Georgia’s EU Aspirations and Potential Lessons from the “Big Bang” EU Enlargement


Hopes for Euro-Atlantic integration have been a constant theme running through Georgia’s foreign policy for decades. A strategically located nation in the former-Soviet region and praised for its democratic momentum in recent years, Georgia sees eventual membership of NATO and the EU as desirable goals for the country’s security, political stability and economic prosperity.

Since independence in 1991, Georgia has cultivated its commitment to both Euro-Atlantic organisations. With NATO, Georgia has been involved in the Partnership for Peace since 1994. Regarding the EU, July 2016 marked the date that the Georgia-EU Association Agreement came into force. This Agreement included Georgia in the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) [1] and set the groundwork for further political and economic integration with the EU. Another step came in October 2016, when all EU Member States agreed to grant Georgian nationals visa-free travel to the Schengen zone, (once measures are put in place to suspend the deal in case of abuse [2]). Talks on these measures are expected to conclude by the end of the year in the EU institutions, meaning that Georgian people are anticipated to be allowed visit the 25 Schengen states without requiring visa permits by 2017.


Domestic views on Euro-Atlantic integration among Georgians

Support for the country’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations among its citizens is stable, with a 2016 poll finding NATO support to be at 64% and EU support at 72%. Most citizens (53%) asked in the poll believe the country will benefit from Euro-Atlantic integration, while 29% would like to abandon such integration in favour of closer ties with Russia [3].

Parliamentary elections held in Georgia throughout October 2016 – with first round voting October 8 and second round concluding October 30 – were an important litmus test for the strength of the country’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations. Georgia’s ruling political party, Georgian Dream, secured a constitutional majority in the second round of parliamentary elections, winning 115 of the 150 seats in Georgia’s parliament. The main opposition party United National Movement (UNM) won 27 seats. Both parties converge on foreign policy issues, both with favourable views of EU and NATO membership for the country.

The October elections were watched closely and international observers from the OSCE, the European Parliament, and the Council of Europe said in a joint statement that the vote had been “competitive and administered in a manner that respected the rights of candidates and voters”.

For the first time in Georgia’s post-Soviet history, the first round of voting saw a small anti-Western party, the Alliance of Patriots, clearing the five-percent threshold needed to enter parliament, winning six seats. Its populist positions put it on the same end of the spectrum as the UKIP party in Britain and the Front National in France. This party has been reported to favour greater integration with Russia and opposes Georgia joining NATO. Its leaders also talk up the Russian Orthodox Church’s links to Georgia and warn that closer integration with Europe could damage Georgian traditions.


Brief overview of the “Big Bang” Enlargement

In 2004, the EU undertook its fifth enlargement, extending membership to ten new countries. Known as the “Big Bang” Enlargement, it constituted the largest in the EU’s history, incorporating more countries and languages than any previous enlargement, as well as the biggest expansion of the EU’s population and territory. There are many lessons that the 2004 Enlargement countries learned throughout and which can assist Georgia with its EU aspirations.


EU enlargement: A process, not an event

First, the experiences of the 2004 accession clearly demonstrates how “enlargement is a process not an event” (Neuder, 2003; p. 190) which effectively began more than ten years before membership was finally granted. Following the collapse of East European communist regimes and the fall of the Soviet empire, the EU showed interest in extending EU membership eastward. However, the Union only formally acknowledged applications at the EU’s 1993 Copenhagen Summit. At this summit, the Copenhagen criteria for accession were established. In order to be granted full membership, candidates would be required to satisfactorily fulfil these criteria related to economic reform, democratic institution consolidation and protecting rule of law. Due to the extensive nature of the reforms demanded by these criteria, candidate nations were allowed up to twelve years to implement them. While some candidate countries argued that the decade long enlargement time-frame was unnecessarily protracted (Beke, 2012, p. 5), EU policymakers argued that the main priority was to ensure continent-wide stability, and thus such a time-frame was suitable.

Because of the lessons it learned from the 2004 enlargements, the Commission has further elaborated on the membership requirements, with a much more explicit state-building and institution-building agendas for future countries. The most important conditions that states should fully satisfy before accession now must be the development of a well-functioning state administration, which is predicated on cross-party consensus.

For example, prior to the 2014 accession of Croatia, the country had to “jump through many more hurdles”  than Bulgaria and Romania had done, on corruption and judicial reform as well as on delivering indicted war criminals to the Hague Tribunal. Such a case demonstrates the fact that the EU is constantly learning and adapting in response to its previous experiences with enlargement.


