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Georgia's EU bid raises existential question: What is Europe and where does it end?

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By Jorge Liboreiro
The geographical limits of Europe has been defined by territory but also politics, culture and religion.
The geographical limits of Europe has been defined by territory but also politics, culture and religion.   -   Copyright  Len PUTTNAM/AP

Europe is today facing its most feared nightmare: war.

An armed, bloody conflict has once again broken out in the middle of the continent: Ukrainians battle on the streets to expel the invading Russian forces, who threaten to take over their neighbour and subjugate their cherished independence.

In the span of very few days, the continent's conscience has been shaken to the core, leading to a powerful outpour of solidarity for Ukraine and a sudden re-examination of our common identity as Europeans.

Moved by both hope and hopelessness, the Kyiv government has launched a long-shot bid to join the European Union, an arduous, intricate and fragile process that rests on the political will of the 27 member states. Shortly after President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed the official application, two other countries followed suit: Moldova and Georgia.

None of these three states had previously been considered a serious candidate to become part of the bloc, but the horror and shock inflicted by the war have suddenly shifted the narrative in their favour. The largely stalled accession process has now been reawakened and infused with a new meaning, even if the chances for a successful resolution are still low and replete with obstacles.

But for Georgia, another hurdle emerges: Is it really part of Europe?

Article 49 of the EU treaties says that "any European State" that respects the bloc's core values can apply for membership. At first sight, the provision has a dual dimension: geographical – being somewhere inside the European continent – and political – complying with the fundamental tenets of the European project, that is, being an open democracy based on the rule of law and human rights.

On democracy, Georgia has a mixed record. As a parliamentary republic, the country has made great strides to overcome its Soviet legacy and holds regular elections to choose its public representatives. But the system is shaky, with frequent accusations of fraud and undue barriers for opposition parties.

"Oligarchic influence affects the country’s political affairs, policy decisions, and media environment, and the rule of law is undermined by politicisation. Civil liberties are inconsistently protected," says Freedom House, a non-profit centre that conducts research on democracy and human rights.

Freedom House calls Georgia "partly free," while The Economist's Democracy Index describes it as a "hybrid regime." Reporters Without Borders says the country's media is "pluralist but not yet independent."

While political shortcomings are a major obstacle on the road to EU membership, they are not set in stone.

In fact, the accession process is designed to gradually improve a candidate's political standards so that by the time it finally joins the bloc, the newcomer is perfectly aligned with the other member states.

By contrast, geography is set in stone – in the most literal sense of the expression. And in Georgia's case, the stone under its feet might raise some uncomfortable questions.

Between two continents

Georgia is a small country of almost four million citizens located in the Transcaucasia region, south of the Caucasus Mountains. It is bounded on the north by Russia, on the east by Azerbaijan, and on the south by Armenia and Turkey. The country's western part borders the Black Sea, opening up a straightforward maritime route towards two EU countries, Romania and Bulgaria.

This particular position puts Georgia at odds with the traditionally defined borders of Europe, which extend all the way to the Ural Mountains in Russia, follow the Ural River down to the Caspian Sea, and then pass by the very crest of the Caucasus until they reach the Black Sea.

This classic interpretation is followed by, among others, the National Geographic Society – whose map of Europe tip-toes past Georgia – the Encyclopædia Britannica and the CIA's World Factbook.

Since the Caucasus act as Georgia's natural northern border, the most conventional understanding of Europe bypasses the country altogether, leaving the region as a sort of transcontinental bridge "at the intersection of Eastern Europe and Western Asia," as Wikipedia puts it.

"I call the Caucasus 'the lands in between.' Geographically, the countries lie between Europe, Asia, Russia, and the Middle East. Culturally, they are on the border where Islam meets Christianity, and where democracy meets authoritarianism," said Thomas de Waal, author of the book The Caucasus: An Introduction, during a 2019 Q&A session.

"It’s a confusing, interesting region, which is a borderland in more ways than just geography."

