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Interview | Tanja Börzel and Thomas Risse: How does Georgia get EU membership?

4 October 2019
Dr. Thomas Risse and Dr. Tanja Börzel. Photo: GIP

Dr. Tanja Börzel and Dr. Thomas Risse of the Otto-Suhr-Institute for Political Science discuss the challenges and opportunities for  Georgia’s EU aspirations.

Many crucial reforms that Georgia has passed over the last few years stem from the obligations Georgia took on when it signed contracts with the European Union. Whether it’s the controversial Anti-Discrimination law or the Labour Code, which is still being processed, the Georgian government has pledged to do what it takes to reach the country’s ultimate goal —   EU membership.

When is that going to happen? And most importantly, how?  These are the questions we asked two EU experts who were invited to Tbilisi by the Georgian Institute of Politics. Dr Tanja Börzel is a professor of political science and holds the Chair for European Integration at the Otto-Suhr-Institute for Political Science, Freie Universität Berlin. Dr Thomas Risse is a director of the Center for Transnational Relations, Foreign and Security Policy at the Otto-Suhr-Institute of Political Science at the Freie Universität Berlin.

Both professors agree that Georgia should be cautious and wait for the right time to knock on the EU’s door, even though they think that Georgia, in certain respects, is somewhat at the same levels as other countries that are further along on the path towards EU membership.

Börzel said that the rise of Green Parties across Europe had created a better chance for aspirant countries like Georgia to join the EU, because of their sympathy towards enlargement. She also thinks that it’s time for the EU to rethink the Eastern Partnership (EaP) format, because Georgia has already exhausted the opportunities the EaP can offer.

Meanwhile, Risse thinks that even though the EU might have been preoccupied with internal issues, it is emerging from its crisis strengthened and with the new European Commission, there are greater chances that the EU will support enlargement. At the same time, he said that Georgians’ European identity can be used to fight domestic problems, such as the deficit in rule of law, thereby speeding up the possibility of joining the EU .

[Read more about Georgia’s aspiration to become a member of the European Union on OC Media: The EaP Summit promised no ‘golden carrot’ — what should Georgia do?]


OC Media: In light of the EU’s window of opportunity being open for the Western Balkan countries, what kind of, if any, opportunities does this create for Georgia in terms of EU membership? Should it be hopeful of a similar opportunity in the near future? 

Tanja Börzel: The opening of accession negotiations with Albania and Macedonia, I think, is to some extent, a change. There has been almost a moratorium on any kind of progress in the accession process for the Western Balkans, and that is, in a long time at least, a move forward. I think that it could create some momentum, at least in the long run. I mean, it won’t mean that Georgia will receive a membership perspective anytime soon, but if you look at the performance of Albania in particular and compare that to the performance of Georgia, [I haven’t looked at the indicators, but], both with regards to economic and political dimensions, Georgia is at least on a similar level or moving towards similar level of Albania.

So, it will be increasingly more difficult for the EU to argue that Georgia, which is sort of getting even with some of the accession candidates with whom now EU will have open accession negotiations, has no perspective of joining the EU — particularly as long as EU recognises Georgia as European Country. And according to the treaties, any European country can apply for membership, as long as they fulfill the criteria.

Thomas Risse: From the EU perspective, it’s not clear to me what that means. But, if I were Georgia, I would simply exploit that to the fullest. If the EU says, ‘Okay, Albania — Macedonia in my view is a slightly different case —  is ready for accession talks, why not us too?’

Tanja Börzel: Particularly because in the public’s perception, and I think that’s an important one, the reason why there is this enlargement fatigue on the part of the EU has, on the one hand, to do with issues that the EU has been struggling with: you know, the global financial crisis, migration crisis, Brexit...

But the other issue is public perception. The public support for enlargement is at best, modest — it varies across countries. And that has also to do with the perception of some of the accession candidates. Albania with Kosovo is perceived as, you know,  ‘we took in Romania and Bulgaria, and now Albania’? So if the EU is moving towards Albania , Georgia can easily argue, ‘excuse me, we look even better than Albania!’.

OC Media: You mentioned exploiting the situation. Could you give an example how, let's say Albania exploited it and how can Georgia do that now? Is there a clear pathway that predecessors embarked on and now Georgia can walk on that same pathway too?

Thomas Risse: No matter what the public thinks, there are so-called Copenhagen Criteria. And if Georgia fulfills the Copenhagen Criteria, plus the DCFTA [Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area] [...] The point is to, kind of, shame the EU into this. What kind of good reasons do you have not to open [negotiations]?

Tanja Börzel: When the EU offered an accession perspective to Eastern European countries, the Baltics outperformed countries like Poland.  And at the point where it was going towards accession for Poland, the Baltics said, ‘excuse me, we 100% outperform Poland. So if Poland is going to join, we need to be there!’. I think Georgia can pursue the same strategy.

