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Persisting question of EU enlargement - integral part of battle for influence in S Caucasus

12 June 2024 17:38 (UTC+04:00)
Persisting question of EU enlargement - integral part of battle for influence in S Caucasus

By Huseyn Sultanli

This month’s European Parliamentary elections shaped a new period of intense debate on the current state of European integration. Among several key issues, few are considered as important among European policy makers as the question of European Union (EU) enlargement. Amidst rising global instability, characterized by the increasing willingness of states to resort to the use of force, discussions on European security are likely to overshadow most other policy areas. Although this issue has not generated unanimity, the majority of EU officials argue in support of enlargement and view as essential the further diffusion of a European project that has become increasingly vulnerable to far-right nationalism domestically and the threat of military aggression externally. The first factor is reinforced by the results of these elections. Even though the ‘centre’ appears to have held ground, the ability of far-right parties to maintain and even, in some cases, strengthen their presence remains undeniable. President Macron’s abrupt decision to call a snap election highlights that European leaders are aware of this, with some, like the French leader, willing to take the challenge to the polls almost immediately.

However, the process of enlargement, on a technical level, is continuing to experience various obstacles which, depending on the country in question, manifest themselves in different ways. One would assume that given its status as the largest free trading bloc in the world and a successful model of regional cooperation, ‘candidate’ states and their governments would do their utmost to secure membership and deepen engagement. However, in an era of international affairs where actions are taken predominantly on the basis of geopolitical calculations and the fight for regional influence, there are significantly more factors at play than just ‘collective will’. It is therefore essential to carry out an analysis on the state of the EU’s enlargement ambition, focusing on this occasion on Georgia’s candidacy and what it might reveal for the broader enlargement dynamic. Crucially, is the rather ‘static’ nature of this process an indication that, due to the superiority of geopolitical processes at play, further EU enlargement remains distant from reality?

Enlargement: The Georgian case

The EU currently has ongoing accession procedures with nine states, each considered to be at different stages of the integration process. This includes Georgia, currently experiencing an intense domestic dispute on the nature of the country’s foreign policy trajectory. The Georgian case is unique in that the vast majority of the country’s population, both in a widespread and consistent manner, has indicated that it views its future as part of the European project. Taking into consideration its immediate neighbours, Azerbaijan and Armenia, this is certainly a more categorical position that pushes for the country to side with a major ‘power’ or alliance, in this case the EU. As argued by regional experts, Azerbaijan, for example, is guided by a balanced foreign policy approach that is best characterized by its chairmanship of the Non-Aligned Movement. The country has firmly positioned itself at the heart of international cooperation and is displaying an increasingly multi-faceted foreign policy, with balanced integration as a way of taking advantage of its unique strategic position. Armenian internal dynamics, on the other hand, are not as clear cut as in Georgia. Despite heavily relying on Russia since its independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenian leadership appears to have shifted away from cooperation within Russian-centred institutions such as the CSTO, which it considers to have failed in protecting its interests. Nevertheless, attitudes in favour of integration with the West are not currently at the levels witnessed in Georgian society. More than 80% of the Georgian population is said to be ‘pro-European’, preferring a future that is shaped by profound integration into a European framework. This, to a certain extent, differentiates Georgia from other accession candidates, with the younger population as the most passionate advocates of EU membership. However, recent actions of the Georgian government (composed predominantly of the Georgian Dream), do not indicate a pro-European preference for the future. As mentioned, the highly complex nature of accession requires a comprehensive compliance with EU norms at all levels of society. In the case of the ruling Georgian Dream party, however, critics point specifically to a degree of reconciliation with Russia on a governmental level. Even though the countries continue to have no official diplomatic relations, given the situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, minor steps such as the resumption of flights and other diplomatic gestures have been taken, indicating a reluctance on the Georgian side to further deepen an already severe fracture.

