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Last June, the European Council, took the historical decision to grant EU candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, and to acknowledge the European Perspective for Georgia. This move was critical for Georgia, transitioning it from the EU’s neighborhood policy basket to the EU’s enlargement policy basket. This is something Georgia had been requesting for years, arguing that it deserved a membership perspective given the fact that Georgia’s performance in aligning domestic legislation with the EU’s acquis surpassed those of many of the EU’s Eastern neighbours and candidate countries. However, for the Georgian public, whose unwavering support for Georgia’s European aspirations is unmatched, the failure to obtain candidate status alongside Ukraine and Moldova was a profound disappointment.
Georgia has been tasked with fulfilling 12 priorities to earn candidate status, while Ukraine and Moldova await the green light to start accession negotiations.
As we eagerly await the European Commission’s report due by November 8, the expectations of frustrated Georgians are at an all-time high that the country will receive candidate status this time.
Georgia has made some progress in addressing these 12 priorities, with roughly 30% of the legislative work of the Parliament of Georgia dedicated to these reforms. However, this progress can be considered insufficient, given Georgia’s administrative and institutional capacity. It’s half-hearted attempt to implement the 12 priorities contrast with the country’s record of diligent implementation of its Association Agreement with the EU since 2014. This record should have served as a solid foundation for more ambitious reforms that go beyond a mere checkbox exercise, yet the latter is what the Georgian government has largely limited itself to.
As High Representative Josep Borrell’s recent visit highlighted, the EU wants to witness substantial progress from Georgia because it has the potential to deliver much more. The missing pieces here are primarily attributed to the lack of strong political will for the systemic reforms needed to bolster the country’s democracy. Political will is what is needed to undertake rule of law reforms and pursue deoligarchisation in line with the Venice Commission recommendations. Political will is also the main factor missing that is stopping the government from equipping the newly established anti-corruption bureau with more powers, refraining from curbing media freedom, or releasing the country’s third president from prison.
While the government has made superficial progress in implementing these reforms, the past year and a half has been fraught with challenges for the Georgian people. The public has taken to the streets on several occasions, and the government has committed a number of dangerous mistakes. It has imprisoned activists and journalists on political grounds, it has conducted a highly controversial open door policy to Russian citizens and Russian money, and attempted to pass anti-democratic legislation. The impact of public protests against these policies cannot be understated, as demonstrations led to the withdrawal of the so-called “Foreign Agent’s Law”, showcasing that people in the streets can set the agenda more effectively than the majority of legislators sitting in the parliament. Georgia may be a fragile democracy, but it is a democracy, where people are fighting fiercely to stay on the track of a European democratic future. And every time the government has tried to derail the country from the European path, Georgians fight stronger for their European choice. As a consequence it comes as a no surprise that the public support for Georgian EU membership currently reached an all time high – 89%.
Now, the EU faces a critical decision on whether to grant candidate status to Georgia. Failure to grant the status this time will undoubtedly lead to widespread public frustration, playing into the hands of Russia and pro-Kremlin forces.
With parliamentary elections scheduled by the end of 2024, the ruling party and pro-Kremlin groups will have nearly a year to propagate anti-EU narratives, reinforcing Russian disinformation and conspiracy theories. This will strengthen the Georgian Dream party’s influence on voters, supplementing their well-documented abuse of administrative resources during elections.
So what should the EU do if it really wants to keep Georgia on the track of European integration? The EU should capitalize on the overwhelming public support for the EU in Georgia to tie the country to the reform path by granting it candidate status. By doing so, Georgia will have the door, not half-way but fully open and the Georgian people will know that the EU is not leaving Georgia behind. The EU should also put forward more conditions, including the proper conduct of the upcoming parliamentary elections. The speed of Georgia’s EU accession will then be determined by its reforms and fulfilling all existing and future conditions that will follow in the process Georgia’s European integration.
If the EU fails to act, it risks witnessing public despair and the possibility of Georgia falling into the hands of Russia, succumbing to anti-European and anti-Western narratives. If the European integration momentum is gone, Georgia may find itself in a situation similar to Serbia or Belarus. The EU must reflect on whether it wants to lose another neighbor to Russia.
Retaining Georgia strengthens the EU’s position in its contested neighborhood with Russia, aligning with its geopolitical ambitions. Georgia’s strategic location as a connecting hub between Europe and Asia, along with its strong, resilient, secure, and democratic character, directly serves the EU’s security interests. This is not the time for indecisiveness. Instead of hitting the pause button on Georgia’s EU future, the EU should leverage its substantial financial and political investment in Georgia, a long-standing poster child of its Eastern Partnership Policy.
So for the EU, it’s a simple calculation of costs versus benefits. The advantages of granting candidate status to Georgia clearly outweigh the costs of not doing so. Since candidate status is granted to people, not governments, and linking it to election results would be unwise. The precedent set by granting candidate status to Bosnia and Herzegovina supports this approach. In terms of technocratic assessment, the European Commission’s analytical report makes clear that Georgia scores almost as highly as Ukraine, surpassing other candidate countries in terms of its alignment with the EU acquis. In terms of the Copenhagen criteria, this fits well the economic and administrative criteria, which should give the European Commission strong grounds to recommend granting candidate status to Georgia.
This perspective was produced in cooperation with the Open Society Georgia Foundation (OSGF). The contents of this perspective 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).
Research Fellow, EU Foreign Policy Unit, Centre for European Policy Studies(CEPS) and affiliated Analyst, Georgian Institute of Politics