EU candidate status could be an ‘existential’ message to Tbilisi, Georgian ambassador says

Vakhtang Makharoblishvili. Ambassador of Georgia to the Kingdom of Belgium and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, Head of the Mission of Georgia to the EU. [Mission of Georgia to the EU]

Gaining EU candidate status would be a crucial and existential political message that today the door is open for Georgia, and there is light at the end of the tunnel, Tbilisi’s Ambassador to the EU, Vakhtang Makharoblishvili, told EURACTIV on 6 May.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

  • Georgia regrets that it takes a war to think about enlargement as a transformative process.
  • Granting EU candidate status should be done for each country in the Associated Trio but Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine could move at different speeds afterwards, depending on fulfilment of integration criteria.
  • Tbilisi sees the Trio format as still relevant, and foresees this ‘chemistry’ and ‘cooperation’  to continue in the future.
  • The issue of candidate status is a crucial, ‘existential’ message for Tbilisi. Acquiring it would mean ‘the door is open’ and there is ‘light at the end of the tunnel’.
  • It is too early to comment on new proposals, such as French President Emmanuel Macron’s ‘European political community’.

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Some have described the timing of the application of the Associated Trio as ‘a bombshell.’ Georgia previously announced it was planning to apply in 2024. How do you see the internal collaboration between the partners now that the geopolitical situation has changed? Do you think there is an imbalance between the Trio as they start on this journey?

With your permission, I’ll actually briefly reflect on what you said about our application and it being “a bombshell”. I certainly agree with you – Georgia has been preparing for this for many years.

Since the beginning of independence in the early 90s, the population of Georgia has been always extremely supportive of the membership of and integration with the European Union. The support for this process has never went down below 75%, roughly speaking, and right now, it’s 83%. It has been most of the times more than 80%. The reason I’m mentioning it is that the vision of Georgians regarding where we want to land, where we want to be and where we see ourselves has never changed.

We always like to say that it has been our historical or civilisational choice. If you look at our history, if you look at the culture, we always felt that we were part of this civilisation. Even if you look at the more recent history, when Georgia had a parliamentary republic in 1918, the Georgian constitution was one of the most advanced for those years, worldwide, with minorities being able to not only participate in the elections, but also be part of the parliament.

Women had an opportunity not only to participate in the elections, but we had five or six members of the parliament elected in 1918. A very democratic constitution, and very democratically elected parliament and government in those years.

Unfortunately, it didn’t last for long, in 1921 the Red Army invaded Georgia, and then for seventy years Georgia was part of the Soviet Union. Once again, the reason I mention this is that the vision of Georgians had been always directed towards, not geography or flags, but towards values and principles that are enshrined in Europe, which we felt that are common to us and we want to embrace them also in Georgia. That is the reason why every government in Georgia since our regaining independence in the 90s have worked hard to get closer to the European Union.

I’m not going to go into the history now with the partnership and cooperation agreement but we want to just say that, of course, right now we enjoy a good level of integration process with the EU, we have never been so close. But at the same time, of course, now with the application, we strongly believe that we are in a historical moment of our path towards getting back to the European family.

You have very correctly and rightly mentioned that it has not been something that we have not thought about the application itself. Just two years ago, the government of Georgia said that in 2024 we would apply for European Union membership and before that we would of course prepare ourselves for this membership, to be in a better shape.

Now, although we strongly believe that with the application we are not starting from scratch, we are not starting from zero. In fact, I strongly believe that we have earned the candidate status because, I can also say that many member states or others got the status when they might not have been in this shape, to be actually very open on that. Therefore, I think we have been in the process of doing our homework.

Many Commission colleagues, and these are not my words, would always say that once we will implement our association agreement, we will have some 70% of core acquis in Georgian legislation, which is a great deal of integration process. And certainly we have been committed to that process. Therefore, my answer to those cautious representatives whom might think that, ‘yeah, but it might be too soon’ or ‘it’s something that comes as a big surprise, are they ready for this or not?’ Yes, we are ready because we have been in the process without having the status.

Many think tank community representatives would actually say that with the association agreements, which are, as you know, a new generation of association agreements, we have opened up all 35 chapters altogether and started negotiations and discussions of their implementation. So, we are not only ready, but again, I will repeat, we have earned the status of the candidate. That doesn’t mean that we are looking for shortcuts. We know that with getting this status we have a lot of homework in front of us. So we’re very much committed to continue with this homework.

