Georgia is awaiting the European Commission’s recommendation on granting it EU candidate status, which will be announced next month. This will be followed by the EU’s decision on the status, which will be taken by EU Member States in December. Both sides – Georgia and the EU – agree that this is a crucial time in their relationship. Ahead of HR/VP Josep Borrell’s visit to Georgia today, Civil.ge put a number of questions to the High Representative on pertinent issues for Georgia and the region.
- Dear High Representative/Vice President, welcome to Georgia. Your visit comes at a very important moment in EU-Georgia relations, just a few weeks ahead of the expected publication of the EU’s enlargement report on Georgia. What will be the main messages during your visit at this important time for EU-Georgia relations?
This is my first official visit as High Representative to Georgia. In this historic moment for EU-Georgia relations, this will be an excellent opportunity to discuss progress on Georgia’s European integration path and exchange views on wider foreign policy and regional matters. Georgia is an important partner for the EU, and I am here to reaffirm the EU’s commitment to supporting Georgia’s progress on its path to EU membership. We see that the vast majority of Georgia’s population strongly supports European integration. Georgian citizens are strongly committed to the EU values. This has been constant throughout the years. I come here also to mark the 15th anniversary of the establishment of the EU Monitoring Mission, which is a very tangible sign of the EU’s commitment to peace and stability in Georgia. My main message is: we care for Georgia, stand by Georgia and the country stands in front of a historic opportunity especially at this time. It is the responsibility of all actors, especially the government to make sure, this opportunity is used and not missed.
- GD government says that the 12 EU conditions have been largely met, what do you think the EC assessment will be? What do you consider to be the critical factors that will influence the outcome of the EU’s decision on Georgia’s candidate status?
Enlargement is a merit-based process. The “homework” is very clearly defined and the results depend on the delivery by the aspirant country. The European Commission already provided the so-called oral update on the progress made by Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova with the priorities set forward by the European Council last June. The work undertaken by Georgia has been acknowledged, but additional efforts are required.
In autumn, the European Commission will publish a much broader and more comprehensive report on all 10 countries that are in the EU accession process, including Georgia. This is an objective evaluation carried out by the Commission that will give a clear picture on where Georgia stands on reforms and make recommendations for the next year. The report serves as basis for an informed decision that the 27 EU leaders will make in December. Such decision is made unanimously. There’s little time left until these important decisions for Georgia’s future are made, this is why we strongly encourage the Georgian authorities to seize this opportunity. The outcome depends fully on Georgia’s merits. And it is not up to me to pre-empt now what will be in the report in autumn. I can only say that accession is hard work and that the delivery on all 12 priorities is just the beginning of a process.
- “Enlargement’ is no longer a dream” said the European Council President last week at the Bled Strategic Forum adding that the Union must be ready for the next enlargement by 2030. What is your assessment of this statement? Do you agree with it?
Indeed, the EU enlargement is no longer a dream. What is clear at this stage is that enlargement will always be a merit-based process. This means that a country will become a member when it fulfills the necessary political and economic criteria. At the same time, I think it is good to have a political target – a horizon – in order to give a political impetus to the process. And this also applies to us, the EU, because we too need to be prepared for an enlargement that could add 10 more members to the European Union. I think, proposing a kind of ‘time target’, could mobilize our energies and the energies of the candidate countries, but obviously this implies that each aspiring country needs to fulfill the conditions for membership, otherwise it will not happen.
- Next year Georgians will vote in parliamentary elections. We can already see the signs of the pre-election campaign. What is your message to them? What does the EU expect from the government and other politicians?
Indeed, next year, Georgia will hold very important elections, the first one to be fully proportional. As an aspiring EU member country, Georgia is expected to hold free and fair elections in line with international and EU standards, and of course, a peaceful and inclusive pre-election period. The European Commission’s opinion of last year underlined the importance of having a sound electoral framework, this is one of the 12 priorities that Georgia needs to fulfil. It has also identified some shortcomings that Georgian authorities need to look into. This is an important element to consolidate democracy and uphold the rule of law – some of the basic principles upon which the EU is founded. Elections are always a very important indicator of the state and health of local institutions and democracy in the country. I hope we will see healthy, democratic elections conducted as we know it in the EU.
- Georgian President embarked on a series of visits to EU to promote Georgia’s EU candidacy, which had been denied permission from the government. How does the government’s announced intention to launch impeachment procedures against President Zurabishvili look from Brussels?
In order for a country to become an EU member, it needs to have stable institutions guaranteeing democracy and the rule of law. This is also one of the 12 priorities set forward by the EU, together with the priority on depolarization and capability of cooperation across political parties. We are seeing all political developments in Georgia through this prism. I will be meeting with the President during my visit to Georgia as well as the Prime Minister and all parliamentary political parties. We appreciate the President’s commitment to European values and her European vision for Georgia. Unity is more important than ever. The work undertaken by Georgia can only be sustainable in the long run if all political forces are behind the reform agenda. In the past year, all Georgians interlocutors that we have met in Brussels expressed their commitment to advance on the EU path. I hope this common purpose can become a unifying factor and a basis for more inclusiveness and depolarization. This means more cooperation and less tensions.
