Input Paper „Ten argu­ments why Georgia should get the EU can­di­date status, despite its obvious demo­cra­tic backslide“

Foto: Zurab Kurtsikidze

Im Rahmen unseres Pro­jek­tes „Öst­li­che Part­ner­schaft Plus“ ver­öf­fent­li­chen wir eine Reihe von Input Papers zum Thema: Per­spek­ti­ven und Wege zum EU-Kan­­­di­­­da­­­ten­sta­­­tus für die Ukraine, Geor­gien und die Repu­blik Moldau.

Für Geor­gien ana­ly­siert Sergi Kapa­nadze die po­li­ti­sche Lage und for­mu­liert seine Hand­lungs­emp­feh­lun­gen an die Ent­schei­dungs­trä­gerInnen in Berlin und Brüssel, warum die EU ein geo­po­li­ti­scher Akteur werden sollte und dem Trio im Juni einen EU-Kan­­­di­­­da­­­ten­sta­­­tus ver­lei­hen sollte.

“Favor­able” geo­po­li­ti­cal context

Russia’s aggres­sion against Ukraine makes it clear that Ukrai­ni­ans are figh­t­ing for the freedom, secu­rity and Euro­pean future of the whole Eastern neigh­bor­hood. States between the West and Russia are in danger of losing their sov­er­eig­nty, freedom and ter­ri­to­ries. Ukraine’s app­li­ca­tion to become a member of the EU hap­pened in this chan­ging geo­po­li­ti­cal envi­ron­ment. Georgia’s and Moldova’s his­to­ri­cal quest to cut loose from Russian influ­ence and re-estab­lish them­sel­ves as members of the Euro­pean family of nations was mani­fes­ted in the EU mem­bers­hip app­li­ca­ti­ons. The­re­fore, for the Trio part­ners, the EU mem­bers­hip app­li­ca­ti­ons are more than a simple bureau­cra­tic pro­ce­dure to accede to Euro­pean institutions.

Worri­some domestic developments

Against this “favor­able” geo­po­li­ti­cal context, recent domestic news from Georgia has not been encou­ra­ging. What the EU leaders and offi­cials in Berlin and else­where have heard in the last few years can be summed up as strands of worri­some deve­lo­p­ments, such as the prac­tice of infor­mal rule by an olig­arch, con­tro­ver­sial elec­tions, arrest of poli­ti­cal oppon­ents, lin­ge­ring poli­ti­cal crisis, torn up poli­ti­cal agree­ment media­ted by Charles Michel in 2021, ques­ti­ons whether Russia is using Georgia to cir­cum­vent sanc­tions, widespread illegal wire­tap­ping prac­tice, attacks on free media, Government’s fre­quent cri­ti­cism of the EU, non-com­pli­ance to EU recom­men­da­ti­ons regar­ding poli­ti­cal and insti­tu­tio­nal pro­ces­ses and demo­niz­a­tion of the long­stan­ding friends of Georgia, who are now cri­ti­cal of back­sli­ding democracy.

The worri­some head­line of recent days is the arrest of the direc­tor of the largest oppo­si­tion TV station – Mtavari TV. Charges are ridi­cu­lous – Nika Gva­ra­mia was sen­ten­ced to 3 years for using the vehicle of the company he pre­viously managed (Rustavi 2 TV) for family and private use. Rustavi 2 was cri­ti­cal of the Government when Gva­ra­mia managed it and became a pro­pa­gan­dist of the Geor­gian Dream after the owner and manage­ment were changed in 2019. A few months earlier, the founder of another oppo­si­tion TV channel, Formula TV, was sen­ten­ced in absentia.

These are not the news a country seeking to join the Euro­pean Union should gene­rate. Fol­lowing the dra­ma­tic geo­po­li­ti­cal shift in the region, Georgia applied for the EU mem­bers­hip on March 3 and filled in the Euro­pean Commission’s ques­ti­onn­aire by the May 12 dead­line. Now the whole nation awaits the verdict of the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion and the Euro­pean Council in June 2022.

Sce­n­a­rios regar­ding Georgia’s EU application

We can draw several pos­si­ble sce­n­a­rios about the EU’s response to Georgia’s mem­bers­hip application.

Sce­n­a­rio 1: Georgia will be granted the Euro­pean per­spec­tive, which it has sought from the Euro­pean Union since 2013. This will put Georgia on the enlar­ge­ment track, however, without a clear path, con­di­ti­ons and timeline.

Sce­n­a­rio 2: Georgia will be granted the Euro­pean per­spec­tive and will be given a set of con­di­ti­ons, suc­cess­ful imple­men­ta­tion of which could lead to the can­di­date status. These con­di­ti­ons could be vague and pro­tra­c­ted in time or con­crete and limited in time. The Euro­pean Council might con­clude that it will return to the decision on Georgia’s can­di­date status after a con­crete period, pending the pro­gress on the conditions.

