Georgia is ready to apply for membership by 2024 – Is the EU ready too?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

President Salome Zourabishvili and Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels on 22 January 2021. [Europe by Satellite]

This article is part of our special report EU ambitions unabated.

The absence of the official “enlargement perspective” doesn’t meant that Georgia should be discouraged lodging a membership application. But in order to succeed, Georgia should be more creative in its foreign policy, write Teona Lavrelashvili and Steven Van Hecke.

Teona Lavrelashvili is project Manager of the European Party Monitor, KU Leuven. Previously she worked as a policy officer at European Commission, DG NEAR.

Steven van Hecke is Associate Professor at KU Leuven, Project Coordinator of the European Party Monitor.

Georgia’s foreign policy début of 2021 kicked off in Brussels. On 22-23 January the country’s President, Salome Zourabichvili, met with the Presidents of the European Council, the European Commission and the European Parliament, as well as the NATO Secretary General. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, she did not forgot to announce the key message: Georgia prepares itself to officially apply for EU membership by 2024.

This declaration has left many of the EU realists with confusion and bewilderment because of the EU’s current enlargement fatigue. And if the EU would nonetheless welcome new members, the priority is the Western Balkans. Yet, the EU optimists would be less sceptic and ask why not to give this small Caucasus country a chance. After all, its population is vehemently pro-European (with 82% in favour of EU integration), the country has scored pretty well in its reform agenda (even better than some countries of the Western Balkans) and the EU could finally show its geopolitical might in its near neighborhood by engaging more seriously with Georgia.

Of course, these arguments are not sufficient and one should look at both the political and technical aspects of its membership. Georgia’s current framework of relations with the EU is the Eastern Partnership (EaP) that is less ambitious compared to the countries of the Western Balkans. The latter are granted with EU membership perspective, while the countries of the EaP have never been given such a perspective, despite their repeated requests. This mismatch of expectations is one of the main weaknesses of the EaP policy. Its main deficiency lies in its paradoxical composition of the countries with varying degrees of ambition. Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine have expressed their readiness to sail far with the EU by signing the Association Agreements, while Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus are adamant to a greater cooperation.

Probably this obsoleteness of the EaP motivated Georgia to awaken EU decision-makers about the expectation gap. In fact, out of three Associated Countries, Georgia seems in the best place to make such a bold step. Ukraine remains entrenched in the struggle between reformers who are willing to overhaul the entire system and the supporters (and beneficiaries) of the old system, while Moldova’s newly elected pro-Western President lacks a majority in the parliament to act decisively. Certainly, Georgia is far from being politically perfect. The results of the recent parliamentary elections triggered a political crisis as a big part of the opposition refuses to enter the parliament. Not to mention other challenges, particularly the economic hardships and a high level of poverty.

From the EU’s perspective Georgia’s EU membership application without first being granted a membership perspective might seem unrealistic. Although Georgia in theory satisfies the formal eligibility criteria enshrined in article 49 of the TEU, over time the EU has developed procedures upstream of the application process. This entails that the European Council first decides whether or not to offer a country the membership perspective. If the decision is successful by an unanimity vote, only then the country becomes a formal candidate.

Does it mean that the absence of this perspective and the lack of Georgia’s preparedness should discourage the country of making a membership application? Not necessarily, but in order to succeed, Georgia should display more creativity in its foreign policy agenda, along with intensifying its efforts to strengthen economic reforms and the rule of law.

Georgia’s key messages have always been oriented to mobilize the West around its challenges, mainly on its territorial integrity issue. It has always called for ‘more EU in Georgia’, but has been less active in contributing to the West’s political agenda with innovative ideas.

Even the Trio strategy, that aims at intensifying cooperation of three EU Associated Countries, was created top-down, by a few Members of the European Parliament. Georgia continues looking at the EU from the keyhole, without realizing that it should imagine itself as a part of the EU’s political architecture and engage politically, here and now. Furthermore, Georgia’s foreign policy mechanism should be enriched. For example, the membership in the Europarties could be used in a more strategic way. These Europarties, which possess a significant power to lobby a country’s EU prospects in the European Council, are an unique political resource that are not used sufficiently. In other words, it should be the Europarties that have to pick up on this declaration and start making the EU leadership familiar with Georgia’s EU membership prospects.

But is the EU ready for accepting Georgia’s application? This is not the right question. The EU will never be fully ready per se. The progress from both sides requires action as well as a vision and Georgia’s application serves these purposes. Yes, the countries of the Western Balkans are queuing but it is an open secret that some of them, particularly Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, will take a lot more time to advance on their EU integration path.

The membership perspective is not necessarily helping much, while for Georgia the membership perspective is a question of national security and for the EU a question of geopolitics. The EU’s readiness to accept its application will be a positive spillover and a push factor for Ukraine and Moldova to advance their reform agendas and remain on the West’s orbit.

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