Georgia's plan to apply for EU membership by 2024
Georgia will apply for EU membership by 2024, Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia said on January 6.
And on January 19, Sebastian Molineus, the World Bank’s regional director for the South Caucasus, said after a meeting with Gakharia that the World Bank is ready to support Georgia in preparing an official application for EU membership by 2024.
What does it mean for a country to apply for EU membership? How ready is Georgia for this and can we say that Georgia will really become a candidate country for EU membership in 2024?
JAMnews spoke about this with Vano Chkhikvadze, Head of the European Integration Program of the Open Society Georgia Foundation.
What will happen when Georgia applies for EU membership?
First of all: applying for membership in the European Union is a simple procedure. Any country can submit an application – a letter is sent to the European Council on behalf of the country’s first person.
But after that the difficulties begin.
The application is reviewed by the European Commission. On the basis of its opinion, the Member States make a preliminary decision on whether to grant the applicant candidate status.
Then the applicant country receives a questionnaire to fill out, which determines the political, economic and administrative readiness of the country. And then the European Commission prepares another conclusion – based on the responses of the candidate country.
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The number of questions depends on the country. For example, for Croatia the questionnaire contained 4,560 questions, and for Montenegro – 2,178 questions.
The applicant country is given three months to complete the questionnaire. However, there were cases when this process was delayed.
Then the most difficult and crucial stage begins – the stage of negotiations. The legislation of the candidate country is examined in the country to ensure that it complies with the European one.
And if not all laws meet this requirement, then the candidate country will face the longest process: it must bring its legislation into full compliance with the European one.
At the stage of negotiations, a huge document is prepared, consisting of 35 chapters. All of them must be successfully “closed”.
But this is also a rather conditional stage. Until the final decision, the EU can again return to the discussion of some chapters – at any time and for various reasons.
For example, Montenegro received the status of “potential candidate” (European Perspective) back in 2003, when it was part of the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro. It applied for membership in 2008, then it took another two years to become a candidate. Negotiations on the country’s official membership in the EU have been going on since 2012, but so far Montenegro has managed to conditionally close only three of the 35 chapters of the main document.
In general, it takes years from the date of filing an application for EU membership to obtaining the status of a candidate country.
What are the general criteria for evaluating a country before becoming a candidate?
There are three main criteria, which are called the ‘Copenhagen criteria’:
- The country must have strong institutions to ensure democracy, the rule of law, human rights and protection of minorities
- The country must have a market economy capable of competing in the EU market
- In this country, European laws and regulations concerning political, economic and financial matters must apply
What are the chances of Georgia getting candidate status in 2024?
The golden rule for a country that intends to apply for EU membership is the correct and timely fulfillment of its obligations.
Georgia made the commitment in 2014 when it signed an Association Agreement with the European Union. This is the strengthening of democratic institutions, the protection of human rights, the rule of law, economic development, the creation of European legislation.
These general words must be backed by concrete deeds. But after the signing of the Association Agreement, Georgia is moving rather unevenly towards fulfilling its obligations.
Best of all in the area of environmental protection. There are also tangible changes in the area of human rights – for example, legislative changes regarding domestic violence. The legislation on labor protection has been improved.
However, all this is a drop in the ocean.
In the case of Georgia, the situation is much worse precisely on key issues – the rule of law, a fair judicial system.
The main problem is the justice system
The biggest problem blocking Georgia’s path to Europe is the justice system.
This is evidenced by reports from both the European Union and the US State Department.
Lawyer Giorgi Mshvenieradze, who has worked for many years on the problems of an independent judicial system, says that so far there are only external changes in this direction:
“The reform can be carried out on paper. But it’s all about her performance. So far, we see that the state embellishes the current situation in order not to differ too much from the international community. However, our partners are already openly declaring that the Georgian court has a problem with independence, and in order to eliminate it, the government must show will.”
Is it strategically correct to apply alone and not in a regional context?
Georgia will become the third country in the history of the European Union to apply for EU membership alone. Before her, only Greece and Croatia did it.