Sce­n­a­rio 3: Georgia will be granted the EU can­di­date status; however, con­di­tio­na­lity will be applied to the start of the acces­sion nego­tia­ti­ons. These con­di­ti­ons are highly likely to be detailed and strict.

There is an under­stan­ding in Georgia that Ukraine’s case will be reviewed sepa­r­ately by the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion and the Member States. Because of the geo­po­li­ti­cal impli­ca­ti­ons of the decision on Ukraine, there is a likeli­hood that Ukraine will receive special tre­at­ment in terms of the status, con­di­tio­na­li­ties and time frame. This is well unders­tood and accep­ted in Tbilisi. However, Tbilisi also stron­gly belie­ves that the Trio coun­tries should not be sepa­ra­ted in the context of the decision on can­di­date status, though dif­fe­ren­tia­tion and more-for-more (and less-for-less) princi­ples should be applied as the rela­ti­ons proceed in the post-can­di­date period.

The poli­ti­cal spec­trum in Georgia, civil society orga­niz­a­ti­ons, and experts favor Sce­n­a­rio 3, even though the recent attacks on free media and poli­ti­cal oppon­ents make it harder for the cham­pions of Georgia’s EU inte­gra­tion to argue Georgia’s case. This dis­cus­sion paper attempts pre­cisely that – to argue Georgia’s case despite worri­some demo­cra­tic backsliding.

Argu­ments in favor of Georgia’s EU can­di­date status

Below are the ten argu­ments which trump the bad news and show why Georgia should still be granted the can­di­date status. In other words, these are the argu­ments in favor of Sce­n­a­rio 3.

First and most import­antly: the EU’s decision to grant can­di­date status to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia must be geo­po­li­ti­cal and not a bureau­cra­tic one. If the Euro­pean Union coun­ters Russia’s aggres­sion by pro­vi­ding the enlar­ge­ment track to the Trio coun­tries, that decision ought to be a geo­po­li­ti­cal one. Simi­larly, in a geo­po­li­ti­cal move, in 2009, after Russia invaded Georgia, the EU decided to create the Eastern Part­ners­hip and grant Asso­cia­tion agree­ments, DCFTAs and visa-free regimes to the Eastern neigh­bors. With­hol­ding the can­di­date status now will be a serious blow to the geo­po­li­ti­cal credi­bi­lity of the West and the EU in Georgia and the broader neighborhood.

Second: the EU can­di­date status is not a reward for the Government and any par­ti­cu­lar party but for the country and people. Over 80% of the Geor­gi­ans stron­gly support the Euro­pean inte­gra­tion path. One of the reasons why no poli­ti­cal party, inclu­ding the ruling Geor­gian Dream, dared to deviate from the Euro­pean path openly is the poten­tial wrath of Euro­pean minded Geor­gi­ans. Strong Euro­pean iden­tity has been the main instru­ment that the EU could have used for exer­cis­ing a more effec­tive con­di­tio­na­lity over the Geor­gian Dream in recent years. It was seldom so. Now is the time when by gran­ting can­di­date status, the Euro­pean Union can make the Geor­gian people its ally (or vice versa) in pres­sing the Geor­gian Dream to get serious about the reforms.

Third: can­di­date status does not equal mem­bers­hip. Many friends of Georgia claim that the Government, whose poli­cies are so unde­mo­cra­tic, has nothing to do with the family of Euro­pean nations. This might be true when it comes to mem­bers­hip. However, we all know that gran­ting the can­di­date status is only a step toward mem­bers­hip, which will only happen after a long road con­sis­ting of opening acces­sion nego­tia­ti­ons, opening and closing 35 chap­ters of the acces­sion treaty and final poli­ti­cal decisi­ons by the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion, Member States and the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment. This process could take years and will undoub­tedly be longer than the time horizon of the current ruling party. Albania recei­ved can­di­date status in 2014, opened nego­tia­ti­ons six years later and is nowhere close to the EU mem­bers­hip yet.

Fourth: the EU’s can­di­date status must come with strin­gent con­di­ti­ons on the inde­pen­dence of the judi­ciary, halting of attacks against poli­ti­cal oppon­ents, the release of poli­ti­cal pri­so­ners, ensu­ring freedom of media, tack­ling cor­rup­tion and other reforms from the Copen­ha­gen poli­ti­cal cri­te­ria play­book. These con­di­ti­ons should be linked with the start of acces­sion nego­tia­ti­ons and be mea­sura­ble and limited in time. The EU must connect these con­di­ti­ons with the 2024 elec­tions time­frame to oblige Geor­gian Dream to imple­ment them immedia­tely or risk losing elec­tions. In other words, the EU has real leverage now, and if it grants Georgia the can­di­date status, the leverage can actually be effec­tive. If, however, can­di­date status is not given, Georgia might revert to the post-Soviet abyss, and the Government of Georgia will have a free hand to con­ti­nue non-demo­cra­tic reforms and drag Georgia down the Lukas­henka path.

