09/04/2013 11:45 am ET Updated Nov 04, 2013

The Race From the Bottom

It's almost never an advantage to be at the bottom. When the UN issues its Human Development Index, Niger doesn't issue a press release to promote its status as #186 (tied with the Democratic Republic of Congo). Nor does Russia champion its achievement of the lowest ranking in the Environmental Performance Index.

But when it comes to the list of poorest countries in Europe, there appears to be a slight advantage to being at the bottom.

I talked with Viorel Ursu about the long competition between Albania and Moldova over the title of poorest country in Europe. "Currently it's Moldova -- they're very proud of that," he told me. "They were basically using it for fundraising with donors. It's so much easier to fundraise with international donors when you are the poorest country in Europe. And indeed, now Moldova has the highest donor aid in Europe. Only Palestine has a higher rate of per capita aid coming from the EU."

Ursu, originally from Moldova, works at the Open Society Foundation's European Policy Institute in Brussels where he works on, among other things, the European Integration Index for Eastern Partnership Countries. The index compares how six countries -- Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine -- are doing in their bid to meet higher political and economic standards.

Although Moldova's status in the Europe's economic basement is good for fundraising, it has tried in other respects to model good behavior. Indeed, it emerged as the frontrunner in the 2012 integration index. This competition, even if it only demonstrates relative improvement, is something that Viorel Ursu sees as positive.

"Every year when the European Commission was producing annual progress reports on candidate countries, the governments would pay attention to how their neighbors were doing," he told me in an interview in Brussels back in January. "There was a clear competition between the Visegrád countries, then a clear competition between Bulgaria and Romania, and a competition between the Baltic states. I thought that this kind of competition was actually a positive one, because it was forcing the governments who are lagging behind to move faster and to learn from each other. For public opinion it matters not to be worse than your neighbor. And we were always trying to push the EU if not to force this kind of competition then to at least use this in a comparative way."

The competition also engenders a certain responsibility, as opposed to simply waiting for the EU to bestow certain favors on candidate countries. "I still give this message to my colleagues in various countries, in Ukraine, in Moldova, in Georgia, or in Belarus," Ursu says. "Every time they come to the EU with their demands and their requests -- which is usually, 'The EU should do this and that in the country' -- I always respond: 'So what are you doing for this to happen?' The challenge with this kind of approach is it also implies that the change in those countries, in Eastern Europe, will take a much longer period because it requires a change of mentality, a change of approach, and taking responsibility for your own country."

We talked about Viorel Ursu's fascinating trajectory from accidental law student in Moldova to one of the top legal experts in the country. We also discussed the leverage the EU has over countries that want to become members, the appropriate way of handling Turkey's bid, and why it's important to talk about the way people in Eastern Europe park their cars.

The Interview

I'm curious about your perspective on the pace and sequence of EU enlargement. Looking back at it from this time period, how would you have done enlargement differently?

Many experts have already agreed, including the EU institutionally, on the lessons learned from the previous enlargement. The number one lesson learned was that the EU should have started focusing more on the reform of justice and the reinforcement of rule of law early in the process of accession, and not leave the justice chapter for later in the negotiation. This is already being applied differently in the current enlargement, accession, with the Western Balkans and Turkey, where the justice chapter is being tackled rather early and not left to the end. Those are lessons learned specifically after the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the EU, and I fully agree with that, especially because the reform of the justice system takes a lot of time. You can easily change the legislation, though you might face a lot of resistance in its implementation from the judges, prosecutors, or law enforcement institutions. But even in the countries where the legislation has been changed, it takes a lot of time to prepare a new generation of prosecutors and judges who can apply fairly the law. This is not only fundamental for ensuring the protection of human rights, but also for ensuring the rights of investors. This is the main complaint we hear from foreign investors but also from citizens. They still don't trust the judiciary system.

The big question remains: when are those countries ready to join. Still, many believe that Romania and Bulgaria were not ready, and it was rather a political decision, and not a merit-based decision in 2007 when they decided that those countries could join.

What's your opinion on that?

They were not ready. I agree that it was political decision, and not merit-based. A few extra years would have been beneficial for Romania and Bulgaria. The most eloquent example was the crisis in Romania last summer where the government disregarded many of the constitutional guarantees, balance of powers, and there was very little resistance even from the population to protect the rule of law in the country.

And very little leverage on the outside too.

The EU has very little leverage left after accession. With Romania and Bulgaria, it's still a kind of unfinished accession. There is still accession to the Schengen area. Romania and Bulgaria are still the only ones who didn't accede to Schengen area, and this has been used as leverage against them. It's considered a big reward. And in the case of Romania and Bulgaria, those countries are still under a special monitoring verification and cooperation mechanism, which those countries claim is unfair. Maybe it's unfair, because it was not applied to other countries, but it's proven to be the right decision, and the EU rightly agreed this year to maintain this mechanism.

What about countries that are a little further out in terms of accession?

Another lesson learned from the previous accession, which I think the EU is going to apply and learn, is to differentiate between candidate countries. The previous accession was very much seen as a bloc accession. For the Western Balkans and Turkey, the EU will try to differentiate between different candidates, and I hope it's going to be more merit-based. For instance, a few years ago all these countries enrolled in a visa-liberalization process with the EU, and the EU was reporting on the different progress in different countries. In the end the EU made a differentiated decision on visa liberalization. It offered it first to Macedonia and Serbia, and only later to Bosnia and Albania because they didn't perform as well as the others and were given extra time to take the necessary steps the EU had provided.

The prospects look better now for Montenegro, which I think is next in line. Maybe because it's a smaller country, it's easier to reform. Macedonia is playing a tango, two steps forward, one step back, and I don't know how the dance will continue. It depends on the political character of the new government. Serbia is playing the same kind of tango, and Bosnia's tango is actually one step forward, two steps back -- so it's much slower. What I like is that the EU is clear about the conditions, clear how it assesses progress, and it's applying more or less the same conditionality to all.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.