Indeed, practice shows that a joint application of several countries in the region for integration into the European Union is more realistic than a separate initiative of a particular country.
Therefore, for example, a joint application with Ukraine and Moldova, which, like Georgia, are driven by European aspirations, would have more weight.
The advantage of a joint application with Ukraine and Moldova is also that, unlike Georgia, these countries have a land border with the European Union. And the border plays an important role in membership. The only country that joined the EU without a land border was Greece.
But at this stage these three countries did not show serious intentions to cooperate and prepare for joint accession to the EU, Chkhikvadze said.
In addition to the advantages, the procedure for the joint accession of countries to the EU also has disadvantages.
In terms of reforms, Georgia is far ahead of both Ukraine and Moldova. And if the European Commission considers the joint statement of these three countries, Georgia will have to wait until Ukraine and Moldova begin reforms that are already underway in Georgia.
As for the South Caucasus, the situation here is even more ambiguous. Georgia’s neighbors in the region have not yet clearly decided where they are going – they do not even have a declared goal of joining the European Union. Therefore, a joint path to the European Union with them will be unreasonably long and difficult.
Can all these statuses and levels be considered very important?
Each step on the road to European integration is very important and each has its own political burden.
Georgia on the way to integration into the European Union, but without status. It was expected that upon signing the Association Agreement, the Eastern Partnership countries, including Georgia, would simultaneously acquire the status of “potential partners”. But that did not happen. European Perspective status is not mentioned in the Association Agreement.
Although it is theoretically possible that a country can obtain candidate status, bypassing the preliminary status of a “potential candidate” (European Perspective).
The very last step is signing a membership agreement. This means that the country has successfully passed the candidate status and has already received the status of a country awaiting membership. At this stage, the country enjoys observer rights in European institutions.
The accession scenario for each country is different, and it depends on many things. Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey are already candidate countries. Bosnia and Herzegovina is only trying to get closer to the EU.
The Baltic countries at one time showed such political and economic will and carried out reforms so quickly that they became members of the European Union in an accelerated manner, skipping many stages.
However, in the case of the countries of the Western Balkans, this procedure is increasingly delayed. In Georgia, this process also began much earlier, in 2004, but the next phase of negotiations was also delayed. By the way, it took North Macedonia 15 years for the negotiation process to resume.
And in the case of Turkey, the stages of European integration have dragged on so long that today even the candidate country itself has lost interest in membership.
What will happen in 2024?
Georgia will apply for EU membership in 2024, and there is little time left to prepare. But it still exists to properly prepare for this complex and full of changes process. The main thing is to show political will and readiness for reforms, Chkhikvadze said.
And the reform of the judicial system is in the first place on this list.
Georgia is hardly threatened by what happened with Morocco. The application of this country was rejected immediately on the grounds that it was not a European country.
“Several years ago Georgia was recognized as an Eastern European country. To be honest, this is a very vague and contradictory term, but at the same time it gives us reason to think that in our case the Moroccan scenario will not be realized, ”Chkhikvadze says.
But the danger that the process will drag on in the case of Georgia is real.
One should also take into account the skepticism of the majority of the EU member states regarding its further expansion.
At the same time, Georgia has serious supporters among the EU countries. These are mainly those countries that have recently joined the European Union. First of all, this is Poland. And they are interested in accepting Georgia into the EU.
However, they will not be able to help unless Georgia presents strong arguments to convince other member states. These arguments should be reforms, legislative changes, improvement of the political or economic situation.
While Georgia prepares to apply for membership in the European Union, the time left until 2024, it should more actively strengthen ties with the countries that support it:
“Our diplomatic missions must make the most of this resource. We also need to work more actively in those member states that are skeptical about the expansion of the European Union. “
The fact that the Prime Minister announced the date for filing an application for membership is the right decision, Chkhikvadze believes:
“Georgia has already passed certain stages on the way to European integration. And if she applies, the ball will go to the field of the European Union. That is, all processes will already be taking place in relation to whether Georgia is or not to be a part of the European Union. “