Georgia should be Granted EU Candidate Status
Professor, Jean Monnet Chair, Batumi Shota Rustaveli State University
On March 3, 2022, Georgia applied for EU membership. The country originally intended to apply by 2024, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has accelerated the process. The first part of the self-assessment questionnaire on EU membership was handed over to Georgia on April 11, 2022, and the second part on April 29. The Government of Georgia submitted the answer to the first part of the questionnaire on EU membership on May 3, 2022, and the second part on May 10, 2022. The first part of the EU Questionnaire consisted of 369 questions and focused on democracy, the rule of law, public administration, human rights, international obligations, regional and economic issues. The second part of the questionnaire, which consisted of up to 2300 questions, dealt with sectoral issues and compatibility with EU legislation by sectors. The purpose of the questionnaire is to assess the country’s compliance with the Copenhagen criteria, which includes meeting the political, economic, administrative and institutional criteria. Due to the current political situation, Georgia, like Ukraine and Moldova, had to complete the questionnaire and submit it to the EU in a relatively short period of time.
Georgia has a long history of cooperation with the European Union, but a special stage in this relationship was adoptionof the Association Agreement in 2016. Following the entry into force of this important document, a new action plan for Georgia’s integration into the EU was defined, which envisages the implementation of fundamental reforms in many areas. It can be said that Georgia has always been one of the best countries in the Eastern Partnership in terms of implementing reforms, as well as between members of the Associated Trio formed in 2021 in many areas. Nevertheless, as the current processes indicate, it is possible for Georgia to be granted EU candidate status under different conditions. The formation of such a position in the EU is a logical consequence of the policy pursued by the Georgian government towards the EU in recent years. Such a position was also influenced by the Georgian government’s inappropriate, passive response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which led to thousands of Georgian citizens protesting strongly against the government.
Remarks on Georgia have been made over the years by the EU, which has been published in the annual reports on the implementation of the Association Agreement and is well known to the Georgian authorities. The EU’s position on Georgia’s European integration process was also periodically reflected in reports prepared by European Parliament’s research centers, in various reports or statements by MEPs, the European Commission. One such recent report was published in 2022 by the European Parliament Research Center. The report made serious remarks about Georgia, but the Georgian government claimed that it was not an official position of the European Parliament. A similar report was prepared in 2018 and at that time the Georgian government had an almost similar position. 
The remarks made in the reports towards Georgia always serve to eliminate the shortcomings that the country has in the areas of rule of law, democracy, human rights and other important areas. The preparation of such reports is a routine work process under the Association Agreement. However, the Georgian government has not always been constructive in its recommendations to the EU and, conversely, has often criticized the EU itself. For example, in response to the EU recommendations, the Prime Minister of Georgia said that “the MEP is not my leader, our leader is the Georgian people.” “If they (MEPs) are really interested in finding out the situation and the essence of the case, they should find out and not make superficial statements.” Moreover, he said, “We went through 4 waves of judicial reform, which actually made it accountable and opened up this system. “The current judicial system in Georgia is much ahead of the current judicial system in the current EU member states.”
EU criticism of Georgia related to reforms to be implemented by the Georgian government in accordance with the agreement reached between the political parties mediated by the EU on April 19, 2021,  which was left by the ruling party in July 2021. In addition, on August 31, 2021, the Prime Minister of Georgia refused to receive 75 million euros in macro-financial assistance from the European Union when he said that the country seems to have economic growth and wants to reduce its foreign debt. At the same time, the chairman of the ruling party said that everything is up to the EU, the Georgian dream will act in accordance with the objective interests of the country and strategic partners, and the assessment of the EU refusal of financial assistance will be full speculation. The government’s decision was linked to a lack of real reform, and the President of the European Council even publicly stated that under the agreement, the precondition for providing macro-financial assistance was the implementation of reforms. From that day, the Georgian government continued to criticize the EU, the government did not recognize the existing problems, especially in the field of rule of law and ensuring the independence of the judiciary.
On 8 June 2022, the European Parliament adopted a resolution „European Parliament resolution on violations of media freedom and the safety of journalists in Georgia“. The European Parliament calls on the Georgian authorities to adhere to the highest standards of democracy, the rule of law, judicial independence, a fair trial and fundamental freedoms, including in the area of media freedom, and to make a clear political decision on the ambitious European aspirations of the Georgian people. March 3, 2022 Application for EU Membership; The European Parliament believes in the resolution that the legitimate aspirations of the Georgian people deserve to be fulfilled and therefore calls on the EU institutions to work for the granting of EU candidate status to Georgia in accordance with Article 49 of the EU Treaty, on the condition that the Georgian government fulfills all criteria.
