Author: Natalie Sabanadze is Cyrus Vance Visiting Professor in International Relations at Mount Holyoke College. She was the Head of Georgian Mission to the EU from 2013 to 2021.
Georgia needs to build an irrefutable moral case for membership in the EU. It should demonstrate to its partners that Georgia is a European democracy both structurally and culturally and that denying it a perspective is neither justified nor just. It may be naïve to claim that this would be a sufficient condition, but it is a precondition.
There is a widespread belief among the Georgian public that the European Union is Georgia’s political destiny. It is the choice that Georgia has made against the odds of history and of geography, and for which it has shown readiness to pay the price. Now Georgia’s political leaders must convince the EU that the destiny is shared, and that benefits are mutual.
Georgia’s ruling party declared that it intends to apply for EU membership in 2024. It could be dangerous to put a specific date to a long-term strategic goal, as a part of the short-term pre-election campaign. But arguably, it could also serve as a mobilizing objective, pushing forward much-needed reforms.
Yet, since that declaration was made, the country has been plunged into a prolonged political crisis, which has cast shadow on the readiness of the Georgian political elite to deliver on their promise.
In contrast to Georgia, where a broad consensus exists about the country’s European future, there is no consensus among the EU member states that Georgia should be given a membership perspective. Equally though, there is no agreement that such perspective should be explicitly denied, either.
While far from being ideal, this ambiguity is better than a clarity of rejection. It leaves hope that with right efforts and a bit of luck, the consensus could slowly be consolidated.
However, if Georgia is to apply unprepared, it risks the rejection which would be much harder to reverse. The preparation, in turn, entails an understanding of the evolving political context within the EU and adapting one’s integration policies accordingly.
In the current context, two inter-related factors seem to be defining the way the EU perceives future contenders like Georgia: the growing disillusionment with the enlargement, and the “return of geopolitics.”
Despite it being seen as a clear success in earlier days, today the enlargement process is often framed in the context of the fatigue and disillusionment. Democratic backsliding in some of the EU member states has raised questions about the depth and sustainability of the EU-driven transformation, as well as about the utility of the enlargement to the overall European project. The differences among the EU27 have not been overcome. A multi-speed, multi-track EU is becoming a reality.
This begs the question, whether the less cohesive and more divided EU could fare well in the changing world, which is increasingly defined by the geopolitical competition. The annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine – that followed the signing of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement – made it painfully clear to the EU that its eastern neighborhood was hotly contested. This increased the perceived geopolitical costs of the EU’s engagement in the east, making the EU more cautious about promises, wary of unintended foreign policy consequences these may entail.
Under these circumstances, a traditional model of accession – offering the association perspective, followed by the drawn-out accession process, chapter by chapter – may no longer be feasible, or reasonable.
In a reversal of the paradigm, Georgia may have to first get ready for the membership and use this readiness to consolidate the political will for the membership perspective. To succeed, it has to perform better than prospective candidates, demonstrating dedication for reform and ability to match the EU average, particularly when it comes to democratic governance, the rule of law, and respect for fundamental rights.
Despite the growing sensitivity to geopolitical realities, the EU remains a community of values. Georgia, therefore, must show that it is a European democracy both in essence and in form. It must develop in a way that would make it morally unjustifiable for skeptics to keep the EU doors closed.
Only once this precondition is met, and we still have a long way to go, Georgia can make its geopolitical case convincing, too. It can show that democratic Georgia can add value to Europe in the context of growing power-political contestation.