The EU must draw Georgia into its arms

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

Georgian people attend a wreath laying ceremony at the memorial to commemorate Soviet Occupation Day outside Tbilisi, Georgia, 25 February 2020. [Zurab Kurtsikidze/EPA/EFE]

EU institutions must continue to ensure that pro-European countries as Georgia see the European Union as their ultimate goal, writes Paul L. Vandoren.

Dr Paul. L. Vandoren is a former EU Ambassador to Croatia and former acting EU Ambassador to the Russian Federation

These are extraordinary times to inhabit the world of diplomatic and foreign affairs. As with everything else, our world has been overtaken by the coronavirus pandemic. Relations within and between states are now dominated almost exclusively by the unfortunate impact of this lethal virus.

Exports of medicines and equipment, travel bans, repatriations, and of course the blame game and an unprecedented level of disinformation.

Underneath the headlines, largely (and understandably) ignored, the business of international relations continues. One recent highlight was North Macedonia joining NATO: a huge achievement for a small, young country (albeit with a long history) and another important milestone in the enlargement of the world’s most powerful, and most successful, military alliance.

In the same few days, EU leaders agreed to formally begin accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania: another momentous moment for both countries, and an important first step from the self-proclaimed “geopolitical” Commission under President Ursula Von der Leyen.

As the EU’s first and last-ever Ambassador to Croatia (my job was happily abolished when Croatia joined the EU in 2013), I have seen first-hand the joy and hope that such moments can bring, but also the hard work that had to be done to reach those moments.

It requires the mobilization of all layers of society and relentless efforts for introducing and implementing the rule of law, overhaul of the judicial system, the fight against corruption, the respect of human rights and the adoption of thousands of pages of new legislation.

All of these efforts are aimed at securing stability and integrating these countries in the Western Balkans into the EU.

Further east, the South Caucasus is another region of importance for EU enlargement. Georgia has an unequivocally pro-European (and pro-NATO) government, whose leaders have made no secret of their desire to join both of those exclusive Western clubs.

The government’s plans also – importantly – enjoy widespread popular support, with 80% of Georgians supporting the idea of joining both the EU and NATO. The EU is Georgia’s largest donor and strongest partner. In 2016, an ambitious Association Agreement entered into force between the EU and Georgia.

This is an act of geopolitical significance for Georgia, affirming its European identity and its strategic foreign policy priority of developing closer ties with the EU.

There is, of course, one significant complicating factor. The elephant (or, rather, bear) in the room. Currently, 20% of Georgia’s territory is occupied by Russia following the brief war in 2008 (during which, as a diplomat, I was posted to the EU Embassy in Moscow) under a previous Administration in Tbilisi.

The two countries still have no diplomatic relations, and Russia’s consistent cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns are deliberately designed to hold back the Georgian government’s push to become closer to Europe.

This is all the more reason for immediate and determined EU engagement. The geopolitical influence and power of the EU is substantially based on its ability within the wider European region to act as a magnet for countries who wish to escape from their troubled past (especially those who suffered under the Soviet Union).

Brussels must continue to ensure that countries such as Georgia see the EU as their ultimate goal. How, though, to achieve that in practice given the difficulties in the South Caucasus?

The first rule must be encouragement and public recognition.

The current Georgian Dream government in Tbilisi has overseen an economic renaissance: Georgia currently sits 7th in the annual ‘Ease of Doing Business’ rankings (above 26 of the 27 EU member states); 12th in the Heritage Global Index of Economic Freedom; and the government has cut poverty by 50% as “the poor have benefitted considerably from the Government’s social policies” and “new economic opportunities” according to the World Bank.

This track record deserves public recognition.

EU leaders have been significantly involved in some of Georgia’s recent reforms: the EU’s Ambassador in Tbilisi facilitated, alongside the US, Germany, and the Council of Europe, a recent electoral reform package to bring Georgia in line with the system used for EU Parliamentary elections.

The reform increases the number of proportional seats and establishes an electoral threshold for proportional elections. The Government and the opposition also signed a statement emphasizing the need to avoid actions that could be perceived as an inappropriate politicisation of the judiciary and the electoral process.

The European Commission described this agreement as “a very welcome, important and visible signal of political leadership from all sides which reflects a desire to decrease the unhealthy political polarisation in Georgia”.

The EU’s Ambassador in Tbilisi, H.E. Carl Hartzell, has set a strong precedent for this ‘pull factor’ approach, by praising the Georgian Government’s early and decisive response to COVID-19 and the compliance by its population (the country has a fairly limited number of cases with eleven recorded deaths, thanks to early travel bans and lockdowns, and a well-resourced public health system).

The EU has already granted Georgia a generous €20m assistance package to help with the Corona crisis; more support is likely to follow.

This support for Georgia must continue after the current crisis has passed. For inspiration, the Von der Leyen Commission should look at the examples of the Baltic States and Croatia: where you have a pro-Western, reforming and European-focused country – engage, engage, engage.

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