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Navigating Georgia’s Potential Ascent To The EU

  • Despite failing to meet all 12 recommendations given by Brussels last year, there is a chance that Georgia might get EU candidate status.
  • EU officials express concerns about Georgia's commitment to closer EU ties, pointing to recent events such as the attempt to enact a foreign agent law and the resumption of flights to Russia.
  • The momentum for EU enlargement, now seen as inevitable, is pushing a sense of urgency for decision-making on potential new members, including Georgia, especially as institutional changes within the EU are expected in 2024.
Georgia EU

This week, the European Commission will give an "oral update" on how Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova are faring on their respective EU membership paths. This update will first be given to ambassadors of the 27 EU member states in Brussels on June 21, and then in Stockholm when the European affairs ministers from all the bloc's capitals meet for an informal EU general affairs council.

Don't expect this update to be very detailed; it is essentially a midterm review of the proper EU enlargement package that the European Commission will present in the second half of October. That package will give a thorough assessment and, crucially, recommendations on how to proceed with the trio -- recommendations that the member states later in December, via unanimity, will either endorse or reject.

The smart money, according to several officials I have spoken to on background who are familiar with the matter, is that there will be a green light by the end of the year for Moldova and Ukraine to start EU accession negotiations. The reasoning is that they are progressing well on the various conditions that were given to them in 2022 when they became official EU candidate countries.

Deep Background: The picture is less clear, though, when it comes to Georgia. Unlike Chisinau and Kyiv, Tbilisi did not get candidate status last year but currently sits one rung below the pair as a potential candidate country.

The Georgian government says they are hoping for a candidate status recommendation from the European Commission and EU member states this year and that they are well on their way to fulfill all 12 recommendations given to them last year by Brussels, apart from one: the need to address the issue of political polarization in the country, which the government claims has not been possible due to a noncooperative opposition.

EU officials I spoke with are less enthusiastic about Georgia's progress, though, with some even questioning whether Tbilisi is really interested in closer EU ties at the moment. They point to recent events such as the attempt to enact a foreign agent law and the resumption of flights to Russia as recent examples.

Yet despite all that, there is still very much a chance that the European Commission could recommend candidate status for Georgia in October and, by the end of the year, EU member states would be agreeable. After speaking with various EU officials, there are roughly four reasons that this may happen, even though Tbilisi is considered a long way from achieving all, or even most, of the dozen recommendations set out in the summer of 2022.

Drilling Down:

  • The first reason is the sense that the EU, as harsh as it might sound, has "devalued" what it means to be a candidate country by awarding this status to Bosnia-Herzegovina at the end of 2022. The status was given despite Sarajevo hardly meeting any of the 14 conditions or "key priorities," as they were called, that Brussels set out in 2019.
  • In fact, the assessment that the European Commission gave Bosnia in the most recent enlargement report was scathing. An EU official described it to me as "the worst report on a country ever given by Brussels." Yet a few months later all was forgotten as Bosnia became a candidate country. Why? Partly because Moldova and Ukraine got candidate status earlier that year and some EU member states, notably Slovenia and Austria, were pushing for Sarajevo to be included as well as it looked to them like the Western Balkans, in the EU queue for so long, was being bypassed.
  • Essentially all European countries that now want to join the EU are candidate countries -- the exception being Kosovo, which isn't recognized as an independent state by five EU member states and Georgia. So, the argument goes, it really wouldn't "cost" anything to let Bosnia in; it's seen by many EU officials and diplomats as low-hanging fruit.
  • The second reason has to do with political momentum. Suddenly, EU enlargement is alive again after being moribund for a decade. As I describe in my second brief this week, EU member state officials are now actively talking about how an enlarged bloc would actually function.
  • This momentum risks dying out as soon as next year as the EU, in 2024, will be entirely absorbed by the European Parliament elections in June and the subsequent jockeying among EU member states, political factions, and politicians to secure top positions such as the EU foreign policy chief, European Council and Commission presidents, and other important commission portfolios. There are no guarantees the potential changing of the guard in Brussels institutions will be friendly to enlargement. That has brought a sense of urgency to the proceedings and there is now a feeling that the time to make decisions on Georgia (as well as Moldova and Ukraine) is now, in order to "clear the decks" before a likely period of stagnation -- and some navel-gazing -- starts.
  • A third argument that has been made to recommend giving Georgia candidate status is that it makes sense simply because Kyiv and Chisinau will get the green light this year to start accession talks. If that pair moves ahead and Georgia doesn't, there will be too much of a separation among the trio. Moldova and Ukraine are already one step ahead of Georgia, and there is a feeling in Brussels that their grouping should be maintained.
  • So how to solve all of this? This leads us to the fourth reason Georgia still might get candidate status -- and it would be a classic "Brussels fudge" that I have come to understand is still on the table. It would mean Tbilisi gets candidate status but, at the same time, Brussels would add even more conditions for the country to comply with in order to reach the next stage -- opening accession talks. Brussels has a knack of being creative when inventing new conditions, and it would not be too much of a surprise if they added some more, possibly on the need to quickly align with EU foreign policy measures, for example.

