How the EU can push for its priorities in Georgia

17 January, 2023

Now that the EU has granted Georgia a European perspective and Georgia has become a part of the EU enlargement process, the EU cannot and should not afford Georgia’s failure, writes Paata Gaprindashvili.

Paata Gaprindashvili is the director at Georgia’s Reforms Associates (GRASS).

Georgia’s aspiration to become a fully-fledged member of the European Union has been considered a long-shot dream. The country achieved visa liberalisation and the Association Agreement with its Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) in 2014.

For Georgia, the implementation of the Association Agreement constituted an important part of EU-Georgia relations but still a milestone towards becoming an EU member.

Apart from a lack of political appetite in Brussels before Russia’s war in Ukraine, Georgia’s democratic backsliding over the past years had been an obstacle along the way.

The country’s progress has been hindered by persistent political crises stemming from an ever-growing polarisation between the ruling and the opposition parties, as well as serious challenges related to good governance and the rule of law.

As of now, when the EU’s candidacy status is no longer a distant prospect, Georgia alone is struggling to deliver on its European future. At this point, the EU’s increased engagement can be a game-changer in bringing off Brussel’s strategic interests in the region and saving Georgia from falling prey to Russia.

Russia’s brutal aggression against Ukraine, which has brought immeasurable human tragedy, also opened a window of opportunity for Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia to apply for EU membership in a new geopolitical reality.

However, Georgia met this once-in-a-generation chance ill-prepared and different from Ukraine and Moldova, Georgia failed to obtain EU candidacy.

Instead, Georgia was granted a European perspective, undoubtedly a significant milestone and a decision that would have been a dream even several months ago, as well as an opportunity to catch up and jump ship with the renewed enlargement process.

To do so, Georgia is required to fulfil 12 priorities set out by the EU Commission.

Those include addressing issues such as polarisation, democratic oversight, the electoral framework, the judiciary, the media, the appointment of the Prosecutor General and the Ombudsperson, strengthening the independence of its Anti-Corruption Agency, “de-oligarchisation,” the fight against organised crime, human rights, gender equality and the involvement of civil society in decision-making processes.

The deadline for the reforms was December 2022, but the assessment was eventually moved to 2023.

State of Implementation of the 12 Priorities

The EU has repeatedly called on Georgian stakeholders – both the government and the opposition – to unite and work together in close cooperation with civil society to address the priorities defined by the EU. However, so far, the results have not been promising.

The ruling party Georgian Dream (GD) and the government declared their commitment to fulfilling the 12 priorities and presented their plan to accomplish the requirements to obtain the EU candidate status, according to which working groups were created in the Parliament and the opposition and CSOs were invited to participate.

However, the GD’s decision to reject one of the prominent watchdogs from the working group meetings has put the democratic nature of the ruling party-led process in question, to say the least.

Also, due to the lack of trust and cooperation, three major opposition parties in parliament have refused to participate in GD-led working groups, citing the ruling party’s reluctance to share the opposition’s suggestions and the ruling party using the working groups as a façade rather than a genuine cooperation platform.

The ruling party has drafted legislation to address some of the priorities.

However, NGOs and the opposition parties participating in the parliamentary working groups also expressed their dissatisfaction due to the ruling party not taking into account their suggestions.

Opposition parties that had refused participation in the working groups established their own working process and have tried to come up with their vision of fulfilling each priority.

There could be a consensus on a few issues, but the government and the opposition have contradicting opinions on major topics, such as polarisation and de-oligarchisation, the judiciary, etc. Critical voices have accused the government of “window-dressing” and not fulfilling the requirements in good faith.

EU’s game-changing role

Now that the EU has granted Georgia a European perspective and Georgia has become a part of the EU enlargement process, the EU cannot and should not afford Georgia’s failure.

A failure would mean the country’s missing out on the EU enlargement process, falling under Russia’s influence or steering into a path of relative isolationism and autocracy, especially in consideration of the EU’s increased interest and involvement in the wider Black Sea region.

It is, therefore, essential to ensure that Georgia does not transform 12 priorities into never-ending “moving targets.”

By the European Council decision of June 2022, the EU has taken responsibility for Georgia and, thus, should and can provide assistance in the EU integration process, with the 12 priorities being the most pressing issue.

In fact, it is a codified mission of the EU Commission; namely, the Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR), to “assist those countries with a perspective to join the EU in meeting the criteria defined by the Treaty of European Union and the European Council”.

Therefore, it is the right time for the DG NEAR to be actively involved in assisting Georgia in fulfilling the 12 priorities required to advance on its path to the EU.

It should closely monitor the process and help in implementing reforms, something that is its core task, by offering guidance and interpretation on each priority, pre-assessing the initiatives and drafting legislation from the ruling and opposition parties, and helping in bridging differences where possible.

To this end, the DG NEAR should install a permanent representation in the EU Delegation to Georgia – a common practice, already well-tested in the Western Balkans, in its operations as two-thirds of its more than 1,5 thousand staff are located in the EU Delegations/Offices in the partner countries.

The DG NEAR’s permanent deployment in Georgia would reflect the continuing strength of EU influence in Georgia and ensure that Georgia’s democratic development is irreversible.