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The EU-Georgia love story: Time to get engaged

Iana Maisuradze

Date: 06/11/2023
A few days before the European Commission decides whether to grant Georgia EU candidate country status, Tbilisi still has work to do. While Georgia must make a big final reform push, at the same time, the EU needs to be shrewd and avoid making rash decisions that could jeopardise its influence not only in Georgia but throughout the region.

Georgia’s European way

“I am Georgian, therefore; I am European”. Former Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania spoke these words at the Council of Europe in 1999, when he declared that EU membership was Georgia’s foreign policy priority. Georgia has been among the most enthusiastic countries about the EU integration (and NATO). It has been both a bottom-up and top-down goal of Georgians for more than two decades, with support consistently high – currently at 81% supporting Georgia’s EU integration.

Until recently, Georgia had a long record of successfully implementing EU demanded reforms. With the launch of the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) in 2009, Tbilisi spearheaded calls for more robust EU engagement in the region. Furthermore, Georgia’s implementation of its Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) is more advanced than either Moldova (still part of the Commonwealth of Independent States) or Ukraine (even before Russia’s war in Ukraine began in February 2022).

While reform efforts have slowed, Georgia’s failure to receive EU candidate country status in June 2022, despite Moldova and Ukraine succeeding, came as a shock. That both had long trailed Georgia in reforms made it a bitter pill to swallow. Instead, Tbilisi received a clear European perspective with the prospect of receiving candidate status subject to meeting 12 priorities. However, many of the criteria Kyiv and Chișinău were requested to meet to potentially begin accession talks were identical to the priorities Georgia needs to receive candidate status. Yet, there is one main difference between the three countries - namely, Tbilisi’s actions and narrative over the last 18 months.

Shooting itself in the foot

The Georgian Dream government has carried out a policy of self-sabotage. Several controversial and unhelpful statements criticising the West, along with some nonsensical decisions such as the resumption of direct flights with Russia and taking steps to pass a foreign agents law styled on Russia’s, have been interpreted as the government being pro-Russian despite almost nationwide hatred of Russia.

This led to growing tensions with the EU and many of its member states, with which Tbilisi once had very close relations. This includes decreased political support from the Baltic states, which have been disappointed that Georgia refused to join international sanctions on Russia. However, it is worth noting that most of these developments took place after the Commission’s decision in June 2022.

The West’s broken promises to Georgia

While the government’s actions are not excused, some in Georgia question the EU’s (West’s) commitment to the country. Georgia, unlike Ukraine and Moldova, has no border with the EU, sparking concerns that the country’s geography makes it less important to the EU. There are also concerns that the EU is prolonging the process to avoid making a bold, geopolitical decision. This is based on a history of disappointment. When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, the West continued with business as usual. Its response was a reset of ties with Moscow, with a strategically ambiguous pushback approach, which left Georgia more vulnerable to Russia than ever. While the EU deployed a monitoring mission (EUMM) in Georgia, the mission’s mandate was never properly implemented.

Despite Georgia going above and beyond to meet the criteria to join NATO – a promise made at the 2008 Bucharest Summit – the Alliance failed to fulfil its commitment, giving the impression that Russia has a de facto veto. For Georgia, it is harder to flex political muscles and speak loudly, as 20% of the country is occupied; Georgia has no security guarantees; Russian troops are 40km away from the capital; and there are visible and invisible threats that August 2008 can be repeated if Georgia proceeds with its European ambitions speedily.

While security worries are legitimate, the government needs to be courageous and deliver on its commitments. The Georgian people have proved to be brave over centuries. Georgians want the EU and its way of life and have repeatedly proved this, including when the government abandoned the highly controversial foreign agents law, and when they supported Ukraine on the streets. Nevertheless, the government has seriously tarnished its image, and people alone cannot repair it. The government must step up its efforts and prioritise national interests. It is more than capable of doing it.

What has been achieved so far?

As of now, Georgia has fulfilled three of the EU’s priorities – gender equality and fighting violence against women, human rights judgements in court deliberations, and appointing a public defender through a transparent process. Significant progress has been made on priorities related to electoral and institutional reforms, an independent judiciary, and anti-corruption measures, fight against organised crime, media pluralism, vulnerable groups, and the involvement of civil society organisations.

However, on de-oligarchisation and depolarisation, work remains to be done. A systemic approach to the de-oligarchisation law must be applied, according to the Venice Commission’s opinion. On the issue of polarisation, the main opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM), has not only shown zero interest in reducing polarisation but has also happily taken steps to increase it. However, political dialogue between parties is necessary to prove that depolarisation is underway – the ruling party owes it to the Georgian people to show leadership and decrease political tension.

While Georgia needs to push on, it is also important that the EU assesses all three countries by the same principles to avoid double standards. Ukraine and Moldova also remain far from fully meeting all the Commission’s criteria, including the de-oligarchisation issue. The goal should be to make these problems measurable. The EU must avoid making the 12 priorities a moving target and leaving Georgia in limbo. Based on the progress made, it is possible to grant candidate country status to Georgia – with some additional conditions to open accession negotiations, as was the case with Ukraine and Moldova.

Time for the Georgian Dream and the EU to deliver Georgia’s dream

If Georgia fails to receive the candidate country status, it will also have a negative spillover on the EU’s geopolitical image. Furthermore, in 2024, the EU will enter a cycle of elections not only in member states but also in the European Parliament. This could have a profound impact on Georgia’s candidate country status – if not now, later might be too late. 

Furthermore, Georgia is a Black Sea littoral state. At a time when Russia is trying to impose a blockade on the Black Sea, granting Georgia candidate country status will help shore up the Europeanisation of the country and, with it, its Black Sea coast, as well as reinforce the EU’s influence in the entire South Caucasus region at a time of geopolitical upheaval. It would be a gross mistake to believe that Georgia’s geography makes it irrelevant to EU security and stability. The recent visit of  HRVP Josep Borrell to Georgia to the occupation line to mark the 15 years of EUMM in Georgia was an important reminder that Russia’s war against Ukraine did not start in Ukraine; it began much earlier, in  August 2008 in Georgia – and if Georgia is outside of the game now, the war will not end in Ukraine but will restart in Georgia.

While the government must show leadership and speak the language that the EU wants to hear and translate words into actions and reforms, the EU must also show geopolitical and strategic acumen. Georgians want the EU, and the EU has invested in Georgia because it wants Georgia on its side. The EU-Georgia love story continues – now is the time to put a ring on it.

Iana Maisuradze is a Programme Assistant in the Europe in the World programme.

This Commentary is part of the EPC's Task Force on EU Enlargement

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