Cross Party Support for EU Membership

The issue of cross-party consensus on the EU is seen as essential for ensuring a consistent attitude toward EU, even if power is changed from one government to the next, following elections. Otherwise, the efforts of one government could risk being wasted and the country would achieve no benefits from painful reforms being only half undertaken, if a new government halts the pro-EU work of its predecessor. Any government working on the Copenhagen accession criteria needs strong political backing so that it can override the priorities of other ministries or parliamentary objections. Applicants are often required to divert their finite public resources from health and education to implementing the EU’s directives (which are primarily concerned with economic regulation). This could be a politically precarious task unless the government have support across the political spectrum to see the long term benefits of EU membership.

In Georgia, cross-party consensus appears to be strong on the subject of EU accession. Both Georgian Dream and its main opponent UNM claim to be pro-Western and wish to seek better relations with NATO and the EU. This was demonstrated when power moved from UNM to Georgian Dream in the 2012 Parliamentary elections and there was no shift in the country’s policy on this issue. The electoral victory of the eurosceptic Alliance of Patriots party into the parliament will give it a public platform that it never had before, which potentially could disrupt the cohesion of the domestic powers in favour of EU membership.

The judiciary needs to be robust, independent and able to enforce EU-inspired laws fairly. The Council of Europe’s Nils Muižnieks, Commissioner for Human Rights, reported in 2016 that Georgian judicial reforms have

“yielded some positive results in Georgia, in particular as concerns the reduced influence of the prosecutorial authorities, the increased transparency in the work of the High Council of Justice and an improved juvenile justice system. However, long-standing structural problems still require serious attention, particularly with a view to upholding the independence and effective functioning of the judiciary”

The issue of judiciary independence will have to be closely monitored in Georgia under the new government, now that it is clear that Georgian Dream Party has a majority in the parliament. The situation should be monitored by European observers to ensure that the Georgian Dream Party does not overextend its constitutional powers to surreptitiously punish opposition parties or impair the standing of the judiciary as an independent branch of government.


Ensuring Enlargement Benefits Everyone: Increasing the Role of Civil Society

Experiences from the fifth enlargement highlighted that political momentum is vital to overcoming domestic interests that oppose the EU reform agenda. It is also essential for allowing the accession countries to use their access to EU markets to demonstrate the tangible benefits of the EU.

The protracted and cumbersome accession period prior to the 2004 enlargement caused support for the EU to wane in candidate countries who could not see the long term benefit of EU, only experiencing the short term struggles with reform. Therefore inclusion of civil society is pivotal to ensure that support for EU membership is welcomed across the spectrum of groups and interests. A 2005 European Commission report discussed observations from the 2004 enlargement, finding that citizens in EU Member States were not sufficiently informed about the membership process. The report recommend that any future enlargement of the EU needs to be supported by a strong, deep and sustained dialogue between the societies of the candidate countries and in the EU member States, as well as with the EU institutions, to bridge the information gap, achieve better mutual knowledge and bring citizens and different cultures, political and economic systems closer together, thus ensuring a stronger awareness of the opportunities as well as the challenges of future accessions.

To prepare Georgia for future integration, the EU-Georgia Civil Society Platform (CSP) was established June 2016 in Tbilisi with the objective of rectifying the mistakes learned from previous enlargements. The platform explicitly encourages strong participation of civil society actors on the European side with the Georgian process, enabling them to share their own experience with Georgians in approximating their national legislations with the EU acquis communautaire.


Acquis Communautaire: A Monumental Task

Conditions for joining the European Union (EU) look deceptively straightforward: an aspirant member has to be a stable with a competitive market economy and demonstrate that it is willing and able to take on all EU policies, both present and future (Grabbe 2002).

As mentioned above, in 1993 the EU developed the Copenhagen Criteria in anticipation of future enlargements of the EU to include the newly independent post-Communist states. The conditions set out at the Copenhagen European Council were designed to minimise the risk of new entrants becoming politically unstable and economically burdensome to the existing Union.

The third pillar of the Copenhagen Criteria requires that all accession countries transpose the entirety of the EU’s acquis communautaire into their respective national legislatures with minimum exceptions. Essentially, the acquis communautaire is the entire body of all treaties, legislations, international agreements, standards, court verdicts and fundamental rights provisions. A staggering amount.