- The EU Commission’s June 2022 Opinion highlighted the need for Georgia to increase its convergence with the Common Foreign and Security Policy. The low rate of Tbilisi’s alignment with EU statements and decisions has been commented about in Georgian media. Could you tell us why this is important and how important it is for the Commission and the EU capitals, when they take a decision on candidacy?
As an aspiring EU Member State, we expect Georgia to align with EU foreign policy decisions and actions. There are enlargement countries that meet this commitment with 100% rate. Last year, the alignment rate for Georgia was already at a low 44%, while currently it stands at 43%. This holds a great significance for the EU as our foreign policy is governed by consensus. With a low alignment rate of 43%, Georgia shows that it has the potential to undermine such consensus. And this is not something taken lightly by Member States.
- Russia has recently made a number of steps, signaling rapprochement with Georgia, which were taken aboard by the Georgian government. Among them lifting of visa requirements, establishing direct flights, opening quotas for Georgian students to study for free in Russian universities, etc. These steps prompted security concerns within Georgian society. Taking into account EU’s policy towards Russia, what is your view on these developments?
Since the unprovoked and unjustified Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, the EU has been working hard to isolate Russia and to reduce Kremlin’s ability to finance this brutal war. That is why the EU has adopted 11 packages of sanctions against Russia, showing the EU unity on this important issue. We expect our partner countries and, in particular those who aspire to become members, to align with our foreign policy decisions. We very much regret the government’s decision to allow the resumption of flights with Russia and allow sanctioned individuals to enter Georgian territory.
These decisions go against EU’s policy and international efforts to isolate Russia internationally due to its illegal war and atrocities in Ukraine.
- In your opinion, how does the recent decision on establishing strategic partnership between Georgia and China is in line with Georgia’s aspirations for closer integration – including economic integration – with the EU?
We take note of Georgia’s newly established strategic partnership with China. It is the country’s prerogative to establish deeper relations with foreign partners. As a country aspiring to EU membership, we expect that Georgia ensures that all aspects of its strategic cooperation are consistent with the EU rules and policies and its commitments on the EU path. Countries wanting to join the EU are expected to gradually align their foreign and security policy to the EU.
The EU remains the biggest donor in Georgia. Only in the past two years, we have mobilised around EUR 1.2 billion of investments under the Economic and Investment Plan (EIP). In the coming period, we want to accelerate the implementation of the EIP flagships and we will focus in particular on the Black sea connectivity flagship projects – the Black Sea electricity cable and the Black Sea digital cable. These projects are important to improve connections and trade flows between the European Union and the South Caucasus and Central Asia. We want Georgia to take the driving seat for these initiatives, as a key element of the EIP is ownership by our partner countries.
- Many in Georgia are afraid that the EU might tire in the current stand-off between Russia and Ukraine, mindful that Russia will go to significant lengths not give what it still calls its “sphere of influence”. What is your message to these Georgians?
There is no place for “spheres of influence” in the 21st century. Every country has the right to decide its own future and which path they want to take. Russia does not accept it, and resorts to blackmail and aggression in its neoimperialistic effort to dominate again countries in its neighbourhood . We cannot accept such behaviour and Russia’s illegal actions. What is at stake is the respect for the UN Charter and the whole international order, which should not be the rule of the strong, but the rule of law. I see no signs of Europe tiring. We will continue supporting Ukraine for as long as it takes.
- War against Ukraine has, on the one hand opened new possibilities for the countries of the region, and on the other, has exacerbated their security concerns. What is the EU long-term vision towards the vulnerable countries of the region and what factors will influence this vision, in your opinion?
Wars are big catalysts for change; the EU’s policy in the Eastern Neighbourhood is not an exception. In response to the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the EU began channeling support to Ukraine on an unprecedented scale, including with heavy weapons. These decisions are revolutionary.
We have also reinforced our security and defence cooperation with all countries of the region, including Georgia. For instance, the EU has been helping Georgia strengthen its defence forces through the European Peace Facility. The first batch of non-lethal equipment for the Georgian Defence Forces has reached Georgia already in April and since then we continue delivering. This equipment will be vital for a rapid response in crisis situations and for saving lives. A total of 62 million EUR has been earmarked until now under the European Peace Facility for Georgia.
Just as we stand with Ukraine, we stood and will continue to stand by Georgia, and fully support your sovereignty and territorial integrity. As I said, I will mark during my visit the 15th anniversary of the establishment of the EU Monitoring Mission, which plays a vital role in support of long lasting peace and conflict resolution.
But I know we can do more. The EU has to be able to act fast, pre-empt negative developments and foster positive changes in the region, and allocate more human and financial resources towards both ends. All this will serve our security interests and accelerate our transformation into a more coherent and credible foreign policy actor.
With enlargement in view, the Eastern Partnership (EaP) policy must meet the challenge of how to combine inclusivity amidst greater differentiation among participant states. One possible way to go ahead is to preserve and to amplify the multilateral dimension, including the non-governmental one, while customising bilateral engagements even more. Local ownership will be key.
The ultimate goal is security, democracy and prosperity – not only for Ukraine but for the whole region and beyond – by protecting it from Russia’s aggressive policy, for years to come.