COMMENT: Georgia awaits EU verdict on candidate status with trepidation

COMMENT: Georgia awaits EU verdict on candidate status with trepidation
Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili: “Our main message will be that Georgia deserves candidate status. [...] Now it is necessary to take a further step on the part of the European counterparts for the country to receive a deserved status.” / bne IntelliNews
By Zachary Weiss in Tbilisi October 9, 2023

The European Commission is set to report on Georgia’s progress towards European Union membership this month, after last year setting out 12 areas where it needed to make reforms. A formal decision on whether the South Caucasus state will be granted candidate status will then be announced in December.

Given how intensely the Georgian population has been pushing for EU accession, and the bitter domestic political fights that have ensued as a result, this imminent announcement could have serious repercussions in Georgia’s politics.

If the European Union signals that Georgia is making the necessary progress on integration, this would strengthen sentiment in support of the reforms the European Union has outlined, creating momentum for accession. For the European Union, this would also be a way to push back against growing Russian influence in Georgia.

Alternatively, if it were to give a negative report, this could accelerate Georgia’s drift away from the EU and towards Moscow. Georgia has not followed Western sanctions on Moscow and in fact has increased ties since the invasion of Ukraine.

A green light would not be a signal of the ruling Georgian Dream government’s actual preparedness for membership. The criteria that the European Union has set for Georgia have not been reached, or even approached, despite the government's boasts.

The EU’s criteria included reducing polarisation, de-oligarchisation, improving human rights, and increasing the effectiveness of other standard democratic aspects of governance. Despite the government’s boasts, So far it appears that Georgia has only fully met three conditions, namely gender equality, creating an independent ombudsperson, and a proactive adherence to the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights.

Moreover, in the last year alone, a law discrediting foreign-funded democracy organisations was almost passed, an anti-LGBT violent protest was seemingly sanctioned by the government, proceedings were begun to impeach President Salome Zourabichvili for pro-EU diplomatic visits to Europe, and the independence of the central bank has been weakened.

The rest is just fluff

Both Georgian Dream and the opposition will try to use whatever announcement is made for their own benefit.

Neil MacFarlane, a professor at St Anne’s college at Oxford and an expert on Georgian politics, believes both the incumbent government and the opposition will try to take credit for a positive EU membership decision, regardless of the real efforts of either side.

“You take the Georgian Dream. What do they want? They want to consolidate power. You take the UNM. What do they want? They want to take power. The rest of it is just fluff.”

MacFarlane continued: “I think that if the Georgian government receives candidacy status, and given that 82% of the Georgian population support candidacy status, I assume the government would benefit.”

MacFarlane suggests that Georgian Dream would lose popularity if the news from the European Commission is not favourable for Georgia.

“Many people would blame the Georgian Dream because they are the negotiating party on the Georgian side with the EU.”

MacFarlane also argues that Georgian Dream politicians are preparing for a negative EU outcome, in case it comes, by blaming the United States and EU for activities that run counter to what they say are Georgia’s interests.

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, speaking at the Grenada Summit of the European Political Community, seemed to hedge his bets as MacFarlane suggested. In his speech, he laid the groundwork for blaming the EU itself if Georgia gets the red light.

“Our main message will be that Georgia deserves candidate status. [...] Now it is necessary to take a further step on the part of the European counterparts for the country to receive a deserved status.”

By presenting Georgia as prepared for candidate status and assigning responsibility to the EU, Garibashvili can blame them for a potential negative announcement.

Looking ahead to the election

The opposition to Georgian Dream is in a difficult political position: on the one hand, as their messaging has been largely in favour of EU integration, negative signals from Brussels would run counter to their political goals. On the other hand, a positive announcement could increase the popularity of Georgian Dream and give the incumbent party an advantage in the upcoming 2024 parliamentary elections.

Opposition parties frequently claim that Georgian Dream is not only against European integration, but an ally of Russia, which invaded Georgia in 2008 and still occupies about 20% of the country.

Opposition-affiliated members of parliament recently protested against President Zourabichvili’s impeachment, tying her potential ousting to Georgian Dream’s agenda against European integration. One opposition-affiliated member of parliament, Berdia Sichinava, commented “It is a historical process… For the first time in the history of Georgia, the parliament of Georgia is against the European future of Georgia.”

Their messaging is largely in line with the 12 reforms of the European Union, even if these groups sometimes drag their feet on implementing the reforms and have their own problems with corruption and undemocratic infighting.

Even if Georgia receives candidate status, it is no sure thing that it would soon or ever become a member of the European Union. A possibility is that Georgia could be awarded candidate status and be granted more aid from the European Union, but the criteria for actually joining would be similar or the same to the 12 points outlined in 2022, creating a stalemate.

In such a case, Georgian Dream could potentially emerge victorious in the eyes of the public for receiving candidate status, without actually doing the work to implement reforms set out by the European Union.

European Union integration will play a large role in the fate of Georgian Dream and the parties opposing their grip on power at the October 2024 elections. As of October 2023, Georgian Dream is leading other parties in the polls, despite regular controversies surrounding the party and its members. But both Georgian Dream and the opposition have low approval ratings among the population, so there is still all to play for.