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The EU bet on the Georgian people with its candidacy decision

The European Commission recommended that the Council grant Georgia candidate status in December. However, the Commission’s report involved little to no praise for the Georgian government in most of the priority areas and set out further reforms for the future. The EU narrative directly portrayed the Georgian people as those who have received this new status. Overall, Brussels hopes that the candidacy decision will encourage the society to demand progress rather than appease the government.

November 30, 2023 - Soso Chachanidze - Articles and Commentary

Photo: Aleksandar Todorovic / Shutterstock

On November 8th, the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen presented the 2023 enlargement package. This reported on the progress made by states at different stages of the EU accession process. For the first time, the annual package included Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. It was a historic occasion for all three countries, as the Commission recommended that the Council formally advance them to the next steps of EU integration. For Ukraine and Moldova, this will result in the opening of accession negotiations, with the further prospect of adopting new negotiating frameworks after key reforms are undertaken. For its December meeting, the Council was also recommended to grant Georgia candidate status. This should be done on the understanding that progress will be achieved in nine priority areas. Unlike Kyiv and Chisinau, Tbilisi did not receive this status last year. Instead, it ended up with a “European Perspective” and 12 priorities to fulfil before acquiring candidacy.

Last year’s decision can be understood as the EU expressing concern about key issues of democracy in Georgia. Among others, the 12 priorities involved reducing political polarisation, securing the freedom of the judiciary system and removing the behind-the-scenes influence of oligarchs in politics. Even more than the current state of democracy in the country, Brussels was concerned with the dynamics of Georgia’s development and the government’s commitment to pro-Europeanism. Previously, Georgia was widely regarded as a frontrunner in the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative, which also involved Ukraine and Moldova alongside Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus. However, since the last parliamentary elections of 2020, and especially Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Tbilisi’s commitment to pro-western reforms and foreign policy has been questioned multiple times. This democratic decline was the main reason that the Georgian Dream government did not receive candidate status in the first place.

Last year the government was given a chance. If it truly had European commitments, it could at least achieve substantial progress in the most politically sensitive areas of reform. Meanwhile, the Commission’s report is dominated by phrases such as “some level of preparation” and “limited progress”. Most of the positive descriptions concern less politically significant legislative changes and other forms of rather abstract improvement. The government promised to complete all the reforms by the original deadline at the end of 2022. This would be done before the EU postponed the assessment to 2023. Nevertheless, a week before von der Leyen’s report, the country’s prime minister claimed in his meeting with the Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi that the reforms were at the “final stages of completion”. However, he also noted that they were still not fully implemented. The parliament’s chair went even further by saying that Tbilisi hoped that merely three out of the twelve reforms would be deemed fully implemented by the Commission. 

While the EU’s priorities were still far from fulfilled, the parliament occupied itself with discussing a Russian-style law on “agents of foreign influence”. Although unsuccessfully, the body even attempted to impeach the president for her visits to EU heads of state. In parallel, the executive branch allowed for the restoration of direct flights with Russia. By now, there are more than 50 weekly direct flights from the country which still occupies 20 per cent of Georgia. Apart from this, Georgian Dream targeted the EU several times, accusing the organisation of wanting to open a second front of the war in Ukraine in the country. Some in the party also described European Parliament members as insignificant pro-opposition politicians. All this served as clear proof for the EU that its doubts about Georgian Dream’s commitments were true. Most importantly, it also made a big part of the Georgian population question the aspirations of the ruling party.

Last year’s sticks for the government were replaced by carrots for the people this year. Accordingly, the candidacy formula has been flipped to a new framework of status first and reforms second. Nonetheless, this does not change the substance of the process, as progress will have to be achieved if Georgia does not want to get stuck at candidacy while others advance. Most of the nine priorities are made up of last year’s still incomplete requirements. What has changed however, is who the Commission envisions as the agents of change in the country. Evidence for a new focus on the Georgian population has been ever-present. Popular support for the EU goes beyond more than 80 per cent in the polls. A massive pro-Ukraine and pro-EU rally was the reason why the government decided to alter its plans and apply for Union membership in 2022 in the first place. Another huge protest held between March 7th and 9th this year forced Georgian Dream to give up on its foreign agents law, which was widely criticised by EU bodies. Civil society organisations have also held numerous pro-EU campaigns over the course of the year. 

The EU’s narrative in the enlargement report, as well as before and after it, showed clear indications that Brussels sees the Georgian people as those who deserve the candidacy. Ursula von der Leyen opened the part of her speech about Georgia by saying that “the College fully supports the genuine aspiration of the overwhelming majority of its [Georgian] citizens.” The full report also talks highly of the Georgian people and civil society. Josep Borrell, the High Commissioner for Foreign Policy and Security Affairs, started his post-report video address by saying that the “Georgian people have shown their unshaken commitment to European values. And they have done it many times.”. The EU’s ambassador to Georgia also congratulated all the country’s political actors on achieving candidate status, but “above all to the Georgian people”. A group of MEPs explicitly called the government’s efforts reluctant and claimed that only the Georgian people, some political leaders and civil servants deserve the credit for the achievement.

Although naturally the official EU narrative is not as direct as that of the MEPs, a change could still be observed in formal communications from Brussels. A good example of this is Josep Borrell’s visit to Georgia in September, when he directly said at a press conference with the prime minister that the government’s narrative that the EU wants to open a “second front” in Georgia is a lie. He also criticised the government’s decision to restore direct flights with Russia. Borrell highlighted that Tbilisi should not miss the historic chance to advance on the EU path and more reforms are needed. The EU ambassador also commented that significantly more could have been done by the politicians in order to fulfil the twelve priorities. 

The changing narrative is strong proof that the EU has granted the candidacy to the Georgian people and not the ruling party. On the other hand, this new status would allow Brussels to be even more open and demanding towards Tbilisi, as the stakes rise. This has been expressed in the nine priorities as well. They include ensuring a free and fair electoral process for the 2024 parliamentary elections, as well as a need to fight against anti-EU disinformation and foreign influence. Most notably, higher foreign policy compliance (which has fallen from over 60 per cent to 43 per cent in the last two years) has become a formal requirement for Georgia’s future advancement towards membership. Brussels can count on the approval of wider Georgian society regarding these demands and knows that it will not be perceived as intervening in the internal affairs of the country. 

The EU thus bet on the Georgian people to remain the only clear force that would unwaveringly support the European integration of the country. Brussels hopes that the overwhelming popular demand for integration will leave politicians with no choice but to obey the people’s will, just as this has happened during several crucial moments before. Most importantly, the EU trusted the Georgian people to understand that this year’s decision does not praise the government’s actions. As expected, Georgian Dream is trying everything to claim the credit for the achievement. With elections in a year, the wrong allocation of merit by the population could end up being a costly mistake for the country. Brussels knows this and has therefore made efforts to clarify who are the primary recipients of the candidacy. As it has been said repeatedly, the door is open for Georgia in the EU. Now it is up to Georgians to read the messages correctly and keep demanding progress and a better future.

Soso Chachanidze is a second year student of Erasmus Mundus Joint Master Programme in Central and East European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, currently undertaking his studies at Jagiellonian University in Krakow. He is interested in security issues, the post-Soviet area, Central and Eastern European states, the EU and its neighbourhood policies, European defence and security architecture.

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