The European Parliament also adopted the amendments to the resolution, according to which the European Parliament expresses its concern over the destructive role played by the sole oligarch, Bidzina Ivanishvili, in Georgia’s politics and economy, and the level of control he exerts over the government and its decisions, including those on the politically motivated persecution of journalists and political opponents; is deeply worried by Ivanishvili’s exposed personal and business links to the Kremlin, which determine the position of the current Government of Georgia towards sanctions on Russia; calls on the Council and democratic partners to consider imposing personal sanctions on Ivanishvili for his role in the deterioration of the political process in Georgia.
The European Parliament resolution was met with different reactions from the Georgian government, the opposition, non-governmental organizations and citizens. We are particularly concerned about the part of the resolution where the European Parliament expresses its belief that the legitimate aspirations of the Georgian people deserve to be fulfilled and calls on the EU institutions to work for the granting of EU candidate status to Georgia, in accordance with Article 49 of the EU Treaty, on the basis of merit and provided that the Government of Georgia meets all the criteria. Although the European Parliament does not decide whether to nominate a candidate for the country, it is the highest political body in Europe, with 705 members from 27 different countries, European political parties, reflecting political sentiments and influencing European Council decisions. A similar entry in the resolution means that the Georgian government has not fulfilled its obligations and is facing a deterioration in the field of rule of law, democracy and human rights in the country.
What is the reaction of the Georgian government to the EU response? Unfortunately, the Georgian government, instead of acknowledging the existing shortcomings and taking steps to correct them, is making statements against the European choice of the Georgian people. The chairman of the Georgian Dream, Irakli Kobakhidze, criticized the resolution adopted by the European Parliament, saying that the document has “nothing in common with European values and this sort of resolution, I’ll say it directly, is not worth a dime”. In his words, the resolution can be seen as a hint that, unlike Ukraine and Moldova, Georgia may not be granted EU candidate status. “This will be a completely illogical and unjust decision, to which all people interested in peace, the rule of law, and economic progress in Georgia will have their reaction”. Dimitri Khundadze, a member of the Georgian Parliament from the ruling party and chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Health and Social Affairs, said: “If Georgia receives the status of an EU candidate with unjust commitments like the unjust allegations reflected in the resolution, then the country should give a fair refusal in response.” According to Khundadze, yesterday was an insult to the Georgian people and he has never seen such an unjust Europe during the period of Georgia’s independence”.
Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has vowed to “lift the curtain on everything and tell everything to our people” if the EU decision on Georgia’s candidate status will be “unfair” and “offensive to our country and people.”According to him, “The Candidate status is important, but we will wait until June 23-24 to understand the attitude that our true European friends actually have towards our people and country. We are a self-respecting nation, we are one of the oldest civilizations in the world, with an ancient culture and very cool, proud people.” Further, PM Garibashvili dismissed the resolution as “politically biased” and lambasted MEPs for showing “irresponsible and offensive [attitude] to our people, 80% of whom are in favor of joining Europe.” “This is outrageous because they have shown complete irresponsibility towards our country and its citizens.” Gharibashvili also said that „Candidate status is symbolic, of course, important, but symbolic, I still have hope, I maintain this optimism that a sensible decision will be made in Europe, which is also in Europe’s interests and ours, not Russia’s. Of course, this status is very good, but the main axis and guide is the Association Agreement, the visa-free regime, free trade … This attitude, which unfortunately was showed 300 people, the MEP, is irresponsible and offensive to 80% of our people who are in favor of the unification of our country in Europe. Such an answer is manipulation and evasion of responsibility from the citizens of Georgia. We should remind the Prime Minister of Georgia that the remarks made in the European Parliament resolution are related to the non-fulfillment of the Association Agreement.
