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Opinion | No Candidacy: EU’s Fatal Error?

Jelger Groeneveld is a Dutch foreign policy analyst of East Europe and the South Caucasus..

Last week the European Commission released an analysis of the European alignment of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia in the EU acquis’ 32 chapters in 6 clusters.

The overall picture shows Georgia has progressed the most in its alignment, if we consider the totality of all areas. Although, across the board, it scores rather average and does not excel. The report confirms, however, the earlier analysis by the World Justice Project that Georgia, when compared to Ukraine and Moldova, is technically the most advanced for a candidate status.

The report also confirms that the decision to grant candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, bypassing Georgia, was not merit-based as per the EU-acquis, but a political one based on empathy and sympathy, a reflection of the political atmosphere in Tbilisi and its tense relationship with Brussels.

Instead of incentivizing Georgia with its twelve conditions for candidacy, the EU has accelerated a Georgian exit from EU approximation.

Series of unfortunate events

In the last few years, a lot has happened politically in Georgia, with democratic reforms and its relationship with Brussels.

Gavrilov Night

Retrospectively, the infamous “Gavrilov night” in June 2019 might have served as a symbolic turning point. On that day, Sergei Gavrilov, Deputy Speaker of the Russian State Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament, was allowed to sit in the parliament speaker’s chair in Tbilisi to the dismay of many, triggering a public protest that cost the Speaker and the ruling party faction chief their posts.

The consecutive political crises that followed, saw both US and EU mediation efforts frustrated as the Georgian government proved unwilling to compromise with the opposition and international interlocutors.

First came the crisis after “Gavrilov night” when the opposition demanded snap elections and electoral reforms heading towards the parliamentary elections of 2020. The Georgian Dream promised to transition to a fully proportional system when it passed the constitutional reforms of 2017. But then it reneged on its commitment and delayed the transition from 2020 to 2024, to the annoyance of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe. Only months before the 2020 elections, the ruling party grudgingly accepted a compromise under international pressure that allowed for a transition towards a more proportional system – but stopped short of the fully proportional representation that the opposition demanded.

2020 Parliament Boycott

Saying the 2020 elections were rigged in the ruling party’s favor, most of the opposition coalesced behind the boycott of the parliament, triggering a prolonged political crisis that was only put to rest with the victory of the Georgian Dream in local elections a year later.

In the meantime, the Georgian Dream government exposed its autocratic tendencies by proposing anti-democratic measures such as defunding parties as punishment for their boycott and threatening to abolish the registration of the main opposition party, UNM, only to be stopped by the EU and US. The hardliner Irakli Garibashvili was installed as prime minister in February 2021, and the Georgian government stepped up its confrontation with the US and EU.

EU grappling for purchase

The European Union initially succeeded in getting the ruling party to commit to democratic reforms and power-sharing with the opposition during the election boycott. The so-called “April 19 agreement” was achieved through the personal facilitation of the EU Council President Charles Michel, but it was torn up by the Georgian Dream only a few months later, a slap in the face of the EU.

On top of this, the Georgian government has shown a fundamental unwillingness to tackle judicial reforms, which the EU demanded through the implementation of the Association Agreement.

In trying to gain leverage for these reforms, the EU connected them to a financial package for supporting the measures to combat COVID-19. In the summer of 2021, the EU indicated it would not transfer the second tranche of the assistance, only to see the Georgian government publicly reject it, saying it wanted to limit the national debt. Only two weeks later, the government asked the Asian Development Bank for credit.

For many observers, this was a strong signal that the Georgian government had become insensitive to financial conditionality, which is one of the key EU mechanisms for incentivizing the rule of law and democratic reform. On top of it, the government’s inherent unwillingness to implement these reforms was apparent — until October 2020, the Georgian Dream governed with a constitutional majority, so there was no obstacle for it to pass the necessary legislation if it wished to do so.

