European Commission greenlights EU candidacy for Georgia

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

This article was first published on OC Media. An edited version is republished here under a content partnership agreement. 

On November 8, the European Commission has recommended that the EU grant Georgia candidate status, paving the way for the bloc to begin the country’s accession process at the EU Council meeting later in December:

In the light of the results achieved since June 2022, within the framework of the twelve priorities and beyond, the Commission recommends that the Council grants Georgia the status of a candidate country.

In a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the EU Commission, said:

Announcing the decision on Wednesday, November 8, President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said, “First of all, this is a truly remarkable day for Georgia,” adding, “This is a really huge step for Georgia, and it also emphasizes the impressive and very unequivocal position of the majority of the population of Georgia to become members of the EU.”

Many Georgians gathered on the streets of the capital, Tbilisi, and outside the residence of the country's President Salome Zourabichvili to celebrate the decision.

The journey

Georgia formally applied for European Union (EU) membership on March 3, 2022, with Prime Minister Irakli Garabishvili calling it “yet another milestone on the path of European integration of Georgia.”

In a statement posted on the government's website the same day, Garabishvili said, “[I]t is a stage which turns a new page in our history and continues the effort of our ancestors, which is aimed at the accession of Georgia into a common European family.”

Following Ukraine’s decision to apply for EU membership on February 28, 2022, amidst the Russian invasion of its country, the Georgian government announced its own intent to apply for membership on March 2.

The move represented a U-turn for the ruling Georgian Dream Party, which up until recently insisted it would not accelerate its initial timeline of applying for membership in 2024.

The shift at the time was largely driven by increasing pressure from the domestic opposition, as well as thousands of protesters who took the streets as part of the “March for Europe,” organized by Georgia's liberal activists group, Shame movement and other pro-democracy groups in a bid to “demonstrate the commitment of Georgian people to its European choice and Western Values.”

In June 2022, Georgia's candidate status was declined, instead giving Georgia a list of 12 conditions the country had to fulfill before their application could be reexamined.

The decision

The European Commission's recommendation to grant Georgia the candidate status comes amid a growing rift between Georgia's ruling government and western allies as well as the local civil society groups insisting that the government has failed to fulfill 12 priority areas or conditions.

Among these conditions were reducing political polarization, reforming the judiciary, ensuring functioning state institutions, strengthening anti-corruption measures, including de-oligarchisation, and others. While the de-oligarchisation clause does not mention any specific names, it is widely understood to refer to the Georgian Dream founder and billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Ivanishvili is a key figure in Georgian politics. He made his fortune in the pre-Putin era in Russia and founded the Georgian Dream party in 2012. While Ivanishvili publicly announced his decision to leave politics in 2021, some believe he is still calling the shots behind the scenes. In June 2022, the European Parliament adopted a resolution “on violations of media freedom and the safety of journalists in Georgia.” The document called on Georgian officials to impose personal sanctions on Ivanishvili “for his role in the deterioration of the political process in Georgia.”

It took the government in Georgia a year to put together a bill on de-oligarchisation, which was adopted by the Georgian parliament on June 13, 2023, despite the objections raised by the Venice Commission, which argued that for de-oligarchisation to become effective, it is not enough to adopt or amend laws but take “concrete measures” aiming to “reduce oligarchic influence.”

The bill failed to address concerns as outlined by the Venice Commission opinion, and according to reporting by local media, the bill would target several opposition figures rather than Ivanishvili.

In a press briefing on November 8, EU Foreign Affairs Representative Josep Borrell said Georgia delivered on only three of the twelve ‘priorities’ for candidate status so far – gender equality and fighting violence against women, human rights judgments in court deliberations, and appointing a public defender through a transparent process. “Work needs to be done first on depolarisation of the political life, de-oligarchisation of the economic, political and social life, on justice reform, on electoral reform, on media pluralism and on human rights. There are no shortcuts,” noted Borrell.

These and other concerns were also outlined in the Commission’s first annual enlargement report on Georgia, which was released on November 8 as well.

Georgian people

In all the statements made on November 8, including those by Western diplomats, analysts, and opposition activists, the citizens of Georgia were center stage. From Borrell to von der Leyen, to representatives of Georgian Dream and the country's opposition parties, all congratulated the Georgian people and their commitment to Europe. In a press briefing following the decision, EU Ambassador to Georgia Paweł Herczyński said, “First and foremost, my sincere congratulations to the people of Georgia who have always consistently and unwaveringly supported EU integration of Georgia.”

A group in the European Parliament also congratulated the people:

In a post on X regional expert, Tom de Waal said, “The EU's long-awaited announcement on Georgia is a kind of non-decision decision. Georgia gets candidate status, which the [government] can hail as a victory. But conditions remain–accession is far off. Plus it's presented as a prize for the public not the [government].” 

In a May 2023 public survey by the National Democratic Institute and the Caucasus Research Resource Center (CRRC) Georgia, an overwhelming majority of respondents — 82 percent — expressed unwavering support for EU membership.

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