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29th Mar 2020

EU-Georgia treaty highlights enlargement fatigue

  • Georgian PM (l) with EU Council chief Herman Van Rompuy: EU membership is slipping away (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Novel language in the draft EU-Georgia association treaty highlights hostility toward further EU expansion.

The text, recently agreed by negotiators, says in its preamble "that Georgia, an eastern European country, is committed to implementing and promoting" EU values, such as democracy and rule of law.

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The phrase "eastern European country" is pregnant with meaning.

For their part, Moldova and Ukraine, which, like Georgia, want to join the Union, battled for years to be designated as "European countries" in their draft association pacts.

Ukraine initially pushed for "European state."

The nuances are important because article 49 of the EU treaty says that only "European states" are eligible for membership.

Officially speaking, the association treaties have nothing to do with enlargement.

But in political terms, they lock in the nature of EU relations for at least the next 10 years. The further the wording strays from article 49, the smaller the basis for the two sides to talk about accession.

A Polish diplomat tried to put a positive spin on the "eastern" tag.

He noted: "It still says that Georgia is a 'European' state. It could have said 'Caucasian state' or 'Euro-Asiatic country'."

He added: "All these formulations come from a broader discussion on Europe's final borders: Where should enlargement stop? Is 'Europe' just a question of geography, or is it based on culture and values?"

But for Germany and for Georgia itself, the meaning is clear.

Asked if the new Georgia tag is linked to EU anti-enlargement feeling, a German diplomat said: "That's what's behind it."

He noted that Germany did not propose the new wording, but did not oppose it either.

Meanwhile, even as EU leaders on 27 June feted Croatia's EU entry, foreign ministers at a General Affairs Council a few days earlier had nothing nice to say on expansion.

One EU official reported that there were "outbursts" by "several" ministers that Germany is obstructing the process in the Western Balkans for the sake of national elections in September.

Another EU official said: "The atmosphere was toxic. There is no enthusiasm to move ahead on any of the dossiers unless we are legally obliged to."

Georgia's EU ambassador, Natalie Sabanadze, admitted that enlargement fatigue "is a possible reading" of the "eastern" designation.

She said it makes her country a place on the map instead of a place that shares EU values: "It has a symbolic meaning … There is a very strong feeling of having a European identity in Georgia, it would have been nice to have this reflected."

Armenia is also hoping to one day join the Union.

But its draft association text is even weaker than Georgia's - it says nothing on Armenia's European identity.

"It says something like 'recognising that Armenia shares a common history and common values' … There was a strong resistance from the European side to avoid mentioning of 'European country'," a diplomatic source noted.

Armenia, Georgia and Moldova hope to initial their association pacts ahead of an EU summit with post-Soviet countries in Vilnius in November.

Ukraine hopes to go a step further by signing its already-initialed text.

The other countries in the Vilnius group - Azerbaijan and Belarus - have lower ambitions.

Azerbaijan, which does not want to join the Union, is angling for a "Strategic Modernisation Partnership" instead of an association treaty.

According to one EU official, its main purpose is to gratify its authoritarian leader's ego, "to have something special, 'strategic,' with the EU."

The best that Belarus, another authoritarian state, can hope for is that its foreign minister goes to Vilnius to unfreeze contacts.

But whatever the feeling in EU capitals, some of the EU-aspirants are doing little to help themselves.

Even Poland, Ukraine's biggest EU friend, says the Union is unlikely to sign in Vilnius because Ukraine has not freed opposition leaders.

Georgia is also practicing "selective justice" in trying ex-ministers, according to the centre-right establishment in Europe, the European People's Party.

The developments are grist to the mill of Russia, which wants its former dominions to join a Russia-led "Eurasian Union" instead.

"Russia is out-manoeuvring the EU at every step. If you want to see how far away these countries really are from EU membership, just look at the map: Russia has military bases in all of them [except Azerbaijan] and its armed forces are not going home anytime soon," an EU diplomat said.

EU and Georgia edge closer to association deal

EU trade officials signed off on a free trade agreement with Georgia on Monday, as the South Caucasus country edges towards finalising an Association agreement with the bloc.

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