Unplanned candidacy race

The Georgian Dream promised in the 2020 elections that it planned to apply for EU membership in 2024 – hoping to capitalize on its application for the next parliamentary elections. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine accelerated the dynamics of the associated trio – Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine – with the European Union. In March 2022, under pressure from Ukraine (and Moldova) application, Georgia (reluctantly) applied for the EU candidacy.

In June 2022, the European Union gave Georgia a “perspective to candidate status.” It imposed twelve conditions for obtaining candidate status, which it had already granted to Kyiv and Chisinau.

But does confining Georgia to the waiting room, as opposed to Ukraine and Moldova, serve the goal of welcoming Georgia to the European family one day?

Question of assumptions

The elephant in the room is whether the current Georgian government is interested in EU membership.

If the EU assumes that the Georgian Dream indeed wants to join, incentivizing the government could certainly help. But the past few years have shown a lack of political will to implement the fundamental rule of law reforms.

Alternatively, one could also assume that the Georgian government is essentially seeking a way to get rejected by the EU, which is the only way it can politically sell a non-candidacy and, eventually, a non-membership.

Seeing that over 80% of Georgians say they want to join the EU, to stay in power, Georgian Dream has to pretend it wants to bring Georgia to the EU, has to pretend it does everything the EU wants, and then blame any failure on the EU, saying “we did everything we could, but they don’t want us in for political reasons.”

If it manages to sell that to the Georgian public, then the rate of support for the EU is likely to drop off sharply, as Georgians are bound to be disappointed.

Now, usually, the government should not be able to pull this off, as the media would haunt them with critical questions. But seeing that it has successfully neutered the leading opposition TV channel, and now essentially dominates the national TV market, the skepticism is likely to be felt only in the capital.

What if?..

Assuming for a moment that this is indeed the cynical agenda of the Georgian government, we can’t help but conclude, that the EU has painted itself into the corner by imposing the twelve conditions to candidacy.

The EU has painted itself into the corner by imposing the twelve conditions to candidacy.

The EU has given Georgia roughly a year to address these conditions. The Georgian government has submitted various bills claiming to implement them. In fact, some of these documents do not address what the EU requires and could be construed as legal charades, giving just enough ground for the Georgian government to claim it has acted on what it was asked to do.

How will the EU respond if, and when, the adopted legislation does not match its expectations? Impose additional demands? Or would it grant the candidacy even if Georgia fails to deliver, knowing full well that the failure to act was possibly intentional? In both cases, Brussels is likely to disappoint its Georgian allies, and help those, who are at best ambiguous about “Europe of values.”

What’s EU’s next move?

Some assume the European Union would delay the decision on candidacy right up to the 2024 elections in Georgia, hoping for a change of government, or the external political context leading to the seachange in Tbilisi.

This kind of approach worked in the runup to the 2012 elections, when the EU set the orderly conduct those elections and a peaceful transfer of power in case of the opposition victory as a condition for finalizing the association process. To their credit, the United National Movement and Mikheil Saakashvili upheld their part of the deal in the end.

But there is no indication the EU has the political leverage to repeat that feat. The opposition is deeply divided and disorganized. With only 20 months left until the next elections, 61% of the voters say no party reflects their interests. The opposition is in disarray and no political agenda required to beat the Georgian Dream at the ballot is in sight.

Unconvincing charm offensive

In recent months, MPs from the Georgian Dream traveled extensively to convince their counterparts in the EU member states that Georgia is doing its best to fulfil the 12 conditions. A classic “charm offensive” was led by senior ruling party politicians accompanied by a few opposition MPs, to give an impression of unity. This could not hide fundamental flaws within the ruling party and their lack of understanding of why the country did not get the candidacy. When questioned, the GD representatives pointed to external causes such as “radical opposition” and “the hysterical media” for the failure.