But on the Trio, because I did start with a big introduction, but I think it was important to highlight why we are doing this, and why we’re doing it now. We’re doing it now because, unfortunately, it took the war, invasion and aggression of Russian Federation towards Ukraine to bring this momentum to European capitals of looking at the European continent from a different prism, a different angle.

Of course, we strongly believe that the Associated Trio that had been created a couple of years ago is an important format, because all three of us have very similar agreements with the European Union. All three of us have very similar challenges and very similar goals. In fact, before the war, we had an opportunity among a number of meetings on the highest level, but also on the working level, to discuss some of the areas, fields, sectors in which we strongly believe that the Trio could engage more and in more depth with the EU in terms of integration and cooperation. We strongly believe that the Trio format is relevant and it should be looked at it that way.

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Have you had consultations as the three countries were filling out the EU application questionnaires. Additionally, Georgia was a little bit slower with submitting the replies, why is that?

I would not entirely agree with you. For example, Georgia submitted both parts [by the deadline], and Moldova has not submitted the second part yet. But frankly, speaking, I don’t believe it is about a competition who is going to submit first. I think it’s more about that we make sure the quality and not the speed. We were not told that we should submit it in one week or a few days.

Obviously, when you have such an amount of questions – for example, the second part had more than 2600 questions – if you submit the answers in one week, I’m not even sure that that will be perceived well, when you do such an amount of work in one week. But again, I would not go into finding some issues in terms of whether one country has submitted a day before and the other submitted the day afterwards.

The important thing is that we have not violated or jeopardised any deadlines that we have been given. I think we have been on time and the EU ambassador in Georgia, when we submitted the second part made a similar point: when it comes to the timelines, Georgia is doing really well. The same has been said by the Commission people. So now the ball is on the Commission’s side and we are of course very eagerly looking forward to the Commission opinion, whenever it’s going to be. Hopefully pretty soon.

It looks like it takes a war for the EU to start really caring about enlargement outside the Western Balkans. Do you think this is hurting the credibility of the process, which the Commission has claimed is completely merit-based?

Well, what can I say? Obviously, we regret that it takes a war to think about enlargement the way we think [about it]. Because for us, enlargement has been always the best transformative power – I mean, in terms of the mechanism – and instrumental, of course. We believe that every European country, if that country would fulfil all the criteria then they should be allowed to become a member of the club. And in that sense, of course, Georgia has been always very much committed on all those criteria. We don’t expect that we’re gonna be treated differently.

Of course, the political, security and geopolitical situation in Europe requires in our strong belief that we are given a very strong message that the door is open for us. But obviously, we understand that unless you continue with the implementation of relevant criteria, you might not be able to be a good member of the club. So obviously, we’re going to continue with these commitments.

In fact, during the implementation process of the acquis, Georgia was named a front runner for a number of years. These are not the empty words. This is because Georgia had been very committed and very eager to implement the acquis and relevant other criteria to get closer to the EU. Our job and goal was to get everything but institutions, whenever this possibility would come – the political possibility.

And in that sense, of course, we were trying to open up every window, every door, which could have been opened up for us, to get closer to the EU as much as possible, be it programmes, agencies, or any instruments or mechanism that could be accessible or available for an associated partner like Georgia. And that brought a lot of integration process on the table, we have been very close with the EU on security front.

We’ve been having a high level security dialogue with the EU for a number of years now, which proved to be a mutually beneficial instrument. We participate in EU missions abroad. So basically, our goal was always to not only be a recipient of security, but also contribute with our closest partners when it comes to international security, and that’s why we were part of the EU missions and we’re going to continue to be part for the EU missions.

To go back, it is, of course, regrettable the war is ongoing, a lot of people die, a lot of atrocities. We encounter aggression and invasion of one European country of another European country. And it took that to basically boost the idea and the process of enlargement. But certainly we have been in this process in the past and we are going to continue to become committed in that regard in the future as well.

Unfortunately, nothing takes place now, which we have not encountered ourselves. Sometimes we say that if the international community would have had a different reaction back in 2008, maybe we would not have ended up in this kind of situation today. 20% of Georgia’s territories are occupied. We have more than 300,000 IDPs [internally displaced persons] and refugees of our own. We are part of the hybrid warfare on a regular basis.

