The EU opened talks on an association agreement with Georgia yesterday (15 July) in a move that will boost the former Soviet republic's hopes of forging closer ties with the West. The agreement, however, does not promise future EU accession.
Attending the launch of the negotiations in the Black Sea port of Batumi, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton welcomed the move, calling the eventual agreement ''a foundation to bring Georgia closer to the European Union''.
Under the EU's Eastern Partnership programme, a first round of talks has begun on a bilateral 'Association Agreement' with the Caucasian country, which engaged in a brief but deadly war with Russia in August 2008 (see 'Background').
Russia, Georgia and its pro-Russian breakaway territories South Ossetia and Abkhazia have held ongoing negotiations since the war, with EU mediation. Russia recently moved to establish a long-term military base in Abkhazia, despite condemnation by the West (EURACTIV 18/02/10).
The EU's Association Agreements establish political and economic cooperation between the bloc and non-EU countries, based on joint commitments to a set of values and covering a range of areas including political dialogue, trade, sectoral and justice, freedom and security policies.
Similar negotiations are being launched with Georgia's neighbours Azerbaijan and Armenia – today (16 July) and Monday (19 July) respectively – while the process has already begun with Ukraine and Moldova.
At a joint press conference with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, EU foreign affairs chief Ashton said the agreement ''will provide the framework for a new relationship''.
"I strongly believe that by strengthening the relationship between Georgia and the European Union we can contribute to Georgia's democratic development, its long-term stability [and] prosperity," she said, quoted by AFP.
EU Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy Commissioner Štefan Füle sees the talks as an important step towards enhanced EU engagement in the Caucasus. "These Association Agreements will lay a new legal foundation for our relations with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia,'' he said.
'Georgia is Europe'
Georgian leader Saakashvili, who came under intense pressure following the 2008 conflict, hailed the talks as a key step forward for the country's orientation towards the West.
"Georgia is Europe, Georgia is coming back to Europe," stated Saakashvili alongside Ashton. "The goal of our reforms is to create the first European state in the Caucasus," he added.
Georgia's foreign ministry also issued a statement saying that the agreement "will give Georgia the possibility of political association and phased economic integration with the European Union," AFP reported.