Fifth: the EU should intro­duce the sus­pen­sion clause for the can­di­date status if the reforms are not duly and fully imple­men­ted. With this clause, the EU could effec­tively enforce con­di­tio­na­lity, some­thing it has not done before vis-a-vis Georgia. The pos­si­ble sus­pen­sion will be like a threat of a poli­ti­cal nuclear bomb and Damo­cles’ sword of con­di­tio­na­lity. Fear of losing the can­di­date status will stron­gly dis­cou­rage Geor­gian leaders from con­ti­nuing their unde­mo­cra­tic rule. Failed poli­ti­cal agree­ment media­ted by Charles Michel is a good example. Because Geor­gian Dream knew that no reper­cus­sions would follow, it with­drew from the agree­ment it had signed months earlier and window-dressed the reforms it was sup­po­sed to under­take. Fur­ther­more, with the sus­pen­sion clause in place, Geor­gian Dream will not manage to “sell” the can­di­date status as a “reward” for its “demo­cra­tic” gover­nance – the argu­ment that the con­cer­ned friends of Georgia often use.

Sixth: Georgia’s pro-western oppo­si­tion, media and civil society need support from the West. That requi­res strai­ght-jacke­ting of the Government into the set of heavy demo­cra­tic con­di­ti­ons. Without the can­di­date status, these con­di­ti­ons will never be treated seriously, and the Government will have no sti­mu­lus to abide by them. Pro-Western forces in Georgia, simi­larly, will have no con­di­tio­na­lity to refer to and will have even less power than today to press the Government internally.

Seventh: the EU risks making the same mistake as NATO in 2008 when Georgia was pro­mi­sed mem­bers­hip but was not given a Mem­bers­hip Action Plan. If Georgia recei­ves the Euro­pean per­spec­tive but is not given the can­di­date status, par­al­lels will be impos­si­ble to ignore. It will encou­rage Russia to seek more influ­ence over the decision-makers in Tbilisi and develop addi­tio­nal lever­a­ges, whether eco­no­mic or mili­tary. When Moscow senses weak­ness, it usually acts swiftly and ruth­lessly, while the EU often pursues a path-depen­dent course of action. Not gran­ting the can­di­date status to Georgia will be inter­pre­ted by Moscow as a carte blanche for more aggres­sive actions in the next few years.

Eighth: if the EU does not grant Georgia the can­di­date status, pro-Russian forces in Georgia will gloat and strive. Their message that the EU only wants Ukrai­ni­ans and Geor­gi­ans to fight Russia while not giving in return even the “sym­bo­lic” can­di­date status will be hard to counter. Dis­in­for­ma­tion, the main instru­ment of pro-Russian forces in Georgia, will be re-equip­ped with a solid argu­ment – ‘EU and NATO only snub Georgia, while Russia is strong and dan­ge­rous, so why look West?’ The res­ur­gence of pro-Russian forces could, in turn, be explo­i­ted by the Geor­gian Dream government, which has pre­viously gone at length to pacify pro-Russian forces through con­ces­si­ons and empowe­ring. Geor­gian Dream banned the sale of agri­cul­tu­ral land and defined mar­riage as a union of man and woman through con­sti­tu­tio­nal changes to appease these forces. They might under­take further non-Euro­pean steps that limit free­doms and liber­ties but are music to the ears of the Kremlin and its cronies in Georgia.

Ninth: Russia is now waiting for July for South Osse­ti­ans to hold a refe­ren­dum on whether to join Russia. This refe­ren­dum will likely be held in the same package as refe­renda in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kherson. Suppose Georgia steps into July without the can­di­date status; in that case, Russia will likely black­mail the Geor­gian Government with the threat of annex­ing South Ossetia unless the Geor­gian Government back­tracks on the EU mem­bers­hip. Annex­a­tion of the Geor­gian ter­ri­tory by Russia, even if it does not change much in terms of the status quo, will be a severe de jure deve­lo­p­ment. It will throw any hopes of ever res­to­ring ter­ri­to­rial inte­grity into a long box. Without the can­di­date status, no mem­bers­hip to aspire to and a threat of annex­a­tion immi­nent – the Geor­gian Government might yield further to the pres­sure. And pro-Kremlin forces inside Georgia will gloat and revive again.

