Georgia’s EU Aspirations: Maintaining Hope in the Face of Uncertainty
Author: Toghrul Aliyev
Apr 6, 2023
Since gaining its independence, Georgia has not waned in pursuing its goals of EU accession, and since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the changing geopolitical landscape has amplified its pursuit. Despite the recent controversy and public disapproval surrounding the introduction of controversial “foreign agent” bills, this temporary hurdle to EU accession was quickly overcome, yielding a positive outlook for their future relations. With Georgia’s growing urgency to distance itself from the Kremlin, and the EU’s increasing willingness to bolster its diplomatic ties, the relationship between Georgia and the EU is quickly improving.
Georgia’s longstanding desire to join European and Euro-Atlantic structures are embedded in the country’s constitution, which emphasizes the governmental obligation to “take all measures within the scope of their competences to ensure the full integration of Georgia into the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.” While the unresolved territorial integrity issue following the 2008 Russo-Georgian War has been the main roadblock for Georgia’s European accession, recent geopolitical developments have rekindled these aspirations. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Georgia submitted its application to accede into the EU on March 3, 2022. In June 2022, the European Council granted candidacy status to Ukraine and Moldova, while deferring Georgia’s membership application. According to the EU, several democratization reforms must be conducted by Tbilisi before it is put on a formal membership path.
The introduction of the “foreign agent bills” in the parliament by Georgia’s ruling party gave rise to public protests and growing international pressure, ultimately forcing the bill to be dropped, while also raising concerns in Brussels regarding Georgia’s commitment to the European path. EU representatives warned the Georgian government that the draft law directly contradicted the European Commission’s 12 priorities for obtaining EU candidate status, which include reforms on political polarization, judicial system, anti-corruption, media freedom and other areas. Considering that the European Commission will be reassessing Georgia’s progress on implementing these reforms in October, revocation of the controversial bill plays an important role in maintaining Georgia on its long-awaited European path.
Despite the backlash and uncertainties, several developments within the last month have shown efforts from both sides to build upon the efforts made towards Georgia’s integration. During her two-day official visit to Georgia between March 23-25, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock made assurances regarding Germany’s support for Georgia’s candidate status and potential accession to the EU. “I am in Georgia with a specific message: we want to see Georgia in the European Union,” said Baerbock, while also stressing the need for the Georgian government to implement the necessary reforms requested by the EU. Baerbock emphasized the government now had the task of "overcoming polarization, restoring confidence and decisively taking pending steps towards reform." Baerbock said that Germany was closely following the developments regarding the “foreign agent” bills and acknowledged Georgia’s difficult position in light of Moscow’s opposition to its neighbors seeking European integration. High-profile visits of this nature from Western leaders and diplomats can provide the positive encouragement for incentivizing the Georgian government and reassuring public opinion, especially during times of uncertainty.
The EU is also looking to ramp up its military assistance to both Georgia and Moldova, amid growing concerns within the bloc regarding Russia’s destabilizing efforts against both countries. In this context, during the week of March 20, representatives of the 27 EU member-states held a meeting through the European External Action Service (EEAS) in order to discuss some of the ways they can increase their involvement, as both countries applied to join the bloc last year. From these discussions, it was agreed that the funding would be provided from the European Peace Facility (EPF), the same EU-based budget mechanism that Brussels has been using to supply Ukraine with arms. EPF is seeking to provide Georgia with 30 million euros worth military trailers, trucks, heavy equipment transporters, a medical treatment facility, and equipment for Georgia's new Cyber Security Bureau. The purpose of the military aid is to enhance Georgia’s "operational effectiveness, accelerate compliance with EU standards and interoperability, and thereby better protect civilians in crises and emergencies."
The war in Ukraine demonstrated the need for Russia’s neighboring countries such as Georgia to build upon its defense and military capabilities, especially considering any potential aggressions down the line. In this line, the EU has stepped up its military presence as an alternative to NATO. Russia’s aggressive reaction to the so-called “NATO encroachment” on its borders has caused a global crisis stemming from Ukraine, so having the military aid provided from the EPF can serve as a more moderate but still effective means of support to Georgia. Looking ahead, issues within the Georgian domestic politics such as polarization and outside pressure from Russia will be the critical areas to tackle for the Georgian Dream Party in order to effectively implement the required reforms for its EU candidacy status.