Georgia has now officially applied for EU membership. Once viewed as a front runner in the EU’s eastern neighbourhood, the country has experienced democratic backsliding over the past few years which may cast doubts on Georgia’s readiness for joining the EU.
Yet given the long and winding road that Georgia needed to take to reach this point, granting membership could only be a rational and moral response from the EU given the changed geopolitical situation since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began.
Georgia has always been very vocal about its ambitions and aspirations for European integration. Given the country’s ancient history, religion, culture, and key European values closely linked to the Romans and Greeks, the previous government of Mikheil Saakashvili has even coined the term ‘re-integration’ to refer to Georgia’s path back into the European family.
Leaving history aside, since the 2003 Rose Revolution, the country has implemented impressive reforms to strength governance, curb corruption and drastically liberalise its economic and trade policies. Yet, for making its European choice clear, the country found itself invaded by Russia back in 2008.
This triggered the launch of the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) in 2009, followed by the signing of an Association Agreement (AA) and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) in 2014. Since 2017, it has also benefited from visa-free travel with the EU. Georgia has used all these opportunities to make significant progress on the implementation of the AA and DCFTA and has been named a front runner on several occasions, an overall success story and the poster child of the EU’s EaP policy.
According to the latest study, Georgia scores higher than the other associated states and even potential candidate countries in terms of economic and political governance.
The 2018 presidential elections marked a turning point in Georgia’s democratic reforms, however. The Georgian authorities have steadily built a track record in ‘selective justice’, ‘elite corruption’ and informal governing. Moreover, the country has been facing high political tension since the 2020 parliamentary elections.
During these tense times, the EU’s engagement with Georgia has been absolutely crucial. Thanks to the efforts of the European Council President Charles Michel, Georgia has a functioning parliament today. President Michel succeeded in his ‘mission impossible’ by bringing together the governing Georgian Dream party and the opposition which had been boycotting Parliament for several months.
Ultimately Georgian Dream reneged on Michel’s deal and then refused the second tranche of EU macro-financial assistance, given the conditions related to the rule of law reforms required.
Thus, Georgia’s application for EU membership, on the one hand, comes attached with the hearty success story of implementing the EU’s challenging Association Agreement and the DCFTA. On the other hand, there’s the unordered side dish of recent democratic backsliding. In EU terms, the former ticks the economic and administrative conditions of the ‘Copenhagen Criteria’, a prerequisite for EU membership, while the latter is definitely not promising in terms of fulfilling the stringent political criteria.
While judging Georgia’s commitments to democracy and to the EU’s fundamental values, there is an important distinction to be made – a distinction between the current government and the will of the Georgian people. They are a people who bravely paid the price for their European choice in 2008 when Russia attacked them, and they are a people who have been taking to the streets for the past five years to protest the democratic backsliding of the country.
When President Putin madly went ahead with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Georgian Prime Minister unfortunately made some controversial comments, yet the scale of the pro-Ukrainian demonstrations in Tbilisi made global news headlines. As President Zelensky noted, ‘there are times when citizens are not the government, but better than the government’.
Georgian Dream didn’t plan to launch a formal application for EU membership but given the public pressure they didn’t have much of a choice in the end. Civil society engagement and the unity of the opposition were key factors in altering Georgian Dream’s intentions. Moreover, President Salome Zourabichvili has set a great example by advocating Georgia’s European aspirations in both Brussels and Paris.
Georgia has not come to the EU’s front door empty-handed. It has come with a ticket paid for with blood thanks to its European choice that so displeased Putin back in 2008. It has come with a real success story through its implementation of the Association Agreement, and above all, the Georgian people want to be welcomed into the EU and have not given up their dream of a European future. The EU thus owes it to the Georgian people to welcome them in with open arms.
Ultimately, prospective EU membership comes with lengthy commitments and responsibilities attached. By granting candidacy status to Georgia, the EU could easily push the current government back onto the right track and restore Georgia’s democratic reputation.
The strong will of the Georgian people, its active civil society and dynamic opposition, and the President’s promotion of Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations could ensure that the current government (and those that follow) really takes prospective membership and its related commitments very seriously indeed.
Tinatin Akhvlediani is a Research Fellow at CEPS’ Foreign Policy unit.