How the EU can push through its priorities in Georgia –

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

Paata Gaprindashvili is a director of Georgia’s Reforms Associates (GRASS).

Georgia’s aspiration to become a full member of the European Union was considered a long-awaited dream. The country achieved visa liberalization and the Association Agreement with its Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) in 2014.

For Georgia, the implementation of the Association Agreement was an important part of EU-Georgia relations, but nevertheless a milestone on the way to EU membership.

Aside from a lack of political appetite in Brussels ahead of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Georgia’s democratic backsliding in recent years has been an obstacle along the way.

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

Now that EU candidate status is not far off, Georgia alone is struggling to realize its European future. At this point, increased EU engagement can be instrumental in asserting Brussels’ strategic interests in the region and preventing Georgia from becoming a victim of Russia.

Russia’s brutal aggression against Ukraine, which has brought untold human tragedy, has also given Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia a chance to bid for EU membership in a new geopolitical reality.

However, Georgia was ill-prepared for this unique opportunity and, unlike Ukraine and Moldova, Georgia failed in its EU candidacy.

Instead, Georgia was granted a European perspective, undoubtedly a significant milestone and a decision that would have been a dream just a few months ago, and an opportunity to catch up and join the renewed enlargement process.

To do this, Georgia must meet 12 priorities of the EU Commission.

These include issues such as polarisation, democratic control, the electoral framework, the judiciary, the media, appointing the Attorney General and the Ombudsperson, strengthening the independence of their anti-corruption agency, “de-oligarchisation” and the fight against organized crime, human rights, gender equality and civil society participation in decision-making processes.

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

Status of implementation of the 12 priorities

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

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

However, the DG’s decision to exclude one of the prominent minders from working group meetings has called into question, to say the least, the democratic nature of the ruling party-led process.

Due to a lack of trust and cooperation, three major opposition parties in Parliament have refused to participate in DG-led working groups, citing the ruling party’s reluctance to share the opposition’s proposals and the ruling party using the working groups more as a front as a real cooperation platform.

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

However, NGOs and the opposition parties involved in the parliamentary working groups also expressed their dissatisfaction that the ruling party did not take their proposals into account.

Opposition parties that had declined to participate in the working groups set up their own work process, trying to develop their vision to meet each priority.

There might be consensus on a few points, but the government and opposition have conflicting views on important issues such as polarization and de-oligarchism, the judiciary, etc. Critics have accused the government of “beauty” and a lack of good faith compliance.

The leading role of the EU

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

Failure would mean the country misses the EU enlargement process, falls under Russian influence, or stumbles onto a path of relative isolation and autocracy, especially given the EU’s increased interest and involvement in the wider Black Sea region.

Therefore, it is imperative to ensure that Georgia does not turn 12 priorities into endless “moving targets”.

With the decision of the European Council of June 2022, the EU assumed responsibility for Georgia and should and can therefore provide assistance in the EU integration process, with the 12 priorities being the most urgent issue.

In fact, it is a codified order from the EU Commission; namely the Directorate-General for Neighborhood and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR) to “assist countries with prospects of joining the EU to meet the criteria set out in the Treaty on European Union and the European Council”.

Therefore, it is the right time for DG NEAR to get actively involved in helping Georgia to meet the 12 priorities needed to move forward on its EU journey.

It should closely monitor the process and help implement reforms, which is its core task by offering guidance and interpretation on each priority, pre-evaluating the initiatives and drafting laws of the ruling and opposition parties, and helping to bridge differences where possible .

To this end, DG NEAR should set up a permanent representation in the EU Delegation to Georgia – a common practice already proven in the Western Balkans, as two-thirds of its more than 1.5,000 staff are based in the EU Delegations /Offices in the partner countries.

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