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Georgia – On Europe’s mind

In an op-ed for New Eastern Europe, Pierre-Alexandre Crevaux, from the Georgian President’s office, writes that President Salome Zourabichvili’s visit to Brussels on January 21st was to send a message: pandemic or not, Georgia’s path to EU integration is unaltered.

February 8, 2021 - Pierre-Alexandre Crevaux - Articles and Commentary

Georgian presidential palace. Photo: Pierre-Alexandre Crevaux

In Georgia, not a day goes by without hearing political figures, diplomats, foreign partners, non-government organisations and the private sector state that we are on a path to European integration, that this path is steady and that we continue to move forward.

And rightly so. In the past eight years, Georgia and the European Union have signed the Association Agreement, the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area Agreement and have agreed on a visa liberalisation regime. Georgian students are more present across Europe than ever before, Georgian companies and CSOs receive more financial assistance from Brussels than ever before, and visits to and from Europe were at a historical rate before the pandemic began.

But that’s one aspect of things. On the other hand, there’s an increasing trend in seeing EU membership a goal without a horizon. It is true that we constantly hear about the closeness between Georgia and Europe from heads of state and foreign ministers of the 27 members states, but a lot wonder when these statements can translate to more action.

On the surface, it may look like the pandemic has not help. But the strength of diplomacy lays in the capacity to find opportunities out of crises.

When COVID-19 forced the world to lock itself down, I saw Georgia’s President Salome Zourabichvili pick up the phone to call 21 kings, presidents or prime ministers from the European Union. The messages from these phone calls were all about the importance of solidarity during this crisis, but even more about the capacity for Georgia and its partners to move forward, past the pandemic and to continue deepening their co-operation.

On January 21st, President Zourabichvili visited Brussels. This was her first visit abroad since the beginning of the pandemic. It was also a message: pandemic or not, our path to integration is unaltered, without alternative, and now, with a horizon.

The first resolution adopted in the new Georgian Parliament, elected in October 2020, set out a clear priority – candidacy for EU membership in 2024.

This is a bold and ambitious plan. And more than a horizon, it is a pledge by the new parliament to tackle the most important reforms that are still left in this process. Strengthening gender equality, building a more sustainable economy, protecting labour rights, preserving Georgia’s unique environmental wealth are all on a to-do list that needs to be implemented this parliamentary term.

In the meantime, Georgia has four years to continue its sectoral integration. It will need to build on the success of the DCFTA in order to access the Single Market, boost the connectivity from shore to shore of the Black Sea and get involved in the historical TEN-T transportation network programme of the EU.

One first step in this sectoral integration will be addressing student needs. At a meeting with European Parliament President David Sassoli, President Zourabichvili talked of equalising the tuition rates of Georgian and EU students in European universities. Encouraging Georgian students to study in Europe is a positive step for both sides: on the one hand, Georgia can earn an entire new generation of young leaders educated with western and democratic values, on the other, Europe will secure a strongly pro-European generation, well-versed with European institutions and principles.

In 2019, President Zourabichvili addressed an assembly of hundreds of diplomats and European officials at the Batumi International Conference. In her speech, she proposed an innovative idea – an ad hoc integration into the EU. In that proposal, Georgia would have started implementing all the reforms necessary as part of the chapter negotiations of accession, without the formal status of candidate state.

The logic at the time was simple. Brussels may not be ready for a political decision yet, but Georgia was ready to take the next step.

Today, this visit to Brussels, the 2024 pledge and the coming reforms show that we are likely going to see the president’s proposal implemented. By 2024, Georgia will be, by all standards, ready for its EU candidacy. And we hope that Brussels will be ready to meet this new horizon.

The pandemic was not the only major event that affected Georgia in 2020. The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan revealed a simple truth, that the West cannot continue to ignore frozen conflicts until they erupt.

Europe has a very large role to play, but it must meet its call to action. The Minsk Group needs to be given a new life. Georgia has its own function, as neutral to both sides and as a friend and partner to both its neighbours. Throughout the war and after, President Zourabichvili offered Georgia as a platform of peace between both. For centuries, it was the centre and protector of stability in the region. That role can and should be returned.

It is in this context that Georgia needs NATO to be more audacious and show real investment in the region. NATO included Georgia in its “New Era 2030” programme. We have seen more vocal statements, more commitments, more military exercises. Now, the Black Sea should be the center of focus for the Alliance. Its stability is crucial to make sure that the entire region remains a hub of communication and trade between East and West.

The fact that the Georgian President’s first visit since the beginning of the pandemic took place in Brussels was a signal: Georgia’s road to Europe continues and is now moving at full speed.

Pierre-Alexandre Crevaux is a specialist working in the Administration of the President of Georgia.

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