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Georgia’s EU Aspirations Jeopardized by Controversial New Law

  • EU foreign ministers will discuss potential sanctions and other actions against Georgia if the controversial foreign agent law is passed.
  • The new law, criticized for targeting civil society and media, could jeopardize Georgia's EU accession process.
  • Options for the EU include cutting financial aid, sanctioning officials, stalling accession talks, and suspending visa liberalization.
Georgia

EU foreign ministers will discuss the situation in Georgia when they assemble in Brussels on May 27. Brussels is still hoping that the country's controversial "foreign agent" law, which is expected to be finally passed this week, will be withdrawn or sufficiently watered down. The bill has been heavily criticized by Western countries and rights groups for creating a framework to clamp down on civil society and free media.

Until the law is adopted, the EU is unlikely to do anything. But what then are the bloc's options? The European Commission will be tasked with drawing up a paper, and there are roughly four major things that could be done: cut EU money to the country, sanction high-ranking Georgian politicians, stall the country's EU accession process, and suspend visa liberalization.

The perhaps most obvious option, and one that the U.S. Congress is currently considering, is to slap asset freezes and visa bans on leading Georgian politicians. The potential wrench in the works here is that you need unanimity among EU member states, something that will be hard to achieve.

Cutting funds from the EU budget is something the European Commission can do without a green light from member states, but there is an obstacle here as well. Georgia gets some 85 million euros ($92 million) a year in grants, some of which goes directly to the state and some to organizations within the country. A lot of that money supports the country's civil society sector -- something Brussels wants to protect now more than ever.

Deep Background: What about Georgia's EU accession process? When the Georgian Parliament voted in favor of the controversial legislation for the third time on May 14, the EU issued a statement noting that "the adoption of this law negatively impacts Georgia's progress on the EU path."

At the moment, Georgia has official candidate status, and the next step is to open accession talks. In many ways, though, the point is moot as no enlargement decisions are expected anytime soon. The European Commission's big report on the issue is due in October, and then, based on that, EU member states will decide in December.

One slight complication is that most likely at the end of June, the EU will aim to formally start accession talks with Moldova and Ukraine, as well as advancing the EU integration processes of Serbia and Montenegro. There is already a lot of tricky political choreography in trying to please various camps of EU member states that are advocating for the EU hopefuls in the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe. Very few EU officials I have spoken to want to complicate matters further by adding Georgia to the mix.

Some members of the European Parliament have called for Georgia's candidate status to be reversed, but that is something that has never happened in EU history. And to do that, you would need to secure the ever-illusive unanimity.

The most likely scenario is maintaining the status quo: Georgia would remain a candidate to join the EU but without accession talks starting anytime soon. The question for policymakers is whether the Georgian government would even see this as a setback. Negotiations take years even with the best candidates, and the ruling Georgian Dream party can always point to the fact that it was actually them that delivered Georgia's candidate status in 2023.

Drilling Down:

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  • It's worth remembering that the Georgian government has friends in high places that could alleviate the pain: Hungary, Slovakia, and Oliver Varhelyi, the Hungarian enlargement commissioner and ally of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, have all been supportive of Georgia's bid to join the EU.
  • As an illustration of their influence, it took 21 hours for the EU to issue a statement condemning the May 14 vote to approve the bill in the Georgian Parliament. Hungary and Slovakia blocked multiple drafts before the statement was signed on behalf of the 27 EU members states.
  • Diplomatic sources in Brussels from various member states told me Hungary believes the EU shouldn't interfere in internal matters. Slovakia's new populist government is also pondering a "foreign agent"-style law, which could be used to target civil society.
  • When member states couldn't agree on the wording, it was up to EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell to issue a statement instead. But that statement was held up by Varhelyi, who, in the end, withdrew his name from it, reportedly objecting to text linking the passing of the "foreign agent" law to Georgia's EU accession process. It will be interesting to see how much of a Georgia supporter Varhelyi will be going forward. After the Georgian prime minister accused him of threatening Georgia in a phone call last week, Varhelyi apologized, saying his words had been taken out of context.
  • That just leaves us with suspending visa liberalization. This is a solid option, as it doesn't require unanimity. To pass, it requires only qualified majority voting (QMV) -- meaning 55 percent of member states, normally 15 out of 27, representing 65 percent of the total EU population -- would suffice.
  • This, however, could be a controversial move as the visa-free regime, which went into effect in 2017, is perhaps the single most popular EU policy among Georgians. And many diplomats from EU countries feel it would be unfair to target the entire population this way.
  • My understanding, however, is there is a growing number of countries -- though possibly not yet enough for a QMV majority -- that are considering this option or at least haven't ruled it out completely.
  • For the visa suspension mechanism to be triggered, it is enough that one EU member state signals to the European Commission that there are problems with a specific third country enjoying visa-free travel to the EU. The commission must then issue a report on the matter. If the commission sides with the complainant, EU member states can temporarily suspend visa-free travel for a limited period of time via QMV, and then, if the issues persist, fully suspend it again via QMV.
  • The EU has only suspended visa liberalization once. That was in the case of Vanuatu, an island country in the South Pacific. In March 2022, the visa waiver was temporarily suspended due to the country's use of investor citizenship schemes, known as "golden passports." As Vanuatu didn't do anything to address Brussels' concerns, a decision to fully suspend visa-free travel was taken in November of that same year.
  • From EU officials I have spoken to, it seems there is a consensus that visa suspensions should only be considered when there are clear "home affairs issues" -- say, for example, third-country citizens using visa liberalization to seek asylum in the EU, or there are too many overstays from the 180-day limit. But there is also the so-called democracy criteria, and other diplomats I have spoken to believe that enacting the "foreign agent" law would be a clear case for tightening visa requirements.

By RFE/RL 

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