How An Enlarged EU Could Function

What You Need To Know: The debate about how an enlarged EU should work is slowly gathering pace in various European capitals. Already last month, state secretaries for European affairs broached the topic and will do so again when they meet in Stockholm on June 21-22. EU leaders might also touch upon it when they gather in Brussels the following week.

A French-German working group on EU institutional reform, consisting of a dozen nongovernmental experts, was set up at the beginning of the year and is set to deliver its preliminary report in September. That might all sound very bureaucratic, but it is significant that the EU's two biggest member states are now openly and seriously considering enlarging the club, especially France, which for a long time has been quite skeptical about adding new members from the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe. As one eastern EU official recently told me on background: "It is clear that we are no longer talking about 'if' when it comes to enlargement but rather 'how' and 'when.'"

Of course, no one can offer any firm timelines: Ultimately that depends on how quickly countries that want to join can reform, as well as how great the desire is in all 27 current members to welcome them to the bloc. But already by December, there is hope among EU officials I have spoken to that a clear path for EU reform should be ready and that this will be a key issue on which the European Parliament elections in June 2024 will be fought.

Deep Background: Ahead of the meeting in Stockholm this week, the Swedish European Union Affairs Minister Jessika Roswall sent a letter to her counterparts in other EU member states titled Getting Ready For The Future -- A Discussion On Policy Orientation In View Of A Future Enlargement.

Seen by RFE/RL, the letter offers few concrete details about what sort of changes the bloc will need going forward, but there are some outlines with Roswall noting that "importantly, to have a fruitful discussion of substance, the starting point should not be the issue of treaty reforms. Since initiating such a process at this point would be both divisive and cumbersome, it should be embarked upon only with a broadly shared view of what we need to change."

Treaty reform has long been a difficult issue in the EU considering that it tends to lead to time-consuming referendums in various member states, so the question will be how to avoid it if the EU is to expand to include large countries like Ukraine or all six Western Balkan states. The Swedish minister noted that a working dinner on EU reforms will take place on June 21 together with former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb and Italian political scientist Nathalie Tocci joining the ministers, followed by more discussions the next day on three broad themes that she describes as "the union's general policy objectives, budgetary and financial issues, and the institutional setup."

Drilling Down:

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  • The most obvious challenge is likely to be the budget. It is not only that there would need to be more net contributors -- currently there are only five western EU states that pay more than they take out from the EU budget. It is likely that the budget will have to be bigger. The current seven-year EU budget stands at 1.8 trillion euros (around $2 trillion), and it took four days and nights for EU leaders to agree on it. Should the budget be agreed by unanimity and every seven years, or should there be a longer budget perspective agreed in a smoother way?
  • The question of moving away from decisions taken via unanimity to qualified majority voting, meaning 55 percent of member states representing at least 65 percent of the EU population voting in favor, is always a hot potato. One idea is to start using it when agreeing on human rights statements in foreign policy or approving EU civil missions.
  • The trick to accomplishing this without the need to change EU treaties does already exist within current EU laws. So-called passerelle clauses would allow the move from unanimity to consensus in some policy areas. But that move would, of course, require unanimity. Another idea is to use "constructive abstention," which means that instead of vetoing, you just don't vote. This, for example, has allowed military neutral countries such as Austria to wave through EU money for arms to Ukraine.
  • A lot of these clauses could also pertain to the enlargement process. Currently there are over 80 possibilities to veto progress of a candidate country. That could perhaps be reduced to just a few, such as a vote to start accession talks, and then a final vote to approve membership once the talks are concluded.
  • There is also talk of "staged accession" -- something that might appeal to the six Western Balkans hopefuls that, for nearly two decades, have been sitting in the EU waiting room. This concept could offer "carrots" such as a gradual participation in various policy fields, increased access to EU financing, and also partial participation in EU institutions. There are various ways of doing it, but such measures might mean certain countries wouldn't have veto powers, or the right to have their own European commissioner, or be able to nominate judges to the European Court of Justice.

Looking Ahead

After his trip to the United States last week, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg will make his way to another key alliance member, Germany, on June 19. While there, he will meet with the chancellor as well as the foreign and defense ministers. The upcoming July summit in Vilnius and what Ukraine could be offered both in terms of potential future membership and more immediate military aid will be high on the agenda. The leaders will also witness Air Defender 23, NATO's largest-ever air drill, involving 25 countries.

With Serbia and Kosovo once again on the brink, the EU is scrambling to come up with a diplomatic response. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell is hoping to host both Serbian President Alexander Vucic and Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti in Brussels this week for what he is calling a "crisis management meeting." No date has been set, but it is clear it won't be a regular Brussels dialogue meeting between Belgrade and Pristina in which the EU, for over a decade, has attempted to normalize relations between the pair.

By RFE/RL

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