding of a referendum at the same time as an election. Maia Sandu will be standing for re-election and is currently leading the polls as the only credible candidate promoting European integration. By calling on voters to cast their ballots twice in a row, she seems to be seeking to capitalize on her popularity to obtain a favorable outcome in her EU integration referendum.

The 2025 parliamentary elections, however, look more complicated for Maia Sandu’s party. Since 2021, PAS has enjoyed an absolute majority which has enabled it to move ahead as it wishes with the reforms needed to join the EU. Political analysts agree that while the presidential party should be able to come out in first position in 2025, it will probably be a few percentage points short of an absolute majority. Therefore, the election campaign is likely to be a tough one for the majority, particularly with regard to the pro-Russian opposition. A favorable outcome of the EU integration referendum would give significant credibility to PAS members of parliament, confirming the direction they have taken throughout their term in office, and thus facilitating their re-election campaign.

In light of the aforementioned considerations, Maia Sandu’s referendum announcement can be understood as an attempt to give legal support to her pro-European stance and thereby draw electoral benefits from it, while at the same time taking the wind out of the sails of the pro-Russian opposition. It is a bold political move that has been relatively well-received by the opposition who see it as an opportunity to challenge the incumbent majority. However, if this move proves successful, it could enable Maia Sandu and PAS to speed up the reforms necessary for EU accession.

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