Both Speaker Shalva Papuashvili and the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee MP Nikoloz Samkharadze visited the Netherlands on different occasions, and said the EU imposed vague recommendations that were impossible to quantify, such as “depolarisation” and “deoligarchization.” The deoligarchization demand was rebutted as an “unchartered legal territory” and both MPs fainted the lack of understanding of the reasons for such condition, as well as what it might mean in spirit, if not technically. They implied Georgia was treated unfairly, its progress assessed by some undefined criteria.

This was to obscure their own role in getting Georgia stuck in Europe’s antechamber: by their unwillingness to implement long-standing reforms and by playing hardball with Brussels. The European Union does not want another Hungary in its club, and Hungary is precisely what the Georgian government is increasingly mirroring. Visits to the EU capitals did nothing to dissipate that image. If anything, they rather strengthened it.

The European Union does not want another Hungary in its club, and Hungary is precisely what the Georgian government is increasingly mirroring.

The lack of willingness to comply with EU policies is not only limited to the dry legislative subjects but also spans foreign policy, such as the EU Global Human Rights sanctions regime. Georgia distances itself from participating in sanctions against Russia, stating it is exposed to Russian aggression while being under partial Russian occupation. This is generally taken in Europe as reasonable. The EU and the U.S. have not been pushing Georgia hard into more sanction compliance, despite accusations of some Georgian politicians to the contrary.

However, the recent EU analysis also indicates Georgia has not aligned with the sanction policy against Myanmar, a far-away country that poses no danger to Georgian national security or other national interests. Also, Georgia does not take part in sanctions against Belarus, with which it has a security cooperation pact aimed at exchanging information about individuals, such as emigrants or dissidents. This is a controversial policy, if we consider that many countries recognize Belarus as a repressive dictatorship, closely tied to the Kremlin and to which one cannot entrust such information.

Another case that indicates how determined and reckless the Georgian Dream is in undermining the European aspirations of the population is its treatment of former president Mikheil Saakashvili who has been imprisoned since his abrupt return to the country in October 2021. The case shows more than any other politically motivated persecution in Georgia that the authorities do not care about the personal fate of Saakashvili and nor they worry about the impact that his aggravated illness or ultimate demise may have on Georgia’s EU aspirations.

The authorities have issued no reassurances, that Saakashvili is guaranteed humanitarian treatment in compliance with international obligations. Nor there has been any openness to the possibility of his transfer abroad. Instead, the Georgian Dream leaders accuse European politicians of being enemies of Georgia when defending the legal and human rights of Saakashvili and others. This begs a question, whether the Georgian government recognizes its international obligations. It also shows the illiberal face of the government, and its willingness to gamble popular consensus on the EU membership for the partisan goals.

Attacking European politicians calling for humane treatment of Saakashvili, GD shows the illiberal face of the government, and its willingness to gamble popular consensus on the EU membership for the partisan goals.

The indications that the Georgian government turns towards its giant northern neighbor are growing every week. Signalling willingness to resume flights with Moscow, or ordering new metro cars for Tbilisi from Russia, when they can easily bought elsewhere, are just a few recent examples.

The EU choice to put Georgia in the waiting room for the candidacy gave the Georgian Dream the perfect pretext for turning away from the EU. And it is time to call that decision a failure. If the European Union grants the candidacy now, against the flagrant unwillingness of Tbilisi to honor its commitments or EU’s conditions, Brussels will inevitably lose credibility.

The EU choice to put Georgia in the waiting room for the candidacy gave the Georgian Dream the perfect pretext for turning away from the EU.

Granting the candidate status together with Ukraine and Moldova would not have fixed the fundamental governance issues of Georgia, but it would have indicated that Europe has revived its geopolitical interest towards the region, would have indicated that it expects Georgia to be its representative in the troubled region, and above all, recognized unambiguous aspirations of the Georgian people. The candidacy, after all, is just that – merely a starting point in a lengthy process of accession.

That opportunity was missed. Perhaps, the European Union made a fatal strategic mistake. And as Georgia drifts away, the Georgian people stand to lose.

The views and opinions expressed on opinions pages are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of editorial staff.


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