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with war in europe, georgia looks to the eu

With War in Europe, Georgia Looks to the EU

Author:Dante Schulz

Mar 21, 2022

Image source: Office of the President of Georgia

On March 3, Georgia officially applied for membership in the European Union. The chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream Party Irakli Kobakhdize, said, “We call on the EU bodies to review our application in an emergency manner and to make the decision to grant Georgia the status of an EU membership candidate.” Moldova and Ukraine also applied for EU membership, also seeking an expedited process.   

Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has provided the impetus for all three governments’ decision to seek EU membership now. However, the realities of EU accession — particularly the adoption of EU laws, rules, and practices in the now over 100,000-page acquis Communautaire — suggests it will be a while before any of these countries may be able to achieve full membership, barring a dramatic shift in EU enlargement policy.  Moreover, a change speeding up the application process for Georgia or Ukraine or Moldova would have implications for a number of countries in the Western Balkans that have been in the membership queue for some time. For instance, North Macedonia’s bid for membership was blocked for two decades by Greece over a dispute over its name and now is encountering a challenge from Bulgaria over historical disputes.

Georgia has long sought integration with the west, including looking for membership in the EU and NATO. European Union flags are hardly an uncommon siting in Tbilisi. Protecting Georgia’s independence and security are key factors in the decision to seek membership now.  However, while acceding to the EU might provide Georgia some political and security support in the face of further  Russian actions in the South Caucasus and increase the overall focus in the Black Sea in European security thinking, the beneficial economic impacts should not be overlooked.

Georgia was hit by the economic downturn of the COVID-19 pandemic. Its economy contracted by 6.2 percent in 2020, while the poverty rate increased 5.4 percentage points. Orienting itself towards Europe is a viable solution to mitigate Georgia’s economic woes. Georgia already has a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with Europe that gives Tbilisi greater access in the common European market. The EU is also Georgia’s largest trading partner, accounting for 23 percent of its trade compared to 14 percent and 12 percent with Turkey and Russia respectively. While there will likely be some Georgians who do not see as many benefits as others, history has shown that the market-based economic changes accompanying EU membership, the adoption of EU standards, and the increased confidence membership can bring for investors, would mean a stronger Georgian economy and greater prosperity for the Georgian public. After 15 years of membership in the EU, Bulgaria and Romania have reported a steady rise in the standard of living and the infusion of capital from Brussels to repair dilapidated infrastructure in their countries. Georgia could utilize the economic benefits provided by the EU to bolster its own domestic economy.

Background

Georgia has been orienting itself westward to showcase its desire for EU membership. In January 2021, Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili announced to the leaders of Europe and NATO that Georgia was poised to apply for EU membership in 2024. Furthermore, the Caucasus Research Resource Center’s (CRRC) September 2020 survey found that a majority of Georgians identify as Europeans.

Looking at the European security situation, in February 2022 before Russian troops launched their offensive against Ukraine, Poland requested that Ukraine’s application for EU membership be fast-tracked in an attempt to deter Russian interventions in its western neighbor. In general, Central and Eastern European countries have been supportive of Ukraine’s attempts to gain membership. Leaders from Bulgaria, Czechia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia wrote in an open letter that Ukraine should be given the “highest political support” on its path to EU membership.   This support for Ukraine might help Georgia’s application move forward even though Russian troops are already in Georgia supporting breakaway forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The European Union has not expanded since 2013 when Croatia joined its ranks. Yet, other countries currently have pending bids, including Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia. Turkish accession has been a long-standing issue. The Balkan states awaiting membership would likely criticize preferential treatment for Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine should their applications be expedited. It could take up to 18 months for a country’s application to be fully evaluated by the European Commission. The process for synchronizing a country’s laws, regulations, and other procedures before membership takes even longer.

Georgia’s continued challenge to fully democratize its institutions could also be a barrier to EU membership. Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili spoke of Georgia’s “re-integration” with Europe and subsequent administrations sponsored good governance reforms, anti-corruption mechanisms, and economic liberalization policies to align with its European counterparts. Nevertheless, only 23 percent of Georgian respondents to a 2021 National Democratic Institute survey believe that the country is headed in the right direction. Many Georgians question the state of their country’s democracy. For example, in February 2021, Georgian opposition figures and Western leaders alike decried the arrest of opposition leader Nika Melia for allegedly inciting violence during anti-government protests in 2019. Further questions arose out of the conduct of the 2020 elections and the subsequent actions by political leaders. Such actions could challenge Georgia’s application status for the European Union.

Even so, now is a good time to make the case for Georgia’s membership. The EU has already been proactive in its eastern neighbors’ security affairs and the continent has shown a renewed unity in the face of the threat that Russian aggression poses to the European project. In December 2021, the European Council announced that it would bolster the defense capabilities of Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine over the next three years. Although the EU is not a defensive organization, joining it would provide an additional layer of security to ease worries that Russia could initiate another attack against Georgia.

Bottom Line

While the urgency of the situation has brought Georgia’s and Moldova’s application for EU membership into the spotlight, it will likely be much longer before Georgia can accede to the organization. The EU has proven to be slow in its expansion process, despite uproars from Russia that it is encroaching on its borders. Perhaps, the recent invasion will serve as justification for expediting its application consideration. Nevertheless, Georgia will have to undergo the same process that the Southern Balkan states have been forced to endure before it can fully reap the security and economic benefits of the EU.


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