What I want to say is that there’s nothing that surprising, in a way, for us because we say that the Georgian case was not an isolated case, just like Ukraine’s case is not an isolated case. But that never forced us to change our goal and our vision to embrace those values and principles that we believe are part of our culture, history and values. Even though, of course, all of these challenges have been directed towards exactly that, that Georgia changes its mind, but we have never changed it.

Georgia wants to be a contributor to EU security, not just a beneficiary of it, you say. The Ukrainian flag is flying over the embassy here in Brussels in a very clear statement of support. However, this war has strained the relationship between Kyiv and Tbilisi. 

When it comes to where we have been, of course, Georgia stands with Ukraine. In every international organisation, Georgia has been always very vocal. Georgia has been on the forefront when it comes to supporting the resolutions, declarations, statements. Georgia has not only been supportive, but also been part of the sponsors or main sponsor. We have been one of the few member states of the International Criminal Court to refer to the Prosecutor General to start the investigation [of war crimes] in that regard.

Georgia is there when it comes to decisions on the Council of Europe and decisions of the Human Rights Council. In fact, Georgia has aligned itself to every single EU declaration since the start of the war, beginning from the first one in January, related to the cybersecurity and cyber attack. The point that I want to make: we know how important support might be when it comes to international community, when it comes to support within international organisations. Because we have needed this support throughout the years. We have our own experience and knowledge in that.

When it comes to humanitarian support, if you look even at Ukrainian data, Georgia has been among the first, or number one, in fact, among countries who have provided the humanitarian support. I was reading the other day two different polls, which were done by different organisations. These polls were among the Ukrainian people, who they thought supported Ukraine during the war. And Georgia was among the first countries, I think listed fourth place when it comes to their perception where Georgia stands.

Georgia has received I think, some 20 to 25,000 Ukrainians in Georgia, and they have been of course received as close friends and have been provided with housing, shelter, free social benefits, etc. A very needed and quick reaction was that school children who came to Georgia were provided not only with an opportunity to study, but in fact these sectors are in Ukrainian language, to make sure that the children have as much comfort as as possible.

Our prime minister was in Warsaw when we had the donors’ conference there. And Georgia, once again, highlighted its political support to Ukraine, but also support when it comes to the financial part as well. Georgia pledged some new amounts, on top of what we pledged in the past. The reason why we relisted that was just to showcase to you that Georgia does its best when it comes to support of Ukraine and standing with Ukraine, because we think this is the right thing to do.

Why do some difficulties remain? Maybe it is the question to our Ukrainian friends as well. I mean, frankly, it is difficult for me to really give you an answer, because from my personal standpoint, and from the standpoint of the country, Georgia stands with Ukraine. Yes, we do have some problems in terms of aligning ourselves to some sanctions – although even on sanctions part, Georgia had aligned, for example, on sanctions on Crimea and Donbas, when it came to the banking sector.

But there are others where we refrain from aligning ourselves because of our core national interests. Because, you know, we might end up ourselves in a very difficult situation. But Georgia is not the only country who is not aligning to all sanctions. So the question is there, I frankly do not have the answer for you. But what I can do is list what Georgia is doing, where Georgia is and what Georgia is going to continue to do. Georgia will continue to stand with Ukraine.

On a political level, there have been declarations coming from French President Emmanuel Macron, but also other leaders that perhaps we need to rethink the European political framework. How does Georgia see these propositions? Are you afraid that Georgia can potentially end up in a second-tier membership category?

Sure. If I may just add one word to the previous previous question, because one thing that I strongly believe and it had been also on numerous occasions stated in Georgia by relevant government representatives is that Georgia and Ukraine are old friends. Even if there are some miscommunications or misunderstandings right now, we are confident and we hope that this is going to go away soon. And certainly, Georgian and Ukrainian people will stay to be very close friends.

We are in the same boat and I’m strongly confident – not only myself, but I’ve heard from many government officials that this is going to go away. We’re going to go on with not only our bilateral friendship, strategic partnership, but also we’re going to pursue our joint European and Euroatlantic goals together.

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We have seen that some coupling exercise of some membership applications, this is the case of North Macedonia and Albania, have ended in hiccups. Are you afraid that the membership application of the Associated Trio will be coupled as well?

