Georgia’s EU bid: chasing a solution to domestic issues?

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This article was written for The European Sting by the political correspondent Ms. Katarzyna Rybarczyk. The opinions expressed within reflect only the writer’s views and not necessarily The European Sting’s position on the issue.

Since the European Union Monitoring Mission in Georgia began in 2009, Georgia has come a long way in terms of preparing to formally apply for EU membership. It signed a number of free trade agreements with the EU, as well as a deal allowing for the visa-free movement of people between its territory and the Schengen area.

For years, widely pro-European Georgia was setting an example for other post-Soviet states seeking to become EU member states. It was working closely with EU institutions and promptly implementing key changes demanded by Brussels. That changed after the 2020 parliamentary elections, however. The win of the ruling Georgian Dream party was contested by the opposition arguing that the vote was rigged. The opposition began boycotting the parliament and, since then, the country has seen virtually no power sharing.

Now, Georgia is struggling with a fair deal of internal hurdles such as a weak rule of law, threats to media freedom, and an overall decline of democracy, according to Human Rights Watch.

Last year, the EU intervened in Georgia’s political crisis and launched a process of mediation, trying to broker an agreement aimed to ‘de-politicise the justice system, correct shortcomings in the electoral system, and strengthen the rule of law,’ wrote Carnegie Europe. The agreement also explained what needs to be done to reform the judicial system and Georgia’s Central Election Commission.

The EU scored a partial victory as the deal was signed by the Georgian Dream and several small opposition groups. Still, the main opposition force, the United National Movement, refused to join the deal.

At the signing ceremony, European Council President, Charles Michel, said ‘This agreement is the starting point – the starting point for your work in consolidating Georgia’s democracy and your work in taking Georgia forward in its Euro-Atlantic future.’

Unfortunately, as Georgia is not an EU member state, it was not legally bound to follow the agreed terms. One hundred days later, the Georgian Dream party annulled the deal, raising concerns about the crisis deepening further. 

With Georgia having been kept in the EU’s waiting room for more than a decade, the government has not had a direct incentive to improve democracy and reduce polarisation. Still, Georgia’s EU bid became more urgent after the war in Ukraine broke out in February this year. Amid perceived threats from Russia, the Georgian government and the nation hoped that Georgia could get the candidate status sooner.

To their dismay, last month the European Commission gave Georgia the ‘recognition of the European perspective’ rather than endorse it as an official candidate to join the bloc. The announcement showed that, as reported by Eurasianet, Georgia had been placed ‘on a lower tier than the other two applicants,’ namely Ukraine and Moldova. The so-called ‘EU Associated Trio’ had applied for membership together shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine.

For Georgians, the government is to blame for their country being left out and failing to secure the membership candidate status. To show their discontent with the situation, tens of thousands of Georgians rallied in Tbilisi at the beginning of July, urging the government to quit.

Georgian politicians seem to think that a full European embrace and getting the candidate status could pave the way for the democratisation process. However, instead of just vocalising its interest in the membership, the government of Georgia needs to show its commitment to safeguarding democracy, the rule of law, and human rights.

The EU, weakened by Brexit, the rise of euroscepticism, and the far-right growing in power, needs to be careful when considering enlargement. Allowing another country like Hungary or Poland, which regularly undermine core European values and fail to meet democratic standards, could make the EU ungovernable. This is something that the community simply cannot afford now when there currently is no clarity as to when the war in Ukraine will end and what will happen next.

In these unprecedented times, the EU needs to focus on standing strong and united rather than expand to include Georgia which needs a great deal of assistance with reversing the democratic backsliding.

That said, EU officials repeatedly said that ‘Georgia has established a solid basis for further alignment with the EU acquis’ and that ‘once a number of priorities have been addressed, it should be granted candidate status.’ The EU is committed to supporting Georgia on its European path but joining the organisation is not a remedy for Georgia’s domestic problems. On the contrary, to have a chance of getting closer to the EU membership Georgia wants so much, it needs to first deal with its issues and then ask the EU to re-evaluate its application.

About the author

Katarzyna Rybarczyk is a political correspondent for Immigration Advice Service,  an immigration law firm operating globally and providing legal aid to forcibly displaced persons. She covers humanitarian issues and conflicts.

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