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Visa-free travel is logical next step in Georgia’s EU integration journey

Europe's East

Visa-free travel is logical next step in Georgia’s EU integration journey

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Georgia is a success story for the Eastern Partnership and for EU soft power, writes Irakli Garibashvili. Yet the country needs to go further to secure the stability of our region and to shore up human rights.

By Irakli Garibashvili, Prime Minister of Georgia.

There’s nothing quite like people-to-people contact for strengthening relationships. This is true at all levels of engagement, be it political, business or touristic.

I myself experienced this firsthand in Brussels this week during the second meeting of the EU-Georgia Association Agreement Council, which confirmed that our progress towards European integration is on track.

During the discussions, we won recognition for our government’s sweeping political and economic reforms over recent years that have brought Georgia into line with European norms. This progress is reflected in our steady rise in international rankings for democratic standards, including elections, freedom of speech and the media, rule of law, protection of human rights, transparency, and eradication of corruption.

Since coming to power in 2012, our government has prioritised increasing transparency, good governance, political accountability and cooperation with civil society as part of our commitment to democratic development and European integration. We have also acted to ensure independence of the judiciary and to safeguard press freedom.

Crossroads between East and West, gateway to Asia

Equally, our Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with the EU is bearing fruit, with our bilateral economic ties continuing to increase. Uniquely placed as we are at the crossroads between East and West, we are providing Europe with a gateway to Asia. This was recently showcased by the inaugural Tbilisi Silk Road Forum that we hosted as a platform for international political and business leaders to explore future opportunities for cooperation.

Just as Georgia has been unstinting in its commitment to an ambitious reform agenda, we have at the same time been proactively advancing values that we share with our EU partners. A clear example is the region’s first-ever high-level international conference on gender equality, which we hosted in Tbilisi last week. Co-organised with the EEAS and the United Nations, the conference reflected our commitment to reforms that ensure sustainable development based on equality and the human rights of all.

It was clear during today’s meeting that Georgia’s path towards EU integration is irreversible. Some 80 percent of Georgians want closer relations with the EU. It was acknowledged that the benefits for the EU are obvious. Georgia is a success story for the Eastern Partnership and for EU soft power. Yet we need to go further to secure the stability of our region and to shore up human rights.

The logical next step on our European journey is visa liberalisation. This is fundamental to the implementation of our Association Agreement with the EU. Without visa-free travel across Europe for Georgians, we cannot make further progress on the people-to-people exchanges that will really cement EU values in our country and region.

Our people also need to see concrete benefits from ongoing reform efforts. Equally, it is essential to demonstrate that EU integration is merit-based. Georgia has worked hard to meet the criteria for visa liberalization, as recognised last week by EU High Representative Federica Mogherini and the EU-Georgia Parliamentary Association Committee.

The High Representative Mogherini said that Georgia had made substantial progress in meeting the conditions for visa liberalisation with the EU, and expressed hope that the bloc would soon move forward with visa-free travel for Georgians. By the same token, the Committee issued a statement acknowledging “the rapid progress demonstrated by Georgia in the implementation of the Visa Liberalisation Action Plan (VLAP)” and saying it looked forward to a decision by the European Commission “to grant visa-free regime to Georgian citizens”.

I am therefore hoping for a positive signal from the Commission when it releases its progress report on visa liberalisation next month, and thereafter for the clear support of the EU member states and MEPs. We need to step up those people-to-people contacts that are vital to advancing relations between Georgians and their fellow Europeans.