What should be next in EU-Georgia relations?

These days, it seems as if countries especially want to exit the European Union. Eastern European countries, however, would gladly be members of the EU. One of these countries is Georgia. We invited politician George Rukhadze from Georgia to put into words the significance of the European Union to Georgia. In stating that, to Georgia, the European Union is much rather a blessing than a curse, Rukhadze makes us question the validity of the desire to leave the European Union. Also, he describes how to continue the relation EU-Georgia.

Historical relation between Europe and Georgia
The Georgians strongly believe that their country has always belonged to Europe. The ancient Georgian kingdoms were part of Greek and Roman worlds. Later, the Georgians became one of the oldest Christian nations, adopting Christianity as a state religion in the 4th century and joined the medieval Christendom. Considering itself to be an essential part of the greater Christian European civilization, Georgian kings and knights fought alongside the Crusaders to free Jerusalem from the Seljuk Turks and later continued their fight against its aggressive Muslim neighbors to protect the south-eastern borders of Christian Europe. When strongly weakened by Persian and Ottoman attacks in the 18th century, Georgia sought closer ties with Russian Empire to stay connected with Europe. However, all this stopped in 1921 when Soviet Russia occupied Georgia and abolished its statehood while Christianity was being suppressed under the communist rule for over 70 years.

EU: the most successful political project in history
In the early 1990s, after collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia regained its independence and slowly re-started its reintegration with the European Union. The process become more intense in the late 2000s and after, when in the framework of Eastern Partnership Program (EaP) Georgia signed the Association Agreement (AA) with the EU, became part of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) and was granted Visa Liberalization (VL) with the Schengen area. This raised hopes that, when further reformed and fully meeting the Copenhagen criteria, one day, Georgia could join the EU.   

Despite the growing Euroscepticism and the widespread view among some EU member states that the Union was not able to deliver, in Georgia and other advanced EaP countries (Ukraine and Moldova) the EU is still seen as one of the most successful political projects in the world history. The EU so far managed to ensure peace and security, opportunity for development and greater prosperity for its members. This is the key reason why Georgia, regardless of all the problems the EU is experiencing right now, is so desperate for the EU accession perspective.

Insecurity and lack of perspective
While today the EU keeps its door open to further accessions from Western Balkan countries, it lacks the political will to give the same promise to EaP states. For the EU the dilemma is how to treat countries that are European but lack an immediate EU membership perspective. On the other hand, for Georgia and other advanced EaP countries, the central matter is how to live through the “uncertain” period without losing the momentum for reforms and the drive for further development. The uncertainty over this will likely lead to negative consequences for Georgia, expressed in slowing down democratic development, rising anti-reform, anti-EU and pro-Russian sentiments.

Moreover, future EU membership is not just a foreign policy priority for Georgia; it has been the main driver for the country's democratic, political and economic reforms. Although not a mature democracy yet,  Georgia is the only former Soviet republic, apart from the Baltic States, which managed to fully reform many of its governmental and public sectors. This would not have been possible if the reform process had not been strictly tied and conditioned to the prospect of further integration with the EU as well as the Western pressure on the Georgian government to keep reforming and democratizing the country. This means that the lack of apparent incentives on the EU path and absence of a long term prospect for accession, may negatively affect not only development of certain sectors but the country’s overall performance.

The current uncertainty does not pose a challenge for just Georgia. It also negatively affects the image and influence of the EU in the neighborhood. Being struck by enlargement fatigue coupled with Brexit, the migrant crisis and the rising influence of far-right political parties, the EU is less likely to consider further eastward expansion in the foreseeable future. However, without an accession offer to the leading EaP countries, the Union seems to lose the magnetic pull of its soft power that was meant to be the key component of EU’s strategy in its neighborhood - to build a prosperous and peaceful ring of friends around the EU.
Looking at EU-Georgia relations in retrospect, one might say that even though the membership perspective for Georgia has never been there, at each stage of EU-Georgia relations, the process of Georgia’s approximation to EU norms and Georgia’s differentiated integration into the EU structures was locked in by the existence of more practical short-term goals, which were adjusted to Georgia’s needs and achieved results. In other words, although the membership perspective was absent, there have also been some juicy carrots to attract Georgia’s commitment. The same is true for Moldova and Ukraine. However, after accomplishing the three main objectives of the EaP—the AA, the DCFTA, and the VL —a situation has emerged that lacks both the EU membership perspective and new carrots.

How to proceed?
To move EU-Georgia relations to the next level without a deadlock, make the EU’s neighborhood policy more effective in a period of enlargement fatigue, and help Georgia to better manage its integration process with the European Union, one needs to identify a possible area of converging interests —an important step that is often neglected by both Brussels and Georgia’s capital Tbilisi. EU’s approach towards its neighborhood, has long been criticized as EU-centric and supply-driven, ignoring the interests and needs of its neighbors. On the other hand, the Georgian narrative about the country’s place in Europe draws a quite romanticized picture and ignores the reality on the ground. This has resulted in a wide gap between perceptions on how EU-Georgia relations should be constructed and may lead to frustration unless the expectations are better managed and brought in line with the reality on both sides.

In the case of the EU, presently, the top priorities for its eastern neighborhood are to avoid further enlargement; to have stable and economically and socially developed neighbors; to mitigate the negative impact of Russia in its neighborhood; and to ensure that its soft power remains the driver of reforms among its neighbors. For Georgia, the utmost priority is to keep the process of political, democratic and economic reforms active; to achieve greater prosperity for its citizens; and to improve its national security.

Opportunities for Georgia apart from formal EU-membership
Based on the points above, while not ready to offer the accession perspective, the EU should start thinking about opening up the long-term prospect of joining the European Economic Area (EEA) for Georgia. As it stands now, the EEA seems to be the only incentive that can fully replace the golden carrot of EU membership. Certainly it will take years until Georgia can meet the criteria to join the EEA, which will keep Georgia on track of difficult reforms and avoid premature discussions about EU membership. This could also prevent Georgia from being overtaken by reform-resistant Eurosceptic political forces or turning towards Russia. And, if Georgia can manage to implement the costly reforms related to the EEA, it would set an example as a fully Europeanized country outside the enlargement context — perhaps the most desirable outcome for the EU which the ENP could possibly achieve.

Moreover, although plagued by many political, economic, and security-related problems, Georgia also has certain potential that might be used to strengthen sectorial cooperation between the two sides and increase the EU’s influence in its neighborhood. Georgia’s military has long and intensive overseas experience in Afghanistan and Iraq that can be used in EU military missions and can contribute to strengthening military cooperation between EU and Georgia. Georgia, being an important alternative energy corridor, may also serve as a reliable partner for EU’s energy security if it joins the Energy Union. In addition, Georgia has one of the most efficient customs and border protection systems in the region, which makes the country technically fit to join the Schengen Area.

To conclude, Georgia, together with other advanced EaP countries, should be allowed to use integration tools outside the ENP/EaP to become part of EU structures without formal membership. For the EU, this will serve two main goals: to avoid further enlargement in the East in the near future and to ensure the continuous approximation of neighboring states to EU norms and institutions— resulting in a more peaceful, prosperous and democratic neighborhood. For Georgia (as well as Moldova and Ukraine), this will provide new incentives that can substitute the EU membership prospect for now and sustain the reform drive for years to come.


George Rukhadze is the leader of the Christian Democratic People’s Party of Georgia, lecturer at Ilia State University and expert on foreign affairs.