The discussion was held within the framework of the presentation of Carl Friedrich Goerdeler Effective Governance College of the Robert Bosch Foundation.
80% of Georgia’s population supports EU integration. Moreover, 88% of Georgia’s population thinks that Georgia should become an EU member. However, how the country can join the EU and what steps should be undertaken for a closer integration with the EU remains unclear to the broader public.
A brief history of the Georgia-EU cooperation is as follows: in 1996, the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement was signed. The European Council adopted the resolution on inclusion of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia in the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) in 2004. In November 2006, the process of agreement on the Georgia-EU ENP Action Plan was finalized, which should have supported implementation of the strategic objectives and political or economic priorities of the cooperation. In 2009, the EU started implementing a new initiative, the Eastern Partnership, which provided more opportunities to the six countries involved (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) to further deepen relations with the EU. In the beginning of 2012, following a long preparatory period, Georgia and the EU started negotiations on a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA).
Is Georgia’s European future dependent only on the political will of government officials or is it a process that the whole society needs to go through? How well does the society realize its responsibility in the so-called “Euro-integration” processes? For example, if we consider the fact that European integration is at the same time the country’s transformation to a European model, to what extent is there a readiness for this in the society? These questions are raised frequently with regards to Georgia’s integration with Europe.
The discussion held on 1 March at the South Caucausus Regional Office of the Heinrich Boell Foundation focused on “Georgia and its Future in Europe”. The speakers, Mr. Günter Verheugen, the former Deputy Chair of the European Commission and Director of Carl Friedrich Goerdeler Effective Governance College, Mr. Tornike Gordadze, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia, and Ms. Ketevan Tsikhelashvili, Chairwoman of the Georgian National Platform of Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum, presented their visions and opinions with regards to Georgia’s European prospects.
Ms. Nino Lejava, Director of South Caucasus Regional Office of the Heinrich Boell Foundation, began the discussion by reminding the audience of recent events: “The EU Foreign Ministers’ Board adopted the communiqué supporting a strengthened cooperation with South Caucasus countries, within the frames of the Eastern Partnership. The document covers specific recommendations on the important topics such as a need for consolidated democracy in Georgia, guarantee of pluralism and freedom of association, provision of media freedom and equal rights of use of the media and further strengthening of judicial independence”. Ms. Lejava also spoke about the official visit of Mr. Karel de Gucht, European Commissioner for Trade, to Georgia and Moldova, which marked the beginning of the EU’s negotiations on Deep and Comprehensive Trade Agreement with these countries. Ms. Lejava expressed her hope that this discussion would also be considered interesting in the general international context on European integration issues.
Deputy Foreign Minister, Mr. Tornike Gordadze, also spoke about the document adopted by the EU Foreign Ministers’ Board. “This document clearly states that the EU recognizes Georgia’s aspiration for EU membership and Georgia’s European choice. This does not directly address Georgia’s European prospects, but it already marks progress. It is also noteworthy that this has been said only about Georgia”. He also mentioned, “There is one important aspect related to a visa-free travelling perspective in this document. The EU Ministers of all 27 countries say that this is our common goal”. Mr. Gordadze considers that last year’s successes and the events of 2012 make it seem as though this year will be even more intensive and important in terms of extending the Euro-integration processes.
Here raises the question that represents a major cornerstone not only of the discussion held at the Heinrich Boell Foundation, but significantly determines dynamics and prospects of EU-Georgia relations: Is Georgia’s full compliance with the set of conditionalities and even taking a very significant step forward sufficient for the country to hope to become an EU member in the long-term? Are there other, more important factors that do not depend on our country’s efforts, either by the government or the general public? What are these factors?
“Many people, if you ask them about Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, might answer that these countries do not represent part of Europe, which is, of course, a mistake. Georgia is part of Europe, not only for its geographic location, but also based on its history, culture and traditions. Therefore, Georgia is a very important European country”, says Mr. Günter Verheugen. He also stated that he still does not understand “why the European states are quiet about the fact that Eastern expansion of EU is a success story”. What are the reasons for the “Restraint Policy” or certain fears and stereotypes from the side of EU member states with regards to future expansion? How possible and correct is it to draw a line around the Europe? According to Mr. Verheugen, financial and economic crisis in the EU, the Russian factor, and stereotypical approaches to possible membership of neighbor states and their inclusion into the European family might be the major constraints that provide less support for a new wave of EU expansion.
Mr. Verheugen continues, “in order to become a politically effective power, we should also have an economic power and should be politically active. We will not be able to achieve this if we let our imagination draw virtual lines around the Europe. Despite this, nowadays still too many people think that Europe is Western Europe. Several states might be in Eastern Europe, but their number does not go beyond that. We should definitely oppose such thinking. The main idea of the unity of Europe implies that any European nation, without an exception, has a right to join the partnership. Involvement in European integration does not represent a privilege of individual countries. This is the right that everyone holds, including Georgia, which has a justified claim”.
Ms. Ketevan Tsikhelashvili, newly elected Chair of the Georgian National Platform of Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum, expanded on this issue by posing a number of other questions related to civil society’s role. What role could civil society play in today’s Georgia and other countries of the Eastern Partnership? What was the aim of establishing the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum and what are the activities of National Platforms in European integration? What is the context and space for operation of National Platforms in each country? In what extent the EU oriented policy-making is opened for them?
The Georgian National Platform currently has 98 member organizations. According to Ms. Tsikhelashvili, the majority of the civil society organizations in the Platform are united around the main goal – to promote European integration. However, there are various approaches to the issue, and the National Platform often becomes the place for pluralistic discussions. “We understand that currently, the incentive that previously was in place for membership of Eastern European countries is no longer there, but we still think that if the available instruments and format are used, definitely it is possible to use Europe’s strength, the so-called soft power, to achieve specific economic, social and political results for Georgian citizens, both in a multilateral and bilateral format. Moreover, the EU promised “the more for more” principle for cooperation,” considers Ms. Tsikhelashvili.
Georgian civil society can play a major role in these processes, but to achieve this it is necessary to have access to information about ongoing developments. It should then monitor and evaluate these processes and develop specific proposals and initiatives. And finally, it should be able to be involved in dialogue with decision-makers in order to facilitate EU-integration agenda in broader public.
Motivation for Georgia to implement reforms and to meet the EU’s requirements should lie in its strife to achieve attractiveness similar to the European countries. Many people both in Georgia and the EU probably share this opinion. To conclude with Mr. Günter Verheugen’s words: “The window might re-open for mutual cooperation between countries – towards each other and the Restraint Policy might also change. This might happen in several years, but for it to occur the country must be prepared to maximize opportunities when they arise”.