Despite the current situation, the European Parliament resolution does not mean that the EU will finally refuse to grant Georgia the status of a candidate for EU membership. It is still time for the government to show political will, to be faithful to its obligations and to take certain steps. Such steps could include, for example, the release of Nika Gvarami, the director of the “Mtavari Arkhi” mentioned in the resolution, as well as allowing Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to receive medical treatment abroad, present the results of the July 5 investigation, take action against Russian disinformation etc. I think that if there is the appropriate political will, the Georgian government can really take these steps until June 23-24, before the European Council decides on the status of EU candidate for Georgia. In this case, the government is obliged to be guided by the choice of the Georgian people, when according to recent polls, 83% of the population supports Georgia’s European integration. The political choice of the Georgian people is also enshrined in the Constitution of Georgia, where Article 78 states: “The constitutional bodies shall take all measures within the scope of their competences to ensure the full integration of Georgia into the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.” This constitutional norm binds the government and obliges it to act in accordance with the aspirations of the Georgian people towards European integration.
It is clear that the government will not be able to make substantial changes in the short term, although it can show due readiness. The government can, for example, adopt a resolution of the Parliament of Georgia in response to the resolution of the European Parliament and reaffirm its readiness to continue European integration, express its will, determine the plan of what steps it will take in the near future. The resolution would also be joined by the opposition, and it would send a clear message to the EU that despite the strong polarization in Georgia, differing views, the government and the opposition are united in their strategic goal – a European future. Georgian non-governmental organizations have even called on the government to adopt a similar resolution. The citizens of Georgia, regardless of their political views and political affiliation, must also state our clear position. It is good that the action is planned for June 20 in St. This is exactly what Tbilisi and its main message should be. All parties and public movements that support Georgia’s European future should take part in the action. Fixing a public position is important. In February 2022, a pro-Ukrainian stance by citizens at a protest in Tbilisi forced the Georgian government to apply for EU membership and, on the other hand, showed Europe our commitment to European integration. If the Georgian government, the opposition and the citizens manage to establish such a clear position, it will inevitably have an impact on the decision-making process in the Council of Europe.
The Government of Georgia has full responsibility for Georgia’s European integration and the current situation, however, I think the opposition also has a responsibility. During all this period, the opposition had to be active, work with the EU institutions, the governments of the member states, set a political agenda and unite the Georgian citizensaround one main goal – Georgia’s European integration. Unfortunately, the opposition failed to create such an agenda and even today they do not seem to make enough efforts on their part at such a critical moment for the country.
Despite the European Parliament resolution, the actions of the Georgian government, it is important for the EU itself not to separate Georgia from other members of the Association Trio and not to leave it without candidate status. Today is probably not the time to talk about which of these three countries has done better in fulfilling its commitments, which country has implemented better reforms, and which country is more deserving of EU candidate status. Undoubtedly, Ukraine’s struggle against Russia has had a significant impact on this process and created a different political context, giving Georgia an opportunity to take an important step on its path to EU membership. Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Georgia also endured a bloody war with Russia in 2008, in which 20% of Georgian territory is still occupied by the Russian Federation, borderization continues, and Georgian citizens are abducted and killed every day. After the war, Georgia pursued a policy of non-recognition of the occupied territories with the support of the European Union and continued to work closely with it. Despite the failures of the reform process in recent years, Georgia has implemented many reforms in the past that set an example for Ukraine and Moldova in leading the process of transforming their states. For their part, Ukraine and Moldova have made significant changes in recent years in various areas, holding democratic presidential and parliamentary elections, with pro-European parties winning, ousting oligarchs, and actively cooperating with the EU.
Therefore, despite the current actions of the Georgian government, the EU must take into account the will of the citizens of Georgia and grant Georgia the status of a candidate for EU membership. In making this decision, the EU must also take into account the frustration and growing anti-Western sentiment that may result in the rejection of candidate status in Georgian society, which will only strengthen Russia’s position. The EU should also take into account that Georgia’s secession from this process will negatively affect the EU’s own positions in the region, where Russia is trying to take its place and mark its sphere of influence. Europe must also remember how it encouraged Russian aggression in Georgia by refusing to grant Georgia a Membership Action Plan (MAP) at the 2008 NATO Bucharest Summit. In addition, the EU should also make clear recommendations to the Georgian government to meet its commitments in the near future.
I hope that the European Council will take into account the aspirations of the Georgian people and grant Georgia the status of a candidate for EU membership, which will be a historic chance for us to return to our natural place – Europe. After the decision of the European Union, the development of Georgia will depend on the Georgian society – we can force the current government to change its policy or we have to change the government and return to the clear path of European integration, clearly defined by the Georgian people.
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