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Georgia needs Europe’s Normative Force

Georgia’s perennial dilemma is whether it can survive as an independent state and pursue its sovereign choices in the context of great power competition characteristic to the region.
As a small state struggling for survival, it tended to rely and to a degree idealize the potency of a benign political force that could come to its rescue and provide safe normative as well as political framework for its independent existence. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West in general and the EU in particular with its multilateral, deliberative decision-making structures seemed to be the incarnation of such a force.

There are good reasons for that. Firstly, the EU defines itself as a normative power, which is guided by values and principles as opposed to a geopolitical power driven purely by interests. Secondly, limitations notwithstanding, the EU has been the single greatest contributor to the strengthening of multilateralism and rules-based relations between states and promoting compliance to international norms and principles. These help guarantee security and sovereignty of small states, who otherwise are exposed to predatory instincts of great powers.

Power of norms vs balance of power

The end of the Cold War was followed by a short period of normative renaissance. Instruments protecting fundamental rights and freedoms were refined and the international consensus hardened around the principle of non-violability of borders through external interference. This has until recently, served as the basis for peaceful and stable post-Cold War international order, benefitting, among others, newly independent states such as Georgia.

That normative renaissance is long over. Moreover, the existing post-Cold War consensus about the basic principles of international law has been seriously undermined by wars in Georgia and then in Ukraine. In both cases, internationally recognized borders have been forcefully violated by one and the same state, which claims to be a regional hegemon. With the weakening of the international normative consensus, existential threats facing Georgia and the risks to the regional stability substantially increase.

In this context, the presence and most importantly the projected strength of the EU as a benign, normative power is not just important but it is a lifeline for countries such as Georgia. It provides permissive conditions for us to develop in the way we want to, to pursue policy options of our own choosing and to break away from the post-Soviet political logic of “might is right” that still dominates the region. The weakening of the EU, real or perceived, would have far-reaching consequences for us all.

This is why Brexit was such a bad news for Georgia. It created the perception of the EU as a polity left doubting its own resilience and power of attraction, looking increasingly inwards and struggling with internal challenges, including the lack of unity on matters of fundamental interest, be it internal or foreign.

By contrast, we have a neighbour which is increasingly aggressive and self-assured, that considers itself to have historic, privileged right to exercise uncontested influence over the region. It wants this right recognized and respected by others, finding the EUs growing presence in the neighbourhood as an unwelcome competition. It is a zero-sum approach to international relations, whereby stakes are raised high and all means, including military are being deployed.

In this context, the challenge for the EU is to uphold international norms and principles, including the right of states to make sovereign choices; to defend its own strategic interests in the neighbourhood, including stabilization through democratization; and at the same time, reduce tensions and ease the confrontation with Russia. Managing these tasks simultaneously is challenging, if not impossible.

From the perspective of small states in the neighbourhood such as Georgia, it is essential that the EU remains a normative force that is committed to advance rules-based relations between states as opposed to those based on a simple balance of power.

Europe should do so not out of altruism or some kind of an abstract moral good but firstly out of concern for its own integrity and identity, since norms are not only what the EU does but also and fundamentally so, what it is.

It is also in the interest of international peace and stability. International norms are essential for maintaining predictability in the international system and thus invaluable when it comes to the promotion of sustainable peace and security.

Georgia’s European choice

Georgia made its sovereign choice to moor itself to Europe long time ago. We are committed to it against all odds and despite painful losses. This choice is not only about our country’s foreign policy orientation, but also about the way we want our country to be governed, the way we see social and political relations evolve and develop in domestic affairs. This is why Association Agreement is so important for us. It is the most tangible manifestation of Georgia’s European choice.

There is a strong public consensus that underpins this choice. We may talk about the rise of euro-sceptical forces, about Russian propaganda, which precisely aims to undermine this consensus but there is nothing specific to Georgia in this. What is specific is that a great majority of the Georgian public, an exceptional majority out of all Eastern Partnership countries, believes that Europe is Georgia’s destiny both in terms of identity and in terms of security.

For a country which the EU initially did not even consider as its neighbour, having a treaty of the scale and ambition as the Association Agreement is a real achievement. Most importantly, and I wish to underline this, it is a reciprocal commitment. We are used to Georgia wanting this and that, and the EU (and NATO for that matter) saying not yet, not now. Some even described it as reciprocity deficit. The Association Agreement with the DCFTA is the biggest contribution to filling up of this deficit.

Visa liberalisation was another such reciprocal commitment. It was a very effective instrument in mobilising Georgian government and public services to undertake structural reforms not only in relevant fields such as document security, border control, migration policy, etc. but also more widely, including civil service reform, good governance and anti-discrimination. It has been confirmed both by the commission and by the European parliament that Georgia has stood by its side of the bargain and fulfilled all the benchmarks in a way that no further questions remained. Now it is up to the EU to deliver and to once again demonstrate that true to its normative nature, the EU policies are merit based, case specific and criteria based.

It is also worth noting that visa liberalisation is an important complement to the AA/DCFTA. It will contribute to its effective implementation and ultimately to its success. These two instruments together form an essential stepping stone for Georgia towards further approximation and ultimately integration in the EU. Keeping European and Euro-Atlantic integration high on the agenda, keeping it as an ultimate objective; even without formal membership perspective, is a strong motivating and transformative factor.

It works not because Georgia is driven by the ultimate carrot of membership, which is not there anyway, but because it is driven by public desire and a growing local expectation that Georgia should be a European style institutional democracy.

Perhaps in a reversal of a traditional accession paradigm, Georgia will have to first succeed in consolidating its democracy and state institutions and only after – in recognition of its achievement – hope to receive the membership perspective. Georgia’s success would be the EU’s major contribution to the regional security and stability and ultimately to the widening of the zone of peace and prosperity beyond its current limits.

Ambassador Natalie Sabanadze, Head of the Georgian Mission to the European Union, Ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg

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