On November 8, the European Commission made the historic recommendation to award EU candidate status to Georgia (Ec.europa.eu, November 8). The final decision to officially grant that status will be made on December 14 and 15. This development is an important step for EU expansion and Georgia’s integration with the West. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen declared that enlargement is “vital” for the European Union’s future and comes with strong “economic and geopolitical logic” (Ec.europa.eu, November 8). The commission also announced the initiation of negotiations on membership with Ukraine and Moldova. Georgia is one step behind these countries in the process to join the 27-member bloc. For Georgia, sandwiched between Russia and the volatile Middle East, EU membership would serve as a lifeboat in navigating the rocky regional waters.
In June 2022, Georgia was denied candidate status due to weak democratic institutions (see EDM, June 21, 2022). Brussels gave Tbilisi time to make the necessary reforms and tamp down societal polarization. The ruling elite in Georgia made several mistakes in the interim that seemed fatal in compromising the country’s democracy and following a foreign policy agenda that ran contrary to the European Union’s approach (see EDM, May 25). Despite this, Brussels made the geopolitical decision to ignore the weakness of Georgia’s democracy in hoping to solidify Tbilisi’s Western orientation.
Georgia must hold free and fair parliamentary elections scheduled for October 2024 to initiate formal negotiations with Brussels. The Commission 2023 Enlargement package also emphasizes the importance of synchronizing Georgia’s foreign policy with the EU agenda (Ec.europa.eu, November 8). Above all, EU officials have demanded that Tbilisi move away from normalization efforts with Russia, which were highlighted by the resumption of direct flights between the Georgian capital and Moscow earlier this year (see EDM, May 10). Ceasing to spread disinformation about the European Union is another key condition for Georgia’s ruling elite. Over the past year, the Georgia government has unfairly criticized EU institutions and individual European politicians, accusing them of trying to drag Georgia into Russia’s war against Ukraine (see EDM, August 14).
The Georgian population reacted jubilantly to the EU decision. For years, many Georgian citizens have supported the country’s integration with the West. The ruling Georgian Dream party, which has regularly been accused of sabotaging Georgia’s European prospects, tried to take credit for triggering Brussels’ pronouncement. Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, in a public speech on November 8, listed all the steps his government took to achieve this historic success (Facebook.com/GaribashviliOfficial, November 8). On the same day, President Salome Zourabichvili, who is at odds with the current government, celebrated this event in front of the presidential palace in Tbilisi with a large crowd of Georgian citizens and ambassadors from the United States and various European countries. Zourabichvili characterized the European Commission’s recommendation as “our response to Russia and the Russian occupation” (Facebook.com/ZourabichviliSalome, November 8). Her words came with deep emotional undertones after Russian occupation forces had murdered another Georgian civilian on November 6 (Amerikiskhma.com, November 7).
After Brussels decided to not grant Georgia candidate status last year, Garibashvili’s government began to insist that EU membership would not benefit the country. The opposition, in contrast, insisted that Tbilisi had lost a critical opportunity (see EDM, June 27). Georgian officials are now trying to flip the script in emphasizing the potential benefits that candidate status will bring. Earlier, some members of the opposition began to hint that candidate status would not mean much given the government’s pro-Russian stance. They hoped to use the European Commission’s denial last year to trigger anti-government demonstrations in an effort to oust the ruling party in the 2024 elections. Avoiding such mass protests undergirds the ruling elite’s relief regarding the decision to grant candidate status this year. The Georgian security services also predicted a possible coup d’état had the European Union once again denied the country candidate status (Euronews Georgia, October 2).
Popular opinions in Georgia are divided on what this milestone means for the country’s future trajectory. On the one hand, some suggest that obtaining candidate status will set off a change of government since the EU has developed more effective mechanisms to monitor Georgia’s democratic institutions. On the other hand, a portion of the population fears that candidate status may allow the Georgian Dream government to consolidate its position and win the parliamentary elections in 2024 (Agenda.ge, October 30).
The impact of the European Commission’s recommendation will reverberate beyond Georgia’s borders. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz pointed out that the granting of candidate status means efforts are underway to establish a “Greater Europe from Lisbon to Tbilisi” (Agenda.ge, October 16). Russia, Iran, and Turkey have also been monitoring the situation with great interest. EU candidate status and potential future membership would disrupt the Russian-initiated “3+3” negotiating format (Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia “plus” Russia, Turkey, and Iran) in the South Caucasus. Moscow has tried to use this format to limit Western influence in the region. Georgia officially refuses to participate in these negotiations due to the Kremlin’s participation. Tbilisi, nevertheless, has held informal consultations with Moscow on Georgia’s possible inclusion in the future. Some Georgian experts and media outlets close to the ruling elite have been actively promoting this change of heart. Absent a Georgian delegation, the joint communiqué from the second meeting of the “3+3” format on October 23 in Tehran “confirmed the openness of this platform to the equal participation of Georgia” (Mfa.ir, October 23). In addition, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov expressed the Kremlin’s hope that Georgia will soon join the negotiations (TASS, October 23).
If the European Commission had refused to recommend candidate status, Georgia’s ruling elite likely would have used that decision to incite an anti-Western and anti-EU campaign. It could also have been presented as a pretext for joining the “3+3” format. The Georgian government has already employed such geopolitical maneuvering with its recent announcement of an expanding strategic partnership with China (Gov.ge, July 31; see EDM, August 10).
The European Union’s recommendation of candidate status represents a decisive victory in the struggle to cement Georgia’s Western orientation. The decision is an important signal to the country’s pro-European population that they will not be left in the lurch. Brussels, however, cannot stop there. In guiding Georgia to official membership, the European Union will make the definitive statement that the South Caucasus is part of Europe and can begin weakening Moscow’s and Beijing’s respective influence in the region.