There’s much that Europeans and the U.S. can do to lure Georgia from the authoritarian sirens, even though EU membership is a long way off.
On February 23, the Georgian government ordered police to carry out a violent raid on the offices of the country’s main opposition political party, leading to the arrest of its leader Nika Melia. This brazen behavior has elicited concern abroad, including the European Union (EU), which released a statement underlining the importance of “political stability” and “an inclusive parliamentary process” for Georgia’s future relationship with the EU. Some Georgia-watchers have emphasized the negative effects of this worrying development for Georgia’s future European relationship. Yet such analysis is based on an overly optimistic premise: at least when it comes to the EU, this path was already de facto blocked.
Since 2009, relations between Georgia and the European Union have developed within the framework of the Eastern Partnership (EaP). As a member of the EaP, Georgia has succeeded in forging closer ties with the EU in a number of important domains, as evidenced by the 2014 EU-Georgia Association Agreement (including a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area) and the 2017 regulation on visa liberalization. These steps fueled hopes among many that the country was heading toward eventual EU accession, with Georgian President Salome Zourabishvili even recently announcing plans to apply for full membership as soon as 2024.
Yet despite Georgia’s keen interest in joining the EU, its prospects for success are grim. Indeed, this recent deepening of relations should not be mistaken for a sign that membership is on the horizon. On the contrary, the EU has avoided linking its various forms of cooperation with Georgia to the accession process: neither the Eastern Partnership nor the Association Agreement, for example, references the prospect of eventual membership in the bloc.
This omission is quite deliberate, reflecting the prevailing mood currently surrounding the EU enlargement agenda. After the “big bang” enlargement rounds of the early 2000s, a widespread sense of fatigue set in as the EU struggled to successfully integrate more than a dozen new countries into its ranks. One particularly grave concern is the erosion of the rule of law that has occurred in member states such as Hungary and Poland. As the recent arrest of Melia makes abundantly clear, Georgia too continues to struggle in this area. The EU is sure to remain wary of welcoming another country with endangered democratic institutions any time soon.
Enlargement has also stalled due to the EU’s preoccupation with managing the numerous exogenous shocks that have struck during recent years. From the financial and refugee crises to Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic, the EU has needed to dedicate the majority of its political energy to addressing these overlapping crises. In many cases, they have revealed or added to the significant discord between member states. In an effort to reconcile these rifts, it has been necessary for the European integration process to undergo a fundamental shift in focus from “widening” to “deepening”.
Even if the EU were to once again devote its attention to enlargement, Georgia would be far from first in line. Countries in the western Balkans will receive priority since their geographical location means they are surrounded by existing EU members. This is evident in both the EU’s actions and rhetoric – having already begun the accession process for the majority of western Balkan states, including most recently Albania and North Macedonia in March 2020, EU officials have periodically reaffirmed their commitment to integrating the entire region. Any consideration of membership for Georgia or other EaP nations is highly unlikely until this process is complete. And given the glacial pace of western Balkan enlargement thus far, such a prospect seems very far off.
All things considered, the outlook for Georgia’s EU ambitions seems quite bleak. Yet even if the EU is unwilling to admit Georgia anytime soon, there may exist avenues to further enhance the bilateral relationship short of full membership. For instance, the EU could create opportunities for EaP nations that desire closer ties with the bloc to strengthen economic cooperation in sectors such as transport and energy.
Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova have already expressed their interest in such a partnership, pushing for an “EU+3” format that would distinguish them from EaP countries that wish to keep greater distance from the EU. The EU could also allow Georgia to cooperate more closely on defense issues, for instance by granting it third-country participant status within the PESCO defense-cooperation framework and the European Defense Fund. Finally, other Euro-Atlantic institutions such as NATO could pursue a closer partnership with Georgia in order to tie it more closely to the West.
From a Western perspective, Georgia remains a key country within the context of global strategic competition. Russia continues to exert major influence upon Georgia through its occupations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, despite the Georgian population’s largely unfavorable view of the Kremlin. Meanwhile, China is becoming an increasingly significant player in the country, granting Georgia a central position within its Belt and Road Initiative. If the West wishes to contest this authoritarian influence, it must not give up on Georgia – while the country is now at a political crossroads, it is not yet lost for good.
Photo: Georgia's President Salome Zurabishvili attends a meeting with European Council President Charles Michel in Tbilisi, Georgia March 1, 2021. Credit: Georgian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS
March 10, 2021