Many of the aspiring countries during the Big Bang enlargement learned that accepting the Copenhagen Criteria would be a mammoth task, described as being like “attempting to catch an express train going at full speed” as the EU body of directives, laws and rulings constitutes a living organism that grows in size and complexity constantly (Druláková, 2007). In the German version of the 2000 acquis, for example, the volume was estimated at 80,000 to 90,000 pages (see Sajdik & Schwarzinger, 2011).  The Commission estimates the acquis increases every year by between 4,000 to 5,000 extra pages.

During accession, an abrupt asymmetry of power characterises the interactions that each applicant country has with the European Union. The collective GNP of the ten 2004 applicants for membership totalled no more than 3 to 5 percent of the EU. With a minimum possibility to negotiate any exceptions, some applicant countries were required to acquiesce to certain unfavorable terms, conceding much in exchange for membership (Moravcsik & Vachudova, 2003).

These concessions impose a heavy burden. The EU required applicants with a legacy of Soviet-style administration to transpose and implement standards of internal democracy, state administration, and detailed regulatory protection that the fifteen existing Member States had decades to develop (Moravcsik & Vachudova, 2003). It also imposes something of a double-standard on certain contentious issues, such as the protection of ethnic minority rights. While 2004 candidates were required to meet these strict standards, the existing fifteen European Member States never had to satisfy them.

However, on balance, the sacrifices demanded of them were deemed as worthy to undertake in order to gain the immense benefits accrued. Throughout the tough task of meeting the criteria, EU membership remained a matter of net national interest for the accession countries. Since integration with the European Union, the 2004 countries have enjoyed stronger economic growth compared to their early phases of economic transition to market economy after the fall of the Berlin Wall. A recent report by the European Commission on the economics of enlargement found that the 2004 enlargement Member States enjoyed increased macroeconomic stability, inflation and interest rates in line with the EU-15 and an average annual economic growth of 3.75% between 1997 and 2005, performing better than the old Member States (EU-15) which achieved 2.5% on average in the same period, demonstrating the benefit of the adoption of painful acquis in helping reform these previously centrally planned economies.

One unfortunate corollary of this was increasing levels of frustration by the new Member States at EU’s supranational institutions. Applicant states before the 2004 enlargement were subjected to years of “scrutiny and admonishment” by the European Commission, “receiving stiff report cards from the Commission every year for almost a decade” (Moravcsik & Vachudova, 2003).

The intrusive verification procedures that follow these standards bruised national pride. Indeed many post-Communist countries felt that their sovereignty was impaired by EU interference. Many in the accession states saw a double standard in the level of acquis transposition as Ssme Commission officials claim that no original EU Member State fully implements more than 80% of EU regulations in early 2000. Yet, it required the  candidates to satisfy over 95% of regulations  before their accession in 2004 (see Grabbe 2002). As a result, Euro-skepticism found fertile ground in some states (Taggart & Aleks Szczerbiak, 2001)

Such frustrations at the EU institutions did not disappear once applicants become full Member States. We are seeing anti-European sentiments coming to the fore across Europe. To a large extent, they are based on the asymmetry of power during negotiations and the harsh demands placed on the states. Victor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary, recently called the over-extension of Brussels in Hungarian domestic politics akin to ‘Sovietisation’ of Hungary.

For Georgia anticipating EU membership, it should reflect on the fact that it may be painful. A gradual integration with EU legislation, directives and norms may be the best way to ease into membership and be vigilant of any sectors of society growing disillusioned with the process. The Commission too should be more lenient in certain areas of acquis transposition. It is not in their interest to upset the accession country.

No Frozen Conflicts

Although this issue did not explicitly affect the 2004 enlargement countries, the issue of frozen conflicts or border disputes is an important lesson from enlargement that has coloured the EU’s subsequent approach to enlargement, and one which is highly relevant to the case of Georgia. It may prove to be the most stubborn obstacle to EU membership as it is difficult to imagine that there will be accession without the resolution of Georgia’s frozen conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. As Heather Grabbe (2014) noted:

“Ask any non-Cypriot policy-maker – whether in the EU institutions, national diplomats or politician – about Cyprus, and they will tell you that the EU made an enormous mistake in allowing a divided island to join”.

Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia first declared their independence from Georgia in the 1990s, and solidified their claim to autonomy following the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia. Russian support for the independence of these two territories adds difficult geopolitical calculus to the seccessions, making a workable resolution more remote.  In March 2015, Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, and Leonid Tibilov, the separatist leader of South Ossetia, signed a Russian–South Ossetian treaty of alliance and integration, giving Russia high influence in the domestic issues of South Ossetia. A similar accord with signed with Abkhazia  in November 2014. Though neither of these two self-declared republics has been completely annexed by Russia, Georgia has very small chance of gaining back these territories in the near term, using either diplomatic or military means.

In the end, an ever present obstacle is Russia. The Kremlin sees the South Caucus region as a quasi-buffer zone to protect itself from the “West”. As demonstrated with the case of South Ossetia and Abkhazia gravitating more firmly into Russia’s orbit, Russians are not afraid to interfere in neighbours disputes to stymie any aspirations for Western integration. It appears now that a rapprochement between the West and Russia will need to precede a serious consideration of Georgian membership. Unfortunately, the outlook is appearing bleak at the moment.

While Georgians predominantly favour EU integration, they must be aware that the EU is not a panacea. As events are showing in recent years, the EU has no codified guidance on how to solve the trickiest and dilemmas of democracy. The EU has been thwarted repeatedly in its attempts to reverse illiberal trends it sees unfolding in the 2004 accession states – namely Poland and Hungary. The main mechanism at the European Commission’s disposal – invoking Article 7 of the Treaty to impose voting sanctions on aberrent members – is not being utilised, due to protests from both the Council and the Parliament for political reasons. This leaves the Commission effectively impotent, unable to reverse what it sees as a departure from EU norms, and highlights a weakness in the soft power of the EU.

Ultimately, Georgia needs to continually work on inculcating norms of vibrant democracy and internalising them in the country; it cannot rely on EU membership to automatically do if for them.


“Enlargement Fatigue”

The last, and most, important factor that will decide whether Georgia is granted membership is one that is well beyond its control. That of an appetite in the EU Member States for enlargement of the Union. The fifth enlargement was presented as the opportunity to overcome the continent’s past East-West division and be next step in forming the “ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe” (Inglis, 2007).

Today’s “enlargement fatigue” – the aversion many EU citizens feel about accepting more members due to fears they will be a financial burden or will bring new influxes of immigration – prevents many political actors persuading the EU leaders. Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission began his tenure in 2014 with the declaration that there would be no further enlargement during his five year term, dashing the hopes of EU member applicants.

The June 2016 UK vote to leave the EU was a body blow to the entire European project. The referendum result represented the first instance of EU contraction and it will take years to clean up after the fallout. The main concern of the EU is to make sure that a “conagion effect” does not sweep across the continent and lead to other Member States voting to leave the bloc in wake of the UK.  It will occupy the minds of EU leaders, leaving no room for enlargement aspirations. Many fear Russia will monopolise on this stasis in the EU to gain support its foreign policy goals and to drive a wedge between EU states to halt the march of the Union to its borders.

There is a lack of political will pervading the EU  across many contenious issues, not just membership expansion, but also the question of federalisation, militarisation and further Eurozone expanison. Major national elections taking place in 2017 will see many political actors to retreat from the EU stage. Both Francois Hollande, President of France, and Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, could lose their respective elections and they have no desire to rock the boat to upset their home electorate. There is a chance that populist anti-EU parties will only set to increase their presence in national parliaments, pushing against enlargement and “EU federalisation”. EU leaders do not have the political currency to dedicate their time persuading people (many of whom already worried about EU over-reach and the negative impacts of workers migrating from new Member States) to embark on expanding membership.

And while Europe grapples with its crises and contemplates its future trajectories, Georgia will continue to wait in the membership waiting room.



[1] The Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas (DCFTA) are three free trade areas established between the European Union, and Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine respectively. The DCFTAs are part of each country’s EU Association Agreement. They allow Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine access to the EU’s internal market in selected sectors and grant EU investors in those sectors the same regulatory environment in the associated country as in the EU.

[2] The “suspension mechanism” is a European Commission proposal that will, in future, allow EU states to “snap back” visa restrictions more easily in case of mass-scale overstays or bogus asylum claims by any non-EU country.

[3] NDI surveys public opinion to help Georgian stakeholders diagnose and address issues of public concern by providing accurate, unbiased and statistically-sound data. The results reflect data collected from June 8 to July 6 through face-to-face interviews with a nationwide representative sample of citizens of Georgia that included 4,113 completed interviews. The average margin of error is +/- 2.1 percent. NDI’s survey work is funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s