Georgia is extremely effective in adopting EU policies. And I think the trick for Georgia could be to outperform accession countries such as Albania and then pursue the Baltic strategy. And when Albania is going to join, say: ‘Look, at least you [should] give us membership perspective now’.

Thomas Risse: There are two stumbling blocks in this. One is that the wording in the [AA/]DCFTA on the accession perspective is extremely vague. So, a lot of EU people say ‘oh no, this was never meant to be.’ The other one is what the EU calls ‘frozen conflicts’ and what you call occupied territories. So, if Georgia opens accession talks with the EU, it still has territorial conflicts — which are not of its making, we know that — but that’s something. The EU will not be taking a country where [large] parts are pretty much occupied by Russia.

That’s not a very easy thing - opening accession talks. It doesn’t mean immediate accession. It’s a process. You know where it started with Turkey 15 years ago? And at the moment it's nowhere. But that’s pretty much Turkey’s making in my view. So, opening accession negotiations doesn’t mean you’re in automatically.

OC Media: The ‘European Perspective’ was missing from the 2017 EaP Brussels summit document, something that Georgia wanted so much to be included in there. As you mentioned, there’s a political dimension — what are the chances that Georgia, hailed as ‘frontrunner reformer’ among EaP countries, will be granted a ‘perspective’ in light of the EU’s inward-oriented policy?

Thomas Risse: One needs to really keep in mind two things.

One: we have a new commission.

Number two: the EU is actually emerging out of this crisis strengthened. You know, Britain at the moment is obsessed with Brexit, the EU is not. We just sit there and wait what happens. We are well prepared, even for the crash. So, in a way, for the EU this is already [in the past].

Tanja Börzel: And number three: we have a rise of green parties.

OC Media:  And also the populists…

Tanja Börzel: Yes, but look at the Austrian elections. The Freedom Party lost substantially. We have similar developments in Germany and in the European elections more broadly speaking. In Italy, we will see to what extent it’s sustainable, but Salvini, for the moment, is out. So, the rise of populism, I wouldn’t say it’s stopped, but at least it has slowed down and there has been a counter-mobilisation. The good news is that it’s not social democrats, it’s not the conservative parties but its green parties. And the green parties are the most sympathetic to enlargement. So, I think that’s some good news.

As for the frontrunner argument, remember that one of the frontrunners, Hungary, used to be the darling of the central-eastern European countries and now its the enfant terrible of the EU. So people are getting second thoughts. When you’re outperforming the others, the question is how sustainable is that, right? The EU is realising that an accession perspective can lock in democratic reforms. But once you’re in...

And it’s also the experience of Romania and Bulgaria which are still under this CVM  — the Control and Verification Mechanism — and which are still not members of the Schengen Agreement. I think that it’s also the experience with these countries [that should be considered]. That’s why I think Romania and Bulgaria are definitely wrong reference points for Georgia.

The Baltic countries are performing beautifully. You should look at the Baltics as examples, because they have been able to outperform some of the accession candidates when they didn’t have a real perspective and they have maintained the course. They haven’t slowed back like some of at least four central European countries after they joined the EU. And that’s a major concern for the EU to be fair, right?

OC Media: I think we should also rethink formats, the EaP format - is it still relevant? Georgia already has the Association Agreement, the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area, Visa-free travel and more — and it feels like we are somewhat stuck in that format, coming to a deadlock.

Tanja Börzel: You are absolutely right. And that’s a lesson EU has not learned. It’s probably also difficult, but I mean, this idea that you treat a region with very diverse countries in terms of their economic and political performance...

In the process, whether it’s association or its accession, it has failed in central eastern European countries, it has failed with the western Balkans, with Croatia now being a member and some countries like Kosovo nowhere close to opening such negotiations. It has also failed with regard to Eastern Partnership countries, because these countries are too diverse, right?

Georgia has another problem, in that it’s lumped together with Azerbaijan and Armenia in the same subregion of the Eastern Partnership. So this whole idea — that one size fits all approach for one particular region, it just doesn’t work. And the problem for Georgia is that is has exhausted all the opportunities that EaP can offer and the EU has nothing else to offer within EaP whereas other countries within EaP haven’t really made full use of it.

So, in order to support democratic and economic reforms of Georgia, the EU has to come up with something beyond the Eastern Partnership. I think, to some extent, that’s also true of Ukraine. Moldova is kind of different category. I think with Georgia and Ukraine possibly, the EU will have to think of something to sort of support a democratisation process that goes beyond EaP. It’s hard to think about anything else beyond that because all the instruments the EU has below a membership or accession perspective is exhausted. A Privileged Partnership doesn’t work because that is, again, another alternative to accession. I think Georgia shouldn't go that route. Georgia should turn to the EU and say, ‘Look, we have done everything you wanted us to do within the EaP. What’s next?’, right?

OC Media: You mentioned the Copenhagen Criteria. In that respect, one of the huge problems Georgia has is rule of law. How does the EU see that? Can the EU point it out as a red flag if Georgia asks for more?