Recent events and their impact on the EU-Georgia relationship

The recently introduced ‘foreign agents bill’ by the government demonstrates that Georgia’s path to a European future will involve serious complications. The bill has been categorized as being ‘Russian in style’ and a clear message that the government is not willing to prioritise or facilitate an accession process that had been making considerable progress. The bill (now law) requires civil society groups based in the country to register themselves as ‘foreign agents’ should more than 20% of their funding be received from abroad. This extends to private individuals, with law recently modified to include requirements for individuals to comply with government authorities upon the request of information on the source of funding. Logically, this bill has been severely criticised by European policymakers, who have labelled its potential ratification by the Georgian parliament as a fatal step for the country’s prospects of EU membership. On May 28th, the Parliament’s decision to overrule the veto of the Georgian President became official. This was met with fierce criticism, labelling the development as being highly incompatible with core ‘EU values and principles’ any candidate state should aspire to achieve. Moreover, for the first time during this crisis, the EU publicly stated that it is open to undertaking some form of action against the government for introducing the bill. A European Commission press release suggests that as part of a broader institutional response, member states are actively considering all options. This is a clear and significant indication by Brussels that domestic laws considered to be non-aligning with European expectations will not be ignored and are likely to significantly complicate the integration process.

The EU has, in fact, invested considerable time and effort into institutionalizing Georgia’s potential ‘accession’ to the Union. The country first applied for EU membership in March 2022 and was granted candidate status in December 2023. At the core of this rapidly evolving process was a list of twelves priorities that, according to the European Council, Georgia needed to prioritise if it was to reach the status of a ‘candidate’ that is fully aligned and compliant with key European values. This includes Priority 10, which calls for a civil society that is free to influence ‘decision-making’ at all levels. The European Commission’s ‘2023 Georgia Report’ is clear in its rejection of any type of direct influence on civil society. This had been in response to the Georgian Parliament adopting a similar ‘draft law’ on civil society restrictions, eventually overturned by protests. This explains why the EU’s response to the bill’s recent re-introduction was carried out in equally unreserved fashion. Essentially, the prospect of further integration has been hanging in the balance for some time now. Ever since the government’s refusal to publicly condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, policymakers in Brussels have expressed the awkwardness of working together with a government that is unwilling to support a potentially pivotal effort by the EU to uphold Ukrainian sovereignty. There is, however, an inherent contradiction here given the EU’s own struggles to reach a consensus on supporting Ukraine, with member states like Hungary actively refusing to contribute with military assistance. This is a factor that will be considered further below.

Supporters of the law among the country’s leadership argue that the bill would help protect the nation’s sovereignty by minimising external interference via its civil society. There is a concern that appetite for European integration amongst the Georgian population might be used by Brussels and other Western governments for political purposes, seeking to accelerate the Union’s expansion into regions that are not traditionally considered to be under its immediate sphere of influence. This would be a continuation of what is believed to be a policy of ‘double standards’, attempting to enforce a certain mode of conduct on candidate states without first enforcing the same level of expectation on states that are already members. Hence, the ‘Georgian Dream’ argues that similarly ‘controversial’ measures are adopted by European countries, with there being an evident lack of consensus on several social issues among the member states themselves. According to this line of thinking, it is unfair to single out Georgia for an approach that is already existent within the Union itself. Essentially, as long the inability of Brussels to effectively mediate between the increasingly conflicting positions of its member states continues, the EU is not in a position to ‘interfere’ and impose expectations on the domestic affairs of its membership candidates. Crucially, the government views that by pursuing its own independent approach to its domestic affairs, without relying on pre-defined external models, it secures a degree of political independence for the country in what is an increasingly unstable international and crucially for Georgia, regional environment. This would grant Georgia significant room for manoeuvre, allowing it to shape its own future according to geopolitical realities in its own region and without external influence. One could argue, by relying on international relations theory, that this is a more ‘realist’ approach in that Georgia prioritises its immediate security by maintaining some sort of balance in its relationship with Russia. There exists a feeling that a path of full-scale European integration would not serve as a guarantee for the country’s security. Moreover, there appears to be a consensus that the further rupturing of relations with Russia by supporting Ukraine and joining a key Western institution would compromise its immediate security. This is reinforced by the view that the major effort of both the EU and US in supporting Ukraine and the potential toll of this support on their respective domestic economic performance could limit the protection provided to Georgia in case of further Russian military aggression. In Russia, Georgia has and is surrounded by a powerful neighbour that has made its intention to revert to the use of military force clear. Following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia resumed its operation with a full-scale war in February 2022. With Georgian territory already under Russian occupation, a radical and ‘officialised’ approximation with the EU risks further compromising the country’s security and therefore, the survival of its ruling elite.

