Countries on the EU's eastern border have registered some progress in ongoing talks on visa-free travel to Europe, with Georgia winning a new €20 million EU assistance and reform package.
Deemed a success, the two-day informal Eastern Partnership dialogues (EaP) ended yesterday (13 February) with the reaffirmation of Georgia’s will to join the EU, despite doubts regarding its new government, according to a high ranking Georgian official who spoke to EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.
Štefan Füle, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy, and Georgian Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration Alexandre Petriashvili signed the Financing Agreement totaling €20 million in Tbilisi on Tuesday (12 February) to support the reform process in Georgia.
The signing came on the first day of the two-day informal EaP, which gathered leaders from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.
The EaP dialogue meeting is an important occasion for the foreign ministers of the partner countries to engage in discussions about the implementation of reforms related to the European agenda ahead of the third Summit meeting in Vilnius in November this year.
Georgia reaffirms pro-European stance
According to Tamar Beruchachvili, the deputy state Minister of European and Euro-Atlantic, the two-day meetings were largely a success as most EaP countries progressed on visa liberalisation issues with the EU, while Georgia reassured EU officials of its pro-European stance.
“Georgia, Armenia and Moldova were very vocal about the willingness to finalise talks and complete negotiations soon" on visa liberalisation, said Beruchachvili, reminding that Ukraine and Moldavia "have already embarked on visa-free travel negotiations".
"It’s been decided that Georgia will start soon, with the possibility of starting talks this month with plans to finalise the initial components of visa liberalisation,” she added. “Other countries that already opened these talks are also very committed. In general, it can be said that this week’s talks led to quite substantial developments. We now have a lot of work to do”.
Russia in the shadows
Following a recent government change in Tbilisi, Georgia has started forging closer relations with Russia, with whom it fought a brief war in 2008.
But the EaP event also proved important in terms of reconfirming Tbilisi’s position vis-à-vis the European reform process, Beruchachvili said. EU representatives, including Helga Schmid, deputy secretary of the European Commission's External Action Sevice, met with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze.
According to Beruchaschvili, “the meeting was a very good opportunity for EU officials to meet individually with our new prime minister and president . . . firmly stress[ing] that European integration remains Georgia’s strategic priority”.
After the signing of the financing agreement, Füle noted the importance of continued EU engagement with EaP members on topics including democratisation, human rights and economic reforms.
“The programme launched today focuses on important elements of political association and economic integration, which are: shared values such as democracy and respect for human rights; development of stronger and modern institutions; and opening of new trade opportunities” Füle said after the signing in Tbilisi.
According to Füle, “It is not by accident that we have met here today. Georgia is an example of consistency and determination in the implementation of the agreed reforms.”