On 2 February 2017, the inhabitants of Georgian capital, Tbilisi, saw the city’s two landmarks — the Bridge of Peace and the TV tower lit up in the colours of the EU flag, marking the day when the European Parliament adopted a visa-free regime for Georgia.
Starting from 28 March 2017, when the newly adopted regulation came into force, Georgian citizens holding biometric passports and travelling to Schengen for short stays have been exempt from visa requirements. While calling this event historic may be seen as a bit of an exaggeration, the importance of this achievement is well-acknowledged in Georgia.
At a first glance, the new rules change little. Cutting the red tape is important, but visiting an EU country remains a financial stretch for those whose incomes are around €120 per month. Those, who were able to afford it before, will continue to do so. But the effect is not only psychological, as this may suggest.
The launch of a visa-free regime allows the Georgian Dream government, re-elected in October 2016, to demonstrate its effectiveness and ability to deliver concrete results in the much-emphasised European integration agenda that it inherited, and to some extent hijacked, from Mikhail Saakashvili’s United National Movement.
In addition to that, the EU visa exemption is seen by the Georgian government as potential leverage for attracting the inhabitants of the occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, under the condition that they accept Georgian citizenship. This is a move that had been fiercely condemned by the authorities of the de facto republics, as a “political manipulation”, and it mirrors a similar issue raised by the Georgians back in 2007, when the EU-Russia visa facilitation agreement came into force.
Then, the concern was that easier access to Schengen visas might make the Russian passports, which had been distributed en masse in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, more attractive to the population of these regions. With the new regulations in force, Georgians cold now outbid the Russian offer. There is little reliable data, however, that would prove that these incentives work at all.
From the point of view of the European Union, the issue could not have come up in a worse moment. While delivering the first tangible results, since the signature of the Association Agreement with Georgia in 2014, and thus supporting the reform process (providing incentives for further efforts and enhancing EU credibility in the eyes of Georgians is crucial in bilateral relations) it can be hardly seen as a major development by a Brussels that is simultaneously struggling with much more important problems such as Brexit, the migration crisis and similar visa-related talks with Ukraine, Turkey and Kosovo. It was the negotiations with two large neighbouring countries, Ukraine and Turkey that was seen as having an adverse impact on the Georgian situation.
A last-minute German veto on visa liberalisation with Georgia, which was backed by several member states, alleging a rise in Georgian citizens’ with criminal records in the EU, was largely seen as a pretext to impose harder migration control policies, in light of the pending agreements with Ukraine and Turkey. Indeed, it led to the adoption of a suspension mechanism, whereby visa requirements may be reintroduced for a country, in the case of: a substantial increase in entry refusals, irregularities concerning remaining in EU territory, an increase in unfounded asylum applications, a lack of authorities’ cooperation on readmissions, as well as public policy or security concerns related to the nationals of this country.
This sort of an approach reveals a general trend in EU policies directed towards Georgia, under its European Neighbourhood Policy and the Eastern Partnership. A mutual relation is seen as a trade-off, where compliance to the EU’s requirements and benchmarks related to the internal reforms in Georgia are being rewarded with stakes in the EU’s resources, in an attempt to push the migration-related problems away from the EU frontiers. In this particular case, the logics that were applied in 2011, when a visa facilitation agreement was signed along with an agreement on readmission, is not only being followed, but further reinforced.
Easy access to the EU’s territory can be suspended any moment, if the country refuses to cooperate on unwanted migration to the EU. The threat of losing its newly acquired privilege is so real, that the Georgian authorities decided to take matters into their own hands. A data collection system on compliance to the visa-free regime rules is currently being set up in order to prevent potential irregularities and to demonstrate diligence in Brussels. Additionally information campaigns were launched to combat the lack of real knowledge about the functioning of the new visa regime.
Effective as it may seem, the bargaining method used by the European Commission in relations with Georgia has its obvious limitations. Although Georgians are persistent in their pro-European rhetoric and take every occasion to voice their membership ambitions, Europe seems unconvinced and does not offer a clear membership perspective.
With this incentive off the table, the EU may run out of other attractive deals, before it makes the reforms it supported in Georgia irreversible. Gradual legal and economic approximation is not spectacular and tends to rally little additional support for the EU in Georgia, as it does not offer an immediate amelioration of living conditions. If the EU is to continue with its business as usual, sooner or later, it will be confronted by this dilemma.
For the time being the EU’s visa liberalisation for Georgia allows both sides of the deal to consider themselves as its beneficiaries, even though it is accompanied by a strict suspension mechanism. While the real effects of the agreement will only be known in several months, it is a rare example of a win-win situation in the European neighbourhood; a much needed and desired success story amidst growing chaos.
According to the Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on European Integration, Tamar Khulordava, around 11,700 Georgians used the visa-free travel to the Schengen zone in the first month after the visa free regime went into force. Only 26 people were sent back from the Schengen border.
The views expressed in this opinion editorial are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Emerging Europe’s editorial policy or the official views of the author’s affiliated institutions.