Broader implications for the South Caucasus

This particular case is likely to continue developing, with the EU seemingly determined to influence the overruling of the law in one way or another. However, this is a highly useful example for assessing current dynamics in the South Caucasus and the geopolitical tug of war that has recently characterized the approach of ‘great powers’ to the region. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions programme that followed isolated, or at least attempted to isolate, the country from the Western world. Apart from inflicting damage on the Kremlin’s war effort, this approach also sought to finalize the ‘recapturing’ of what is considered as Russia’s traditional sphere of influence by the West. Following Azerbaijan’s restoration of its territorial integrity and Armenia’s apparent decisiveness to move away from the Russian domain, Georgia’s immediate future, however, remained an ‘unresolved’ matter due to the uncomfortable dichotomy of a largely pro-European population and a government that resists the urge to side with Europe and prefers to maintain some degree of diplomatic contact with Russia. Therefore, in Brussels, there is a shared assumption that with initiatives such as the foreign agents bill, the Georgian government is deliberately positioning itself closer to the Kremlin. Crucially, given upcoming Georgian parliamentary elections, the bill would facilitate the party’s re-election and prevent pro-European parties from gaining a real foothold in the domestic political process. It is evident that a Georgian Dream victory would reinforce Russia’s position as it would further reduce the momentum of EU enlargement and would allow Russia to maintain some degree of authority over a region that is has gradually lost a grip of. With an Azerbaijan that is rapidly broadening its foreign policy portfolio and an Armenia that seems determined to become more ‘Western’, Russia sees a clear opportunity in Georgia that would allow it to maintain some degree of influence in the South Caucasus.

For the EU, this case serves as an opportunity to reassess the extent to which its ‘normative power’ remains a powerful foreign policy tool in its neighbouring regions. Even though the majority of Georgians appear determined to fight for a European future, the country’s accession is complicated by a government that is not willing to proceed with full-scale integration at the cost of further upsetting Russia and potentially jeopardizing its national security. Given that the underlying objective of EU enlargement into the South Caucasus was to ‘push back’ Russian influence and export EU values, this example should act as a reminder that Russian influence in the region remains a factor to be considered. Moreover, in addition to candidate states meeting conditions outlined by the EU, there are significant geopolitical factors at play that governments of the countries in the region now appear to prioritise. The fact that Georgia was granted official candidate status was a consequence of it cooperating with the EU on various areas of reform, culminating with the European Commission’s approval of progress made on the ’12 priorities’. Nevertheless, it is unclear the extent to which the momentum that was initially created for the securement of candidate status will be carried on to achieving full accession. Even though the government does not publicly express a preference for either path, it is clear that the level of cooperation required by EU officials will not be encountered in Georgia as long as the current government remains in place. This should force EU leaders to assess the extent to which their current rhetoric on EU enlargement, which is one of fierce optimism, remains appropriate, especially given the evident challenges the process is likely to continue experiencing down the line.