Tenth: the Trio will be broken up if Ukraine recei­ves the can­di­date status and Georgia (and Moldova) don’t. These three Eastern Part­ners­hip states created the Trio format in 2021 with an under­stan­ding that Euro­pean inte­gra­tion only happens one region at a time. All three coun­tries know that they will need to even­tually pursue intra-Trio inte­gra­tion, similar to the Berlin Process for the Balkans. But if the three are put in two sepa­rate baskets, this could back­fire, as Ukraine will attempt to de-link from Georgia, while Georgia might remain on the wrong side of the new iron curtain.

How about the Balkans?

We have often heard that any acce­le­ra­tion of the EU inte­gra­tion track for the Eastern Part­ners will be “unfair” to the Balkans. Austria and Germany are some of the several EU members who defend this argu­ment. However, it is highly likely that the Balkan can­di­da­tes will still join the EU well before the Eastern part­ners, so these con­cerns seem to be exaggerated.

The chart below shows that the time frame for the Balkan states recei­ving can­di­date status until the opening of acces­sion nego­tia­ti­ons varies from 1 (Serbia) to 15 (Nort­hern Mace­do­nia) years. Thus, gran­ting the can­di­date status to Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova will only put these coun­tries in the same enlar­ge­ment basket as the Balkans and not in a more favor­able posi­tion, as is often implied. If the poli­ti­cal decision is made in the EU to allow best per­forming Balkan states to join, it could be done rela­tively fast. What will be more unfair is if the Eastern part­ners are put on the waiting list for the can­di­date status because of the lack of poli­ti­cal decision on Balkan enlargement.

Moreo­ver, the EU has con­sist­ently argued that each aspi­rant country has to be judged on its merit. Accord­ing to the study publis­hed by the CEPS (Center of Euro­pean Policy Studies) in 2021, Balkan and Eastern part­ners­hip states are “broadly com­pa­ra­ble on the sum of poli­ti­cal, legal and eco­no­mic policy cri­te­ria”. Balkans are a little ahead on the poli­ti­cal and legal cri­te­ria, while East Euro­peans fare better on trade and eco­no­mic policies.¹ The report also illus­tra­tes that the three East Euro­pean states are closer to the better Balkan states than the two lag­gards – Bosnia and Kosovo. The­re­fore, putting the Eastern Part­ners­hip states on an equal footing with some Balkan states is quite fair. This, however, does not mean that the Trio will leapfrog the Balkans in the mem­bers­hip race.


Georgia is at the cross­roads of its Euro­pean inte­gra­tion path. Russia’s aggres­sion in Ukraine created momen­tum for the fast-tracking of EU inte­gra­tion for Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. Of the pos­si­ble sce­n­a­rios, the most appe­aling for Georgia’s demo­cra­tic deve­lo­p­ment is gran­ting a can­di­date status with heavy con­di­tio­na­lity in rela­tion to the pos­si­bi­lity to open acces­sion nego­tia­ti­ons once the demo­cra­tic reforms are con­duc­ted. Despite the serious back­tracking of demo­cracy in Georgia, the Euro­pean Union could grant Georgia the can­di­date status but intro­duce the sus­pen­sion clause if the demo­cra­tic rever­sal continues.

The Euro­pean Union must hold Georgia accoun­ta­ble to high demo­cra­tic stan­dards and press the Geor­gian Dream to immedia­tely stop the unde­mo­cra­tic prac­ti­ces it has been engaged in for the last several years. This can be done more effec­tively with Georgia recei­ving the can­di­date status in June 2022. The few weeks between the publi­ca­tion of the Commission’s opinion and the meeting of the Euro­pean Council on June 23 will be crucial for pushing the Geor­gian Dream to imple­ment some of the long-overdue reforms and address the ques­ti­ons of poli­ti­ci­zed justice. Coun­tries often deliver during the last days of the poli­ti­cal decisi­ons, so, if played well, the EU could exert maximum con­ces­si­ons from the Geor­gian Dream on the demo­cra­tic reforms.

The pro­blems with demo­cracy that Georgia now faces will be over­come even­tually by the Geor­gian people, as they have done so in 2003 and 2012 when the rela­tive depri­va­tion of needed reforms has cli­ma­xed into the collec­tive action. Geor­gi­ans will do so again. And having the can­di­date status will only streng­t­hen the resolve of the Geor­gian people and demo­cra­tic forces in the country to fight for their Euro­pean future. While with­hol­ding the candidate’s status might demo­ti­vate Geor­gi­ans and turn the nation into an easier prey for Russian dis­in­for­ma­tion and even­tual take-over.

¹ Michael Emerson, “Buil­ding a New Momen­tum for Euro­pean Inte­gra­tion of the Balkan and Eastern Euro­pean Asso­cia­tes States”, 09.03.2021, Center of Euro­pean Policy Studies

Sergi Kapa­nadze, Georgia’s Reforms Asso­cia­tes (GRASS)

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