Interview | EU Ambassador Pawel Herczyński
Georgia celebrates European days with events, roundtables, public lectures, concerts, and other events. The relations between Georgia and the European Union have acquired a special significance and focus recently, as Georgia’s European Union membership aspirations were accepted last year. In a rare and powerful demonstration of unity, Georgians took to the streets in March against the Russia-inspired foreign agents’ law, which would have possibly shelved the hopes for the EU candidacy. With the latest polls indicating that the support for EU membership is close to 87%, the nation is hoping for the candidacy by the end of this year.
Civil Georgia has approached Ambassador Pawel Herczyński, Head of the EU Delegation in Georgia, who took up the job as top EU diplomat in Georgia six months ago. We wanted to know what has been driving the partnership between the EU and Georgia throughout the years and what Georgia must do to make one more step toward membership by the end of the year.
Civil Georgia: EU and Georgia have come a long way since the 1990s when Georgia restored its independence. What do you think has been the main motivator/driver in developing these relations from both the EU side and the Georgian side?
Ambassador Herczyński: The motivator for developing EU-Georgia relations has always been the Georgian people. I feel overwhelmed when I see the high percentage of EU support from the Georgian population. Of course, this also has to do with Georgia’s continuous strife for ending the Soviet past and transforming into a modern, independent, European state. We know that Georgia paid a high price for its independence; the trauma of the brutal dispersal of a peaceful rally on 9 April  is very much alive in the hearts of Georgians. Georgia is the first non-Baltic state which gained independence after the referendum of 1991, in which 99.5% voted for independence. This figure speaks for itself. The EU-Georgia relations have indeed come a long way and have developed from donor-beneficiary relations to a solid partnership. And since last June, Georgia has been an enlargement country.
As to the motivators for the European Union – it has probably been the speed and success of Georgia’s transformation during the past 30 years. From the day of its foundation, the EU has been enlarging and, despite challenges, continues to be an important force for peace and prosperity in Europe and worldwide. The EU tries to bring peace and prosperity to its partners and, by doing so, ensures that we have a predictable world based on international norms. The EU and Georgia have signed an Association Agreement that includes a free trade area, and a visa-free regime, and I really hope that our relations move forward and Georgia is granted candidate status. For this, the time to act is now.
A lot of Georgians do not know that the EU is the largest donor to Georgia, as well as a crucial supporter of non-recognition and reconciliation policies. What directions of EU support are, in your view, the most crucial, and what effect have they had on Georgia’s development so far?
As you may know, the European Union has been supporting reforms throughout the country and Georgian society for a very long time. Since the Association Agreement, much concrete work has been done to bring Georgia and the country’s legislation closer to the European Union. It is difficult to focus on a few “most crucial” areas. Still, I do want to highlight our immense support for business, especially women-led businesses, work on a green and healthy environment, education and opportunities for young people across the country, work on reducing regional disparities, and of course, investment in infrastructure projects, including under the Economic and Investment Plan.
I can list a number of concrete benefits for the tens of thousands of Georgian citizens who have developed new skills through one of our programs or received modern equipment through another, or traveled to the European Union thanks to visa liberalization.
But I would like to focus on one aspect of our cooperation with Georgia. Thanks to reforms linked to the Association Agreement, over 8000 standards have already been aligned. This sounds rather technical, but it means that there are specific European standards are already benefiting Georgia’s citizens, including food safety and energy efficiency. We continue working together with our partners on introducing ever more European standards in Georgia for the benefit of Georgian citizens.
As regards our policy of non-recognition and engagement, the EU fully supports Georgia´s territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders. This support is unquestionable. And we do so with practical means. Politically, with our EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus and with the EU Monitoring Mission, the only international civilian mission on the ground. And operationally, with our programs and projects to build people-to-people contacts and contribute to reconciliation.
Do you agree with the view that the EU should have embraced Georgia and other Associated Trio countries – Moldova and Ukraine – and should have opened the European perspective for them earlier? In your view, what was the key factor holding the EU back on that decision before the renewal of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine?
The EU has a well-regulated framework for cooperation with third countries. The EU and Georgia signed an Association Agreement in June 2014, including the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA). It has since been the basis of the EU-Georgia bilateral relationship. The agreement promotes political association, economic integration, and respect for common values. The DCFTA attached to it gives Georgian businesses preferential access to the EU market. Visa-free travel to the Schengen area for Georgian citizens holding biometric passports has been effective since March 2017. With the Association Agreement, Georgia committed to certain reforms in the judicial sector, improving human rights, introducing proper public administration reform, and others. While being an associated country does entail a certain vision of a rapprochement with the EU, it does not entail a prospect of enlargement.