Tanja Börzel: You are absolutely right, the rule of law rather than democracy.  Some people say that you can’t have democracy without the rule of law. But for the sake of argument, let's separate these two things. The EU is very, very focused on the rule of law also because of what we call ‘democratic backsliding’ in Hungary and Poland. But also in other countries,  it’s not these two [only], it’s also Romania, Italy…

Most of [the backsliding is] related to rule of law. Also in the western Balkans — if you look at the accession process, accession conditionality, the focus is clearly on the rule of law.

It is rule of law in general and in particular the independence of the judiciary, and arguably, it’s an issue. Separation of powers is extremely important for rule of law and for the functioning of democracy, but there are other issues of rule of law that the EU in my view has neglected — and these issues are probably as pressing in Georgia as they are with regard to the independence of the judiciary. And the EU could easily exploit that as an impediment and  say: ‘OK, you have fulfilled everything, the DCFTA and son., but rule of law is still an issue’..

Poland or Hungary one or two days ago have not objected to using EU funding, conditional upon compliance with rule of law. It’s a major accomplishment,  it’s a signal for support for the commission. So, I can easily see that or EU support under accession or association framework, will be tied to the rule of law. So, you are absolutely right, I think that rule of law is kind of the open flank of Georgia.

Thomas Risse: At the same time, those people in Georgia who want to fight corruption and want to institute rule of law, can also use the EU. It’s about coalition building. The EU cannot impose anything on another country if there is no group inside the country, be it some liberal elites, be it civil society, civil society organisations, etc. which then take this and fight internally. So, under ideal circumstances, corrupt elites or people who are not really into the rule of law, could come under pressure from above, ie. the EU, and below, because you have a coalition.

That’s the enlargement story, this is essentially what happened. You needed two things, you needed the accession conditionality of the EU, which was pretty harsh and at the same time, however, without something on the ground, civil society, liberal elites, etc. that wouldn’t have worked. Because it does empower civil society, liberal elites — all these people fighting for the rule of law.

Tanja Börzel: Particularly in a country that is so pro-European. Together with Ukraine, Georgia, are the two countries within the EaP that have tied their fate to the EU, that has a lot to do with Russia. And that actually empowers domestic actors — and that's a major window of opportunity. And even if the EU used the rule of law as a red flag to Georgia, that can actually be turned into a positive thing, because it empowers those within Georgia that want to strengthen the rule of law. Saying, ‘look we want to join the EU, and we want to do something about it’.

Thomas Risse: In Britain you cannot use the EU in that sense, because it would be counterproductive. In Georgia, you can actually use it, [...] If there is a political consensus in this country, in favour of the EU, you can actually use it for political purposes in the internal debate.

OC Media: You made a point about how the EU can be to develop Georgia’s rule of law. However, even though the government is pro-Western, when it comes to their own benefits, there are boundaries being crossed. There are elections coming and the government has already demonstrated that they will persecute opponents and pressure business, there were also hints of elite corruption in the AA report. The human rights situation is challenging, especially when it comes to minorities. In light of this, what kind of reaction should we expect from the EU? 

Thomas Risse: I have a PhD student, who's from Georgia. She looked at the European Identity discourse in Georgia around certain critical junctures — the war with Russia, visa issues, and  so on — what she found is that it’s a pretty stable Europeanised kind of identity.

Some facades are more traditional: the Orthodox Church has a lot of reservations on some aspects, usually having to do with gay rights, but that’s accross the entire Balkans and  eastern Europe, so we have that everywhere. Whether it's the Orthodox or the Catholic church, it doesn’t really matter. But apart from that, it's a rather strong pro-European identity. So, again, that can be used in  political discourse.

[Read more about the EU’s critical report on OC Media: EU criticises elite corruption, lack of skilled staff and more in Georgia AA report]

Tanja Börzel:  So, the Commission will issue a statement of concern, but that needs to be picked up by media and mobilise a pro-European identity. I think the bottom line is that it needs to come from Georgia. The EU is very often ambivalent and that should be used by civil society, by those who want Georgia to pursue a membership perspective. And then, I think, that’s the lesson you can learn from other countries.

OC Media: And finally, there’s this never ending debate in Georgia whether or not we should apply for membership and see whether the door opens, or wait for the window of opportunity and knock on the door after. What’s your take on that?

Tanja Börzel: You have to wait for the window of opportunity, because once you’ve asked and you’ve been declined...

Don’t pressure the EU to say no to you. Wait for the window of opportunity.

Thomas Risse: And wait diplomatically. Only ask if you know that you are going to get a positive answer. That’s the real dangerous part. Don’t announce in the media that ‘tomorrow we are going to apply’, and then Brussels goes: ‘Oops!’ So if the ground is prepared and that means not only in Brussels, but also major member states need to support this. Once you have that ground prepared, do it. You need to be sure of the answer. Because no means that the door is shut for quite some time and you don’t want that.

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