COLCHIS: Visa myopia and the death of Euro-Atlantic conditionality

COLCHIS: Visa myopia and the death of Euro-Atlantic conditionality
Nato's HQ in Brussels. / Photo by Nato
By Michael Cecire of the Foreign Policy Research Institute June 14, 2016

Euro-Atlantic conditionality – the policy of attaching conditions over matters such as reforms on countries trying to join the Nato and the EU – is on life support. For evidence, one need not look much further than the EU’s apparent decision to table plans to implement visa liberalization with Georgia and, in all likelihood, with Ukraine and possibly even Kosovo and Turkey.

Of course, we know that all four of these states have already largely met the EU’s rigorous technical standards for visa liberalization. Each country – Georgia, Kosovo, Turkey, and Ukraine – have already received the go-ahead from the European Commission. This final stage, by the way it had been discussed locally and internationally, was widely seen as mostly a formality. This no longer appears to be the case.

In the last few days, European doubts over the visa liberalization scheme have centered on Georgia’s bid, with reports pegging Germany (supported by France and Italy) as the chief impediment to Tbilisi’s free movement hopes. Reportedly, German opposition stems from a hyped “crime spree”, later debunked by Germany’s own statistics, and, separately, Berlin’s purported desire to delay Georgia’s acceptance until Ukraine is also ready.

On a certain level, Germany and the EU’s decision to delay broader implementation is rooted in some semblance of logic. Kosovo, while likely deserving on many of the technical merits, is not even recognized as a sovereign country by five European states. And Turkey, though finally emerging from its long (and mostly unfair) exclusion from European free movement accords, has its own talks invariably bound to – and complicated by – its separate “grand bargain” with the EU on Syrian refugee flows. Meanwhile, Ukraine, though an eager Euro-Atlantic hopeful since the ouster of ex-president Viktor Yanukovich, is a country of 45mn in the midst of a titanic economic depression and a reputed hotbed for corruption.

But Georgia, which has made genuine progress on corruption and governance, should have been the shoo-in of the lot. With a population of only 3.7mn, a still-expanding economy and a largely pragmatic government, an EU-Georgia visa free pact is a demonstrably low-risk proposition.

This does not mean that Georgia is without its blemishes. The country still has work to do ensuring its democracy is robust and durable – though this is something that both the US and Europe are finding increasingly true at home as well. And while Germany’s fears of Georgian criminals are almost certainly overblown, they really should come as no surprise to any Georgian. Georgia has long had a perceived problem with exporting criminality to Europe; Georgian crime bosses Tariel Oniani and Aslan Usoyan (“Ded Hasan”) are well known figures in the criminal underworld, and Georgians are among those most frequently arrested in European operations against organized crime. In truth, almost every Georgian (and probably more than a few expats) personally know at least someone who has gone to Europe to “work” in some profession of legal dubiousness. It is a practice that is an open secret, tolerated, and even celebrated when the prodigal sons return to their hometowns and villages, bearing improbable sums of cash in hand.

Of course, steep poverty in Georgia -- particularly in the regions, where it seems especially intractable -- plays a major role. People will do what they must to survive; and successive Georgian governments’ failure to appreciably emphasize inclusive growth (though this has improved somewhat in recent years) has likely only contributed to this phenomenon. It is also probably no mistake that Georgians’ notoriety as criminals abroad mirrors their own home country’s well deserved international reputation for safety.

All that said, it is not as though Tbilisi has not been accommodating of European concerns. Quite the opposite, in fact. The Georgian government has essentially bent over backwards in order to satisfy the technical requirement needed to visa liberalization: it has signed security agreements with multiple European states; constructed migrant and asylum centres; developed modern border-crossing infrastructure; and even radically clamped down on its once-highly liberal visa regime to better harmonize with European standards -- not without significant pain and controversy.