Georgia had never applied for EU candidate status before 2022 and had, in December 2021, announced its intention to do so, earliest in 2024. Therefore, we cannot say that anything was holding the EU back in opening the European perspective for Georgia. Any country aspiring to join the EU must commit to Copenhagen criteria: it must have achieved stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and respect for minorities. It must have a functioning market economy, as well as the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and the market forces within the EU. And finally, it must be able to take on and effectively implement the obligations of EU membership, including adherence to the aims of the political, economic, and monetary union.
EU-Georgia Association Agreement has helped us to fulfill these objectives. I hope that now that Georgia is one of the enlargement countries, the progress toward reforms will be quicker.
Georgia is at a critical juncture of its history, having a chance that it has been denied for centuries – to institutionally become a part of the post-WWII European project of peace and prosperity. What will be the events/actions that might tip the scales towards a definitive yes or no decision on the candidacy? How did the recent attempts of the government to – for example – attempt to impose the law on “foreign agents” affect those chances, and what would be the consequence of the attempts to introduce similarly restrictive legislation, say against the media, under the banner of “banning gender propaganda” or “protecting the religious feelings”?
Indeed, this is a historic moment for Georgia. It has the chance to become a member of the European Union. The 27 Member States of the EU will have to decide this December based on the progress made by the Georgian authorities on the twelve priorities set by the European Commission last year. That is why this moment in time is so important. Georgia has a very clear “action plan” that has to be fully addressed. Regarding your question, the tenth of the twelve priorities that Georgia needs to address to be eligible for candidate status is the involvement of civil society in decision-making processes at all levels. This is and will be closely monitored by Georgia’s European partners when EU Member States Ministers make the decision about granting the candidate status in December 2023.
A few days ago, the EU Council adopted a new framework for targeted restrictive measures that allow the EU to impose sanctions on persons responsible for actions that undermine or threaten the sovereignty and independence of the Republic of Moldova, as well as its democracy, the rule of law, stability or security, with a particular focus on corruption. Given the restrictions imposed by the US State Department on four members of the Georgian judiciary, what are the chances of the EU developing a framework for Georgia similar to that of Moldova? What political and institutional decisions would need to be taken?
Just to be clear, the recently adopted restrictive measures by the Council refer to the Republic of Moldova, and every time such measures are adopted, they are based on the circumstances of the country in question and on very solid grounds. Any decision of a similar kind has to be based on a detailed assessment, and measures cannot be transposed or duplicated. This is not a “one size fits all” approach.
The EU has a very solid and sound procedure to decide whether or not to impose any sanction, and sanctions are seen as a last resort tool once all other diplomatic options have failed. For any sanction to be imposed, there must be very solid and sound legal grounds, and it has to be agreed by the 27 EU Member States.
As to the issue of corruption, which is part of the 12 priorities (Priority 4), we trust that the work on the implementation of this priority will bring the necessary elements into policymaking that would enable more transparency, better oversight mechanisms, and more efficient handling of cases of corruption. For the moment, we see that the Parliament has created the Anti-Corruption Bureau, and time will tell about its efficiency in fighting against corruption.
I would also like to recall that the EU has been working with the Georgian government on systemic reform of the judiciary for some years now. There have been positive results, such as improved access to justice, more efficient handling of cases, and other achievements. And we do hope that this can serve as a basis for further, more fundamental reforms. EU is open to offering further assistance on this.
You have already spent quite some time in Georgia. Have your impressions of Georgia and Georgians changed since you first arrived, and how?
I think I mentioned in one of the interviews that Georgia was the only country I applied for the post of an EU Ambassador. And I am happy I did. I really wanted to be in a place where history is made. I wanted to work together with the Georgian people to fulfill their dream of a European future. I am not only an EU official but also a Polish diplomat, so I have a lot of experience to share from my years at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs when Poland was applying for the EU.
A bit more than six months have passed since I arrived in Georgia, and I am still discovering new facets of this unique, beautiful, and very diverse country. While the beauty of Georgia resides in its diversity, I also notice that the differences of opinions sometimes prevent Georgians from moving on, leaving old wounds and embracing new friendships. I hope that the beautiful values of hospitality and tolerance, which Georgia has nurtured over centuries, will guide the people of today toward a truly peaceful, stable, and European Georgia.
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