As expected, at the European Union summit in Brussels, on June 23, the European Council decided not to award membership candidate status to Georgia. The EU’s top agenda-setting body, composed of the bloc’s heads of state and government, only conceded its readiness to grant the status of a candidate country to Georgia once Tbilisi addressed all of the reservations specified in the European Commission’s opinion on the Georgian membership application. Pro-Kremlin media outlets cynically panned the EU decision: “Europe Betrayed Georgia,” RIA Novosti thundered on its pages (RIA Novosti, June 23). In the days leading up to the EU summit, many European leaders, including the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, called on Europe’s leaders to officially grant candidate status to all three aspiring countries—Georgia as well as Ukraine and Moldova (Twitter.com/CharlesMichel, June 20). The United States Congressional Helsinki Commission made a similar appeal (Csce.gov, June 22). But this did not help Georgia’s case.
Although Georgia was refused EU candidate status, the bloc did recognize the country’s European perspective. The EU decision, thus, finally ended the dispute about whether Georgia is a European country or not. However, Brussels confronted the Georgian authorities, accusing them of sustaining oligarchic rule.
More broadly, the June 23 decision impacted the geopolitical alignment in the region. First of all, Georgia is now in danger of losing its place in the so-called Eastern Partnership EU trio—Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova. With this geopolitical fracture, there is a real danger that as the only one of the three without a definitive EU membership track, Georgia could be left alone and compelled to “return” to the South Caucasus region, which is associated with Russia’s “backyard.” It is quite symbolic that almost immediately following the recommendation of the European Commission to reject Georgia’s candidate status, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili went on a working visit not to Brussels but to Yerevan, Armenia (YouTube, June 18). Then, on June 20, he traveled to the Qatari capital of Doha, where he unexpectedly declared, “We are not naïve, we understand Georgia has territorial problems, we must solve them first and then become a member of NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization]” (Facebook.com/GaribashviliOfficial, June 21). With this statement, he effectively repeated a Russian talking point, jeopardizing the prospects of one day integrating his country into the North Atlantic Alliance. Moreover, Garibashvili conspicuously made this remark only a week before NATO was scheduled to hold its summit in Madrid (June 28–30), thereby reinforcing suspicions both at home and abroad that the country’s authorities are increasingly deviating from a clear Euro-Atlantic course.
Georgian officials were somewhat taken aback by a comment made by French President Emanuele Macron earlier this month, while in Chisinau. “I do not think we can dissociate Moldova from Ukraine in the prospects that we give,” he noted before adding that although Georgia is also on the table as a potential candidate, the country is in “a different place geopolitically” (Civil.ge, June 16). Garibashvili responded to Macron’s words a week later, in his annual address to the parliament, noting that when Georgia’s heroic soldiers died for the preservation of peace (alluding to the contributions made by the Georgian contingents in Afghanistan and other hot spots around the world), no one was much concerned about the country’s geography (Facebook.com/GaribashviliOfficial, June 22). The authorities are, thus, essentially trying to argue that the blame for the failure to achieve EU candidacy status rests mainly on a factor they cannot control: that is, Georgia’s disputed geographical location. However, the prime minister additionally lashed out at Georgia’s neighbors. Namely, Garibashvili claimed that one of the heads of the ruling party of Ukraine, David Arakhamia (who is of Georgian origin), had specifically petitioned the EU not to grant Georgia candidate status (Facebook.com/GaribashviliOfficial, June 22).
Some European politicians sought to encourage Georgia after its failed candidate bid by stressing the EU’s recognition of the country’s European perspective (Ec.europa.eu, June 17). For example, a German member of the European Parliament, Viola von Cramon-Taubadel, stated on Twitter, “Georgia is Europe because its people say so! It is a nation with European heart, European values, European future. No political party or external country can change that. Doors of the EU are wide open for you. You the people have power to determine the fate of your country” (Twitter.com/ViolavonCramon, June 21). And indeed, the European Commission’s initial recommendation regarding candidate status clearly declared, “Georgia is a European State” (Ec.europa.eu, June 17). Still, the French president’s opinion in the Moldovan capital offered the Georgian authorities an opportunity to justify themselves to an internal audience: the leader of the ruling party, Irakli Kobakhidze, argued at a press briefing that the EU decision not to award candidate status to the country was justified by geographical considerations. He expressed the hope that, in the future, the geographic factor will fall by the wayside (Facebook.com/KobakhidzeOfficial, June 17).
Yet geography had little to do with the European bloc’s decision on whether to open the door to Georgia. The main stumbling block was not the country’s location in the turbulent South Caucasus, nor lobbying from other regional neighbors. Rather, membership candidacy was withheld because the Georgian authorities were unable to convince their European partners of having stuck with their promised political reforms (see EDM, June 21). So although the actual obstacles to Georgia’s European future are not insurmountable or outside Tbilisi’s control, the road to Europe will be long and difficult, necessitating a serious policy change by the authorities. Barring that, the ruling government may find popular sentiment turning sharply against it in the streets.