“Do you think that a staged rally dedicated to Georgia’s presidency of the Council of Europe, with thousands of state employees brought in from the regions to Tbilisi by bus was really necessary?”, I ask Georgian Foreign Minister David Zalkaliani, as we sit in the Palace of Ceremonies, which has breathtaking views of the capital Tbilisi.
“The European dimension has enormous support in Georgia,” he says. “Both EU and NATO integration are top priorities for the government, and are reflected in our constitution. According to recent polls, over 80 per cent of Georgians support joining the EU and more than 70 per cent support NATO membership.”
“For the government, such support is a big advantage which encourages us to continue taking big steps forwards. Enormous progress has already been achieved since Georgia joined the Eastern European Partnership over a decade ago,” he adds.
— Andrew Wrobel (@andrew_wrob) December 14, 2019
Mr Zalkaliani’s words reflect those expressed by Georgia’s prime minister a few days earlier at the rally (featured in the short video, above). Giorgi Gakharia told the assembled crowds that the country has never been as close to Europe as it is now, and cited visa-free travel to the EU as proof. “This we achieved together with our leader Bidzina Ivanishvili [the leader of the ruling Georgian Dream party and the country’s wealthiest person, thought to be the de facto ruler of the country].
“But we cannot take this huge support for granted because it will not last forever and we know we have to deliver,” Minister Zalkaliani says.
The question is how realistic Georgia’s EU membership is amidst a less favourable view on enlargement in a number of EU capitals. In October, most EU member states believed North Macedonia and Albania had made enough progress for formal membership negotiations to begin but France vetoed the decision. Now, Olivér Várhelyi, the new enlargement commissioner, claims he is confident the bloc will “move ahead and correct the mistake”, opening accession negotiations for both countries early in 2020, although no concrete decisions have been made yet.
In his memoir, published on December 12, Donald Tusk, the former president of the European Council, wrote a note after a visit to the Caucasus in July 2015: “In Georgia, one has to be very reserved and cautious about EU-membership-related promises because it seems unrealistic in the foreseeable future. The more hospitable the Georgians are, the worse I feel because although I bring them quite a few concrete things, I let my hosts down in the most important matters.”
“We hear that scepticism in EU capitals, also in the Western Balkan context,” Mr Zalkaliani says.
“All this is not creating good ground for a future enlargement process, but we are not discouraged by this fact because we realise that the process itself is very useful for the country. That road we are on is helping us strengthen our state institutions, democracy, to build a society where human rights are respected, where we continue fighting corruption.
“In fact, this is also considered in the context of restoring our territorial integrity. We are making sure that we are building a country that is also attractive for people living in the occupied territories. We want to share with them all the benefits related to integration, the Association Agreement, the freedom of movement.”
According to Mr Zalkaliani, Georgia is often considered a forerunner among the Eastern Partnership countries, but the work the country has done has to be rewarded.
‘Starting negotiations on the Association Agreement was the first goal the government, the opposition, the civil society worked towards. That was achieved and we had another goal — visa-free movement. That has also been achieved. What we need now is another ultimate goal. Having such a goal helps consolidate our society again and also motivate the government to speed up the reform process. Expressing readiness to start membership negotiations would be that goal,” the foreign minister emphasises.
The Georgian government realises that the situation that Europe is facing is also difficult and that the bloc has its own internal challenges such as migration, budgetary discussions, Brexit and the overall future shape of the EU.
“We want to join a European Union which is united, which is in solidarity with us and each EU member state. Right now, the processes we are observing call for more unity and solidarity based on the key European values and principles,” Mr Zalkaliani says.
“An EU map including Georgia is always in my thoughts and dreams and with Georgia Europe will clearly be richer. We can contribute on a number of levels, for example, through our geopolitical location which is becoming increasingly important for both Europe and Asia. That, together with the most business-friendly and liberal economic environment in the region, makes us a great partner for the European Union.”
The minister admits a specific accession date is very hard to predict. The Presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe is an important step forward.
“It is vital as we have to demonstrate that we have the same level of readiness as the other leading European countries to deal with the challenges that are common in the European institutions and it prepares us more for our eventual goal,” Mr Zalkaliani says.
The country has identified four priorities: human rights and environmental protection, civil participation in the decision-making process, strengthening democracy through education, culture and youth engagement, and finally, child-friendly justice – converging experience on restorative justice in Europe, where Georgia would like to share its best practice.