When I arrived in Georgia in 2021 I knew nearly nothing about the country. I decided to make my Erasmus+ stay in a place which I saw as the periphery of Europe, an exotic country with incredible landscape, good wine and a special techno scene in the capital Tbilisi. But during my studies and excursions, I found that the dream of EU membership is very vivid in the Georgian civil society. The latest since I saw European Flags in front of the parliament every day as a reaction to the invasion of Ukraine, there was no doubt to me that the Georgian youth sees its future in the EU.
Yet, the EU membership program is a long and complicated process. Not only does it require technical and hard economic conditions to join the EU as a full member, but also a political will of the EU member states is needed. While some voices in Brussels preferred an inner reform of the EU rather than an ambitious enlargement policy, the invasion of Ukraine changed this paradigm. Today, European policymakers start to see the importance of the Eastern Partnership as a chance to balance Russian influence in Europe. Is this the end of the so-called enlargement fatigue?
Since 2009, the Eastern Partnership (EaP) program is the European Neighbourhood Policy, focusing on the former Soviet States in Europe. Of course, due to the diversity of these states, there is no consistent development plan for all the states. While Ukraine, Moldova have already achieved candidate status, Georgia needed to fulfil 12 reform points before the membership negotiations can start. The most sensitive points are the “deoligarcisation” of Georgian societies and the freedom of press in Georgia.
Not helpful in this regard, was the so-called foreign agent law by the Georgian Government earlier this year, which tried to illegalize the work of foreign sponsored NGOs in Georgia. Once again, the Georgian civil society had to step in to protest against this law to pass.
Hence, already the relations between Georgia and the European Union are quite strong. With 24% in 2020, the EU is the biggest trade partner of Georgia. This was supported by the EU free market deal of 2016, which was part of an association treaty to integrate Georgia in the EU. Also, visa free travel within 90 days was granted. This agreement should not be underestimated, since it helped on both sides to deepen the connection between the different European people. I experienced how valuable the exchange between Georgian and other European students can be. As one of the 11,000 Erasmus+ exchange students since 2014, from my personal experience, I have to say that the exchanges of students are a great bridge to bring the idea of Georgia as an EU member in the next generation. Also, exchange programs made it financially possible to live in EU countries for some of my Georgian friends.
With no doubt, Georgia's future is European. Yet, it is questionable if the Georgian Dream government is willing and able to fulfil the conditions to get a candidate status. Furthermore, once the candidate level is reached, the goal of a full membership is not achieved yet. Countries like Türkiye or Serbia have had candidate status for decades and are still not close to a full membership. Furthermore, the question of full membership of other countries in the west Balkans like Montenegro and North Macedonia is still raised, even though the conditions for a full membership are nearly achieved. The German minister of foreign affairs Annalena Baerbock during her visit in Georgia made clear: Georgia is welcomed in the EU, yet there is no free pass to enter the Union.
I truly hope that the Georgian government takes this historical chance so that I can call my Georgian friends EU citizens soon.
About the author: Till Hartig, is a law and politics student from the European University Frankfurt Oder, Germany. He focuses on Human rights law and international law.