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Political Turmoil Clouds Georgia’s EU Future

It is fair to say that Brussels reacted with incredulity at the latest move by the Georgian government to commence impeachment proceedings against that Caucasus country's president, Salome Zurabishvili, for visiting foreign countries without government approval. It follows her visits to Brussels for talks with the European Council President Charles Michel on September 1 and then going on to meet with other state and government heads in the bloc.

Several diplomats I spoke to on background said they didn't quite understand why a president of a country aspiring to join the EU and traveling on their own budget to lobby for their country was regarded as a bad thing.
With her perfect grasp of French and English, Zurabishvili is well respected in Brussels -- and elsewhere in the EU. Her traveling to various member states this fall to drum up support for Georgia getting one step closer to EU membership is something Brussels officials regard as absolutely normal and to be expected. Or, as one EU official asked me with a slight air of despair: "This is sort of her main job, isn't it?"

Deep Background: The big question for now is what consequences the impeachment proceedings will have on Georgia's EU aspirations. Later in October, the European Commission will issue its annual enlargement report with recommendations on how to proceed with Georgia, as well as Moldova and Ukraine. In December, the 27 EU member states will vote either to endorse or reject those recommendations. (To endorse, according to the EU rule of unanimity, all members states have to agree.)

All indications so far from Brussels suggest Ukraine and Moldova, who are already candidate countries, will be recommended to proceed to the next phase -- the start of EU accession talks. From talking to a number of EU officials on background, their impression is that all the EU member states appear to be on board, so it could happen by the end of the year. Both countries are progressing well with the conditions they received in the summer of 2022 and, crucially, there is domestic political will to move forward.

For Georgia, things have always been a bit vaguer. It is already one step behind Kyiv and Chisinau, as just a "potential" candidate country. Brussels hasn't seen the same political enthusiasm for EU integration from Tbilisi as with the other two Eastern European hopefuls.

Controversial moves earlier this year -- such as attempts to enact a foreign agent law, which was compared to a draconian Kremlin law, and the resumption of flights to and from Russia -- have raised eyebrows in Brussels, as have comments from top government officials that it was NATO enlargement that triggered Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

While not happy with what was sometimes perceived as a pro-Russian stance and not particularly receptive to the argument from Tbilisi that certain moves from Georgia might "open up a second front for Russia," there was still an understanding among EU officials and diplomats that pressure from Moscow is keenly felt in the South Caucasus country.

Besides, foreign policy alignment with the EU was never one of the 12 recommendations given by Brussels in 2022 when it spelled out how the country should proceed on its EU path.

Drilling Down:
The latest drama surrounding Zurabishvili raises further questions as to whether Georgia is ripe for candidate status. "The bar for Georgia to proceed to candidate status is so low, yet they might not clear it in the end," was one comment from an EU diplomat who has worked on the Georgia file for many years but wanted to remain anonymous because they aren't allowed to speak on the record. Another Georgia-watcher in Brussels wondered aloud: "How many more own goals can they afford?"

In Brussels, several times I heard the claims -- which so far have been mostly aired by opposition forces in Tbilisi -- that the Georgian government actually wants to be denied EU candidate status so that it can blame Brussels and show to its voters that the EU is unreliable and never wanted Georgia onboard anyway.

The uncertainty over EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell's trip to Georgia on September 7-8 -- his first to the country in this capacity -- was also interesting to note. Normally these trips are announced well over a week in advance, but Brussels refrained from confirming the journey even after Zurabishvili's supposed transgression. That sort of hesitancy could well speak volumes.

Despite all those misgivings, I still think it more likely than not that Georgia will get candidate status. Some diplomats have referred positively to the current momentum when it comes to EU enlargement, with the bloc seriously considering how a bigger group of members states might look. This window of opportunity exists now but might not next year when the EU is busy with European parliamentary elections and selecting new commission and council presidents.

Another consideration is that candidate status is low-hanging fruit. Bosnia-Herzegovina got the same status last year, without making much progress or significant reforms.

Then there is the argument (and still the most likely outcome) that in order to move to the next step -- the opening of accession talks -- Georgia will be offered candidate status but with conditions attached. These conditions could just be the continued implementation of what remains to be completed following the original 12 recommendations from 2022. After meeting with Zurabishvili, Michel posted on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, about Georgia's need to focus on "justice, de-polarization, de-oligarchization" as well as "building inclusive political culture" -- all recommendations highlighted a year ago.

What's clear is that the recommendations for Georgia are ambiguous, and it's hard to categorically say whether they have been successfully followed. This gives the EU plenty of leeway. It wouldn't be surprising if other conditions could be thrown in at the request of various member states, such as well-run parliamentary elections in the fall of 2024, for example, or the release for medical treatment of former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is serving a six-year sentence for abuse of power, a charge he and his supporters say was politically motivated.

Ultimately, Georgia's status can also end up being subject to inevitable political horse-trading. According to two European Commission officials speaking on the condition of anonymity, the EU enlargement commissioner, Oliver Varhelyi -- a Hungarian with close links to the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban -- is keen to give Georgia a positive recommendation in October. In the end, it's up to the entire college of European commissioners to decide, although they tend to be more enlargement-friendly.

Among member states, it's also possible that Hungary, which has growing political links with Georgia, will push for Tbilisi's candidate status as quid pro quo for agreeing to give Ukraine the green light to start EU accession talks. Budapest has used its veto extensively in recent months on various political issues, often related to Ukraine -- so don't rule out that this could happen again.