FRANCOIS MORI/AP2008
The EU's territory currently stretches all the way to Cyprus, which is geographically part of Asia Minor.FRANCOIS MORI/AP2008

Georgia's nature as a transit zone seems to confound international organisations.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) excludes Georgia in its periodic economic outlook for Europe. Eurostat, the European Commission's statistical office, also ignores the country in its study of regions and cities, which features the entire Turkish territory.

The Council of Europe, however, did see Georgia as part of the European family of nations when it granted the country's membership in 1999. (The Council of Europe is a human rights organisation with limited power and completely unrelated to the EU institutions.)

"I am Georgian and therefore I am European," said Zurab Zhvania, Georgia's prime minister, when his country joined the organisation, less than a decade after the collapse of the USSR.

Zhvania's triumphant words evoked a sense of belonging that defied geographical boundaries and instead embraced common ties forged on culture, creed and history. At its greatest extent, the Roman Empire reached all the way to the Caucasus. The area today known as Georgia was then called Colchis and Iberia.

"The interesting and tricky thing about the concept of Europe is that people have been literally arguing about it for at least 2,500 years," says Giancarlo Casale, a professor at the European University Institute (EUI) with a focus on the Ottoman empire and its connections with the modern world.

"Behind these arguments is a predisposition to define Europe in a particular way. One way to define it is as Christian. So if you want to see Europe as Christian, then it inevitably makes sense that Georgia should be in, because even though it's out there in the Central Caucasus, it is one of the oldest Christian civilisations of the world."

'No unequivocal agreement'

Today, as the European continent becomes increasingly interconnected, borderless and digital, its true character, and therefore its confines, exceed the physical realm that characterised the old empires, a trend that President Vladimir Putin appears eager to reverse.

Conceptual factors, such as political affinity and social structures, have now greater influence in shaping a collective sense of Europeanness. This abstract dimension has come to the fore during Russia's invasion of Ukraine, an act of war that has turned Kyiv into a sort of frontline protector of the Western model of democracy.

"Two months ago, I didn't hear anybody saying that Ukraine was a European country, because regardless of whether it was a democracy or not, there wasn't any question it would join the European Union," Casale told Euronews in a video interview.

"You can see how quickly these kinds of discourses can change the politics of the moment and how people are thinking about what they want to be as Europeans and how other countries fit in with that model."

This flexible interpretation of what is Europe might smoothen the path for Georgia's EU ambitions or, at least, for being granted candidate status. The formal change would open the door to the bloc's Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA), a multi-billion financial programme that helps countries carry out the necessary reforms to come closer to the EU's legal order.

Cyprus, a country that geographically belongs to Asia Minor but is majority Christian and Greek-speaking, benefitted from this elastic understanding when it joined the bloc as part of the 2004 wave of enlargement, a time when the political will to expand the EU was decisively stronger than it is today.

Balkan countries with large Muslim populations, such as Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina, have equally been accepted as aspiring members, although their destiny remains, at best, uncertain.

"There is no unequivocal agreement on what a 'European state' means. This requirement can be read from different perspectives, including geographical, cultural, political, strategic terms," Corina Stratulat, a senior analyst at the European Policy Centre (EPC) who studies EU enlargement, tells Euronews.

Brussels' willingness to turn Europe's map upside down is, however, not infinite.

In 1987, Morocco's bid to join the European Communities, the EU's predecessor, was rejected on the grounds it was not a European country. Yet, as Stratulat notes, Turkey's application, sent that same year, was "accepted despite its geographic position in Asia."

The political sensitivities involving the EU's accession process, where the capitals have to green light each and every procedural step by unanimity, suggest the continent's final map will be drawn first by prime ministers and later polished by cartographers.

"Is the European project mainly motivated by geography or by other economic and strategic/security considerations? Can geography be a key consideration in an age defined by the internet and globalisation, where distances and borders mean nothing? Is expansion vital or optional for the EU?" Stratulat wonders.

"Depending on how member states respond to these questions, it will determine how far the Union can stretch."