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The European Union all the way to the Caucasus

In 2008, NATO did not grant Ukraine and Georgia a Membership Action Plan. It was mainly the result of Vladimir Putin’s personal persuasion at the NATO Summit in Bucharest which took place that year. The Kremlin considered it as a weakness of the West and attacked Georgia the same year. Is the European Union now capable of taking a bolder decision with regards to countries aspiring to join its structures?

June 22, 2022 - Karol Przywara Paweł Kowal - Articles and Commentary

Pro-EU gathering in the Georgian port city of Batumi June 20th 2022. PhotoL Omer Karabacak / Shutterstock

Some countries, including Germany and France, have been against granting NATO candidate status to Eastern European states during the Summit in Bucharest in April 2008. In fact, this decision is what led to the outbreak of the Russo-Georgian war in 2008. This military aggression resulted in the occupation of over 20 per cent of Georgian territory, which continues until this day.

Russia launched a full-scale invasion in Ukraine on February 24th 2022 at a time when Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia have expressed their will to join the European Union. These countries have already signed association agreements with the EU, including deep and comprehensive free trade agreements as well as visa-free travel agreements. Therefore, three countries out of six making up the Eastern Partnership – Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – have signed three key agreements with the EU. In economic terms, these countries are already 70 per cent in the European Union. Thus, the next steps that should be taken in their regards are granting them EU candidate status and starting accession negotiations with them. This process may of course take many years; nevertheless, the political decision has already been made. To cement the alliance between these countries and the EU, their representatives could be granted observer status to some EU institutions, primarily the Committee of the Regions and the European Parliament.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine means that security has become the most critical issue for EU institutions today. This issue lays at the heart of co-operation with the three associated countries. Likewise, the decision to grant candidate status to these countries is a matter of strategic importance as it is Europe’s security that is at stake. The visit by Mario Draghi, Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz to Kyiv was a decisive factor in granting Ukraine EU candidate status. It was earlier announced by Ursula von der Leyen, who said: “it is not only our strategic interest, but it is our moral duty to make it possible”, and has just been confirmed by the European Commission, which also approved candidacy for Moldova.

Georgia, on the other hand, has been denied EU candidate status, which amounts to a historic mistake. If the war in Ukraine is not a sufficient argument that Putin only understands the power of political facts, then what is? The European Council’s decision not to grant Georgia candidate status will once again be interpreted by the Kremlin as leaving the door in the Caucasus open, and giving Russia a free hand. We cannot exclude that this decision could lead to the outbreak of a new war and further pressure on Georgia. Is it in the West’s interest to hand over control of the Black Sea basin to Putin step by step?

Before the NATO summit in Bucharest in 2008, Ron Asmus, a long-time advocate and intellectual architect of NATO enlargement to the East, wrote that: “NATO all the way to the Caucasus.” Today this statement can be rephrased as “the EU as far as the Caucasus”; otherwise, Russia’s war on Ukraine will spread to other countries.

The internal situation in Georgia with its serious problems with compliance with the rule of law and violation of freedom of media and organisations opposing the Georgian Dream government, was an argument for denying it candidate status. However, these are arguments why Georgia should become a candidate for EU membership, not the other way around. After all, a decision to grant this country EU candidate status does not mean automatic membership, but is of key importance for social mobilisation in Georgia.

The Georgian society, just like the Ukrainian society, belongs to the European family of nations. Contemporary Georgians support their accession to the EU. According to research, approximately 70 per cent of Georgians approve joining the EU. Obtaining candidate status would allow the country to intensively implement various needed reforms and apply for pre-accession funds. These funds would become an additional drive for economic growth, modernisation of infrastructure and building of social capital.

Ukraine has paid for its pro-European choice with the death of its citizens who lost lives under the EU flag during the EuroMaidan Revolution (aka the Revolution of Dignity) in 2013-2014, and even more so during the current Russian aggression. Georgia also has been paying for its pro-western ambitions with war, the loss of part of its territory, thousands of internal refugees and the death of many Georgians in defence of its borders.

Georgia has been waiting for a full European embrace for a long time and has the most pro-western society, ready to put a lot of effort into joining the EU. The Georgian society, often contrary to its leaders, is in favour of strengthening ties with the West and takes to the streets under EU flags. Disregarding Georgia as a candidate for EU membership may lead to the loss of Georgia as a staunch and long-term western ally in a troubled and Russia-dominated neighbourhood. A sign that the process of European integration will continue may be a positive stimulus from the outside.

The actual exclusion of Georgia from the European integration process may push this country back into the Russian sphere of influence and limit or even take away from the European Union its ability to influence the local government. Furthermore, it may lead to the loss of Georgians’ trust in western politicians who for years have been building up their hopes of joining international structures, thereby giving them a sense of security in the face of Putin’s insane regime. It can also be an excuse for the Russian Federation to try to “bring order” and compensate for war failures in Ukraine with territorial gains in the South. For the Georgian society, such a move will be a sign that the Kremlin is right and Western European societies are not taking Georgian aspirations seriously.

The European Commission’s decision regarding Georgia is deceptively similar to the 2008 NATO decision. It will be interpreted not only as hesitation and weakness – also by the other two countries of the South Caucasus – but also as a declaration that the West in not interested in the region. In the longer term, it may lead to growing friction in Armenia and Azerbaijan, where the European Union is involved in supporting the peace process. Charles Michel, the current President of the European Council, has put a lot of effort and efficiently used the Russian focus on waging war in Ukraine to hold two summits between the leaders of the above-mentioned countries in Brussels. He showed similar determination in building an accord between Georgian government and the opposition to resolve parliamentary crisis in the country, hence the deal between the Georgian Dream and their opponents was called the “Michel agreement”. Will the former prime minister of Belgium be strong and determined enough to convince other European leaders to give Georgians a European chance? Otherwise, all these efforts will go in vain.

A discussion on Georgia’s candidate status to the EU in terms of whether it is ready to join the EU does not make sense as Georgia is not joining the EU today and it has been associated with the EU for almost a decade now. The point is not to make the same mistake that NATO made and instead ensure that the Georgian society maintains its pro-western orientation for the security of the EU and to weaken Putin’s regime. May the EU leaders understand it in time and revise their decision as soon as possible.

Paweł Kowal is a member of the Polish parliament (Sejm) and deputy chairman of the Sejm’s Commission on Foreign Affairs. He is also an adjunct professor at the Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy and a member of New Eastern Europe’s editorial board.

Karol Przywara is the director of the Caucasus Foundation (Fundacja Kaukaska) and the the Mayor of Wrocław’s Plenipotentiary for international co-operation.

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