All of this hard work was recognized in the European Commission’s recommendation to grant Georgia visa liberalization – and dashed by the EU’s unjustifiable decision to delay it. Whatever European worries remain – Georgian “crime”, the bizarre lumping together of Georgia and Ukraine (a supremely unfortunate development in matters such as these), or the open secret of partisan lobbying – the simple fact remains that Georgia’s visa liberalization bid has already been deemed technically sound. Any further delays at this point are an affront not only to Georgia’s hard work in good faith, but to the integrity of the process itself and the very notion of Euro-Atlantic conditionality.

Parade of backtracking

Delaying or aborting the process over political exigencies – particularly this late in the game – is a potentially massive blow to one of the few robust mechanisms of Euro-Atlantic conditionality. In an era where the prospect of Nato and EU membership are beyond the realm of reasonable possibility for new aspirants, standalone integration measures like visa liberalization are among the few Western programmes that offer tangible benefits. Withholding that prospect from Georgia or other qualified applicants undermines both the EU’s stated investment in supporting Westernization efforts in Eastern Europe and one of the few means to incentivize doing so.

Western policymakers and analysts sometimes fail to consider developments in Eastern Europe and Eurasia outside of a holistic context, and too often treat those regions with fitful, inconsistent regard. Examples abound: Nato’s “open door” imposing impossibly steep standards to which even many member states often cannot meet; the frequent Western practice of pigeonholing developments within an East-West binary; or the habit of putting bizarre, but ultimately minor, internal affairs under an international microscope. In this case, Western institutions project the Euro-Atlantic space as inclusive and an achievable destination for aspirants on the European periphery, but fail (or refuse) to match lofty conditions with practical, intermediate benefits.

Unfortunately, this recent blow to the idea of Euro-Atlantic conditionality is but the latest in what has become a parade of backtracking by the nominally “open” West. During the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, unable to agree to granting Georgia or Ukraine concrete, standards-based pathways into the alliance, NATO instead took the catastrophic step of offering open ended, unqualified declarations that Georgia and Ukraine “will become members of NATO” – a prospect that remains as distant as ever for both countries. In the wake of the 2008 Georgia-Russia war, Western solidarity with Georgia was ephemeral, and despite flagrant Russian contravention of the EU-brokered ceasefire, European states remained all too willing to return to business as usual with Moscow. And at NATO’s 2014 summit in Wales, the alliance met Russian aggression in Ukraine and along the NATO eastern flank with a policy of retrenchment among existing members, which divided Europe into the “haves” and “have nots”, effectively countenancing the very spheres of influence concept Russia promoted.

Georgia may have managed an Association Agreement and acceded to a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area with the EU, but neither of these developments appear to be little more than symbolic gestures to most ordinary Georgians. If anything, the injunctions accompanying Georgian efforts to harmonize with EU standards (imperfectly applied and enforced within the EU itself) have been a source of sociopolitical stress and economic pain -- at least for the short term. Visa liberalization, such that it is, was the rare Western benefits that Georgia’s growing middle class could look to with anticipation, particularly as transport offerings from Georgia to the EU rapidly expanded.

Western parochialism has consequences. Washington and Brussels cannot hope to maintain, much less expand, its relationships in Eastern Europe and Eurasia amid such erratic decision making. Even if Georgia’s visa liberalization is only moderately delayed to September, as some officials have mooted, the damage will already have been done. Georgian parliamentary elections, set for October, features an increasingly wide-open playing field and the prospect of anti-West parties entering the national legislature in force for the first time in modern history. Sensing the EU’s reflexive prejudices, Georgian voters will enter the thick of campaign season bearing the weariness of years of painful reforms and strategic uncertainty – and very little to show for it. It should come to no surprise that pro-Russia forces will look to capitalize on the EU’s extended indecisiveness, and Russia will dangle a variety of sweeteners to convince Georgian voters to abandon their pro-West principles.

If it does work, look for most Western analysts and officials to evade complicity, and to pin blame instead on Russian propaganda or on the Georgians themselves. But any such setback will be one engineered not in the smoky backrooms of the Kremlin or by Georgian reactionaries, but of the West’s own doing.

Michael Hikari Cecire is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Colchis columnist. Follow him on @mhikaric