Elsewhere in the region, Azerbaijan, fresh from finalizing the restoration of its territorial integrity following the withdrawal of the final Russian peacekeepers from Karabakh, has reinforced its position as an independent state that is powerful enough to determine its own foreign policy direction. Even though Azerbaijan and the EU are engaged in mutually beneficial cooperation in the oil and gas industries, the country has not shied away from expressing its discontent with Europe’s approach to its internal issues and particularly the attitude of the EU’s foreign policy chiefs. The country, for several decades, felt that it was abandoned in the fight against illegal occupation. This feeling guided the shaping of its renewed foreign policy strategy, focusing on strengthening relationships with its traditional allies, like Turkey, whilst pursuing an independent strategy of comprehensive economic and military development. Azerbaijan has made it clear that future membership of international institutions like the EU or NATO is not on its radar, underlining the preference to build up the country’s capability as an independent actor that is in a position to choose its own future. Even though the Georgian Dream has never publicly said it is against EU membership, its actions suggest it is preparing Georgia for a future that is outside the European Union and one that is marked by both regional and external geopolitical challenges the country must be adequately prepared for.

Georgia’s complex domestic political situation further exacerbates the situation. In fact, the Georgian President vetoed the passage of the foreign agents bill and has been consistent in condemning the law by making pledges to European authorities. The Georgian Parliament, primarily because of the ruling party’s dominant position, managed to overrule the vote and the bill can now be categorized as official law. However, the President is showing no signs of slowing down her efforts at re-establishing momentum for European integration. Recently, President Salome Zurabishvili, during a speech at Independence Day, called for political parties to sign the “Georgian Charter”. The document essentially outlines a path for the country to return to integration with Europe, calling for the removal of any legal or judicial obstacles to this process. Crucially, the Charter seeks to restore compliance with the ‘9 factors’ outlined by the European Commission which would eventually allow Georgia to accede to the EU. The President introduced the Charter to the European Commission, with her pledge being met by local opposition parties that joined forces and signed the document.

For this reason, the October elections in Georgia are likely to serve as a crucial turning point. The current government shows no sign of stepping away from its revised foreign policy approach, maintaining a balance between cooperating with the EU and protecting itself from the threats that come with pursuing an openly anti-Russian policy. It would be logical to closely observe whether the EU decides to push for a further deepening of institutional ties with Armenia whilst its struggles to push forward its Georgian agenda. The Armenian government has repeatedly expressed its discontent with the CSTO, an alliance it considers as one that failed in meeting its underlying obligations of preserving collective security. It is no coincidence that European countries like France are stepping up their support to Armenia, especially through the provision of a military alliance. Moreover, a European Union Border Mission (EUMA) was deployed in Armenia in February 2023. Although such efforts are de-stabilizing and could potentially be detrimental to peace in the region, it confirms the EU’s desire to persist with its aim of being an influential actor in the South Caucasus. The principal state through which this objective is implemented, however, could soon change.

Conclusion: Is Georgia’s membership candidacy still a potent one?

In short, EU enlargement remains a highly debated and popular topic in Europe. EU enthusiasts are adamant that it is via enlargement that European security can be maximized, and prosperity can be brought to neighbouring regions. However, this appetite for European integration, despite enjoying from different levels of public support in different countries, is likely to prove insufficient for any serious materialization. Russia’s war in Ukraine initially seemed to weaken the country’s influence in the region, with many analysts predicting a complete collapse of its presence and authority in the region. Nevertheless, as Ukraine struggles to contain recent Russian offensives and the ‘West’ continues its indecisiveness on the extent of its support to the Ukrainian armed forces, other actors in the region appear to have entered a period of profound reflection. Paradoxically, with a powerful neighbour on their borders and also an increasingly assertive China on the horizon, it will be ‘leading applicants’ like Georgia that will likely end up freezing what seemed an inevitable diffusion of the European project.

Huseyn Sultanli

Analyst - Geopolitical Risk, European Cooperation, Azerbaijani foreign policy

MSc International Relations, LSE

London, United Kingdom

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