Well, I strongly believe that granting candidacy status should be done for all three, because all three of us are in the process of European integration. We have all three expressed this desire when it comes to European membership, all of us have Association agreements, and more or less the same level of the integration process with European Union.

It is not something we are getting as a present, or we’re taking for granted. We strongly believe that with our homework and with all the things that we have been doing, we are not going to be starting from zero or scratch, and we have earned this level. When it comes to the speed afterwards, obviously, it has been always a merit-based approach, and we do understand and support a merit-based approach.

Even with Western Balkan countries, or in general, we talked about the previous enlargements, some countries would have done it sooner, and some countries would have done it a little bit later. This is understandable, it is about individual approach. It is about a merit-based approach, we understand it and we have accepted it. We think it is the correct way to go, once we get to candidate status.

But the reason I’m underscoring the issue of being a candidate, this is an important, crucial and, in a way, it could be an existential message to us, today, that the door is open for us. And this is something which shows us the light at the end of the tunnel: that if we continue and comply with relevant criteria in accordance with all the chapters that there are, we’re going to be accepted to the club, to which we aspire to. It is the right political moment to give us this political message, that this door is open. And the political message is of course, granting candidate status to all three. I strongly believe that it should be done for all three.

What happens after all three receive it? Do you think it’s okay for all three to then be treated in the same boat? Or it should be you every country for itself?

No, I mean, obviously, the three of us are going to continue to cooperating with each other. I mean, nothing can deny us to continue coordinating and cooperating because it helps every and each of us in the process. Just like it had been helping us in the Eastern Partnership format in a way. The reason we formed our Associated Trio is because we felt that together, we could do more among each other and we could do more together with the European Union as well.

So, I strongly believe that this interaction and this chemistry and cooperation among the Trio will continue in the future as well. But at the same time, obviously, I do not exclude that one or the other country might perform better in a given period of time when it comes to implementing relevant criteria. You know, one country could go faster, we have a very good recent examples with Croatia and other Balkan countries. Croatia is a member state but the others are still not.

So, obviously, I do not exclude different speeds at a later stage depending on the implementation process of the relevant criteria. But at this stage, when we need to receive this political message that the door is open, I think we are in a circumstance where all three should be granted [candidate status] and treated equally, otherwise, the others would just feel that they are left behind.

You’ve been talking about different speeds. Well, we can imagine this Europe in different speeds, this idea is making a comeback. How do see it from a country that wants to join the club?

Yes, that’s a very good, but difficult question. Because, frankly speaking, we don’t know yet what we might be talking about, right? I mean, we heard President Macron proposing some ideas about it. But honestly, I think we need more information to make our analysis or shape our views regarding that.

We do not know many things, and to my understanding and knowledge, maybe people in this town do not know more about it yet. So, once we have more details and more information about the possibilities, then myself as well as other Georgian representatives probably could elaborate more, whether we like it or not. But at this stage, I would certainly and, frankly, refrain from commenting on that.

One thing that we firmly believe is that we want to get membership to the club and to the Union we see right now. Certainly, all the instruments, mechanisms and institutions that are the pillars of the club right now are something attractive, something that we want to embrace, and certainly something that we are aspiring towards.

On the other side, I do not necessarily believe that this path will take decades. It could take decades, but it could take five years. Just to mention that because, obviously, again, it depends on how you perform. It’s about merit-based [approach]. So, we have cases when countries have done it in two, three, five years and I’ve mentioned one country a couple of moments ago. There are other cases when this process has prolonged a little bit more. So we have some positive cases in that regard, some may be a little not so positive in that sense, although, of course, we are very hopeful that the process in every direction, with every country, will continue.

So I do not necessarily agree that the process will continue for decades because it depends on how you perform, and many different things. But whether we embrace these new ideas or not, I humbly would say that we have not heard yet enough about the new ideas to elaborate on our position on that. We can elaborate on our position in the current setting. This is something that we have made our choice with, we made our decision, and we aspire to join European Union. Whether it’s one tie, two tiers, we have to see.

Even within the EU, I would expect some debates, and different opinions regarding that. But we’ll certainly and happily engage in these discussions once we know more about these ideas. Right now I think we do not know enough for me to make any concrete preferences.

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