16/02/2024 GIP

Charting Georgia’s EU Course: Navigating the Complexities of Pre-accession Environment

The decision to reignite the EU enlargement process in the face of Russia’s unwarranted military aggression against Ukraine was a geopolitical decision on the part of the EU. Russia’s action prompted formerly skeptical member states to pivot unanimously in favor of further EU enlargement. The EU granted candidacy to Ukraine and Moldova and a European perspective to Georgia on June 23, 2022, which was followed by the announcement on December 14, 2023, of the start of accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova, and candidate status to Georgia alongside an understanding that the implementation of nine steps would take place. As of now, together with five Western Balkan countries, the EU is planned to enlarge to encompass 35 countries.

Concepts such as Europe puissance in France, Zeitenwende in Germany, and updates to strategic documents to include EU enlargement in Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, and the Netherlands have quickly led to the crystallization of new strategic thinking across Europe. In this view, EU enlargement is a means to assert EU power and block Russia from “swallowing” countries one after another.  “Enlargement is a geo-strategic investment in peace, security, stability, and prosperity,” stated over 40 European countries at the end of a 3rd European Political Community meeting in Granada, Spain.

However, for the EU, the fact that the latest approach to enlargement is ‘geopolitical’ does not amount to free passage for candidate countries. The 14 December European Council conclusion stated that “work on both tracks should advance in parallel.” One track focuses on future members preparing for accession and the other track focuses on preparing the EU to integrate new members. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen often underlines that there are “no shortcuts”. This complex interdependence between reforms in candidate countries and reforms in the EU warrants candidate countries’ attention in several respects:

Firstly, there is no enlargement date set.

So far, only President Charles Michel has stated that “we must be ready – on both sides – by 2030 to enlarge”. However, member states have avoided naming dates. Therefore, this newfound enlargement push is not happening without countervailing reactions, and while strong resolve remains, the details might change as the environment changes.

Second, member states maintain a focus on reforms.

There is a circular relationship between EU reforms and EU enlargement. The needed reforms are complex, dealing with issues such as farmer subsidies, regional development funds, the implications of enlargement for the EU budget, and the rule of law requirements. Difficulties related to these areas exist, and also arise from the increased number of bilateral conflicts that could stall decision-making in the EU. In that respect, some member states support the idea of a multi-speed Europe, but all of them, especially France and Germany, maintain a strong focus on cohesion and institutional reform, such as moving from unanimity to qualified majority voting (QMV) as well as the gradual extension of QMV to common foreign and security policy (CFSP).  These are complex matters to resolve among the 27, and so their resolve to enlarge must be prevented from weakening due to underperformance in candidate countries.

For the reasons outlined above, nothing should be taken for granted, and careful attention must be paid to several conditions that need to be taken into account if Georgia is to realize its strategic goal of becoming an EU member state sooner rather than later:

  • Fulfilling the nine steps must be done quickly and effectively through an inclusive and meaningful process which is not contested by stakeholders such as the EU, the government, the opposition, and CSOs. To make this possible, Georgia needs a consensus-based and inclusive democratic process, with multi-party and CSO involvement. Without fostering such a culture there can be no meaningful process and hence the risk of letting the window of opportunity escape grows. No responsible statecraft should overlook this risk.
  • The pre-accession process must see the start of profound and deeply transformative reform in several sectors but first and foremost in the public administration of Georgia. For example, decentralization and local self-government are the fundamental areas where comprehensive progress is needed as the legislative process in the EU customarily goes through regional and local levels. In the accession process, self-governing units are responsible for up to 70% of the EU acquis implementation. The same approach will be required from Georgia. The country needs functioning, strong, and independent local self-government bodies, which have party pluralism and inclusivity. Furthermore, the perennial fundamental areas of reform, such as depoliticization, the independence of institutions, and the rule of law will require much greater attention.
  • The pre-accession process also requires readiness from Georgia to effectively absorb additional funds. For example, since 2007, the EU has been supporting the enlargement countries with financial and technical assistance from the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA). For the new multiannual financial framework period 2021-27, the IPA III budget is EUR 14.162 billion. Drawing on the IPA III funds requires greater preparedness and institutional capacity as assistance under this Regulation is based both on a performance-based approach and the fair share principle. IPA employs the principle of differentiated scope and intensity according to the performance of the beneficiaries which will depend on progress in implementing reforms not only the needs (Article 8, Regulation 2021/1529). Further, the IPA regulation states that in case of regression, IPA funds can be reduced and redirected. The performance of beneficiaries is primarily assessed in the fields of the rule of law and fundamental rights, democratic institutions, and public administration reform, as well as economic development and competitiveness. While the Trio is not yet part of the IPA III, they could start an inclusive process of thoroughly reviewing the Regulation (EU) 2021/1529 because whether it is IPA or some other ad hoc fund that is used to support the pre-accession process of the Associated Trio countries, the disbursement of needed funds from the EU will be both need and performance-based.

As such, the effective implementation of reforms will be the key to unlocking the benefits of EU candidate status for Georgia. Transitioning from the candidacy phase, the geopolitical dividend enjoyed by the Trio will fade, yielding solely to technical and performance-based considerations as they commence chapter negotiations. Addressing the reforms from early on is both a strategic and pragmatic duty of any candidate country’s government. In this process, performance pays off and vice versa.

It would be not only imprudent for Georgia to bet on EU enlargement being a purely geopolitical process, but actively dangerous without a sound security strategy. Georgia should avoid the path of least resistance of only minimally complying with EU recommendations and instead actively demonstrate performance in its reform agenda. Georgia must also pursue a parallel, drastically more vigorous NATO integration policy than it currently has. The EU is not a fully-fledged security organization and its Article 42(7) does not provide a comprehensive defense umbrella. Therefore, Georgia must, at the very least, pursue its NATO integration path far more energetically while skepticism of NATO enlargement is at its lowest point.

In a nutshell, democratic reform constitutes the best defense from foreign threats and as such, Georgia should be prioritizing this rather than alienating strategic partners and playing a game of fortune with geopolitics.

Georgia must focus on serious and complex statecraft, including pursuing effective EU and NATO accession policies. It is this that is the true security safeguard for Georgia. All other paths are simply insufficient and too risky and carry a false promise of security.

This Perspective was produced in cooperation with the Open Society Georgia Foundation (OSGF). The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of the author and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the Georgian Institute of Politics (GIP) and the Open Society Georgia Foundation (OSGF).

Eka Akobia

Dean of the Caucasus School of Governance at Caucasus University

Photo credit: Eurasianet


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