Georgia races to convince sceptics on EU candidate status reforms

Georgia has implemented 80% of the European Commission’s recommendations to earn EU candidate status, the country’s Foreign Minister Ilia Darchiashvili told EURACTIV, as Tbilisi races to convince it to progress to the next steps in the bloc’s accession process.

The EU stopped short of granting Georgia candidate status in June 2022 while awarding it to Ukraine and Moldova, calling on Tbilisi to reform the justice and electoral systems, improve press freedom and limit the power of oligarchs.

“We still have ground to cover, but it is our devotion to make this reforms agenda accelerated,” Darchiashvili told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.

The European Commission is expected to release its annual assessment of Georgia’s progress later this year, with an oral presentation of the EU executive’s twelve reform recommendations expected by June and the formal enlargement package in autumn.

Reforms emphasised

Darchiashvili said more than 80 draft laws had already been adopted, and a “huge part” of the recommendations had already been implemented.

“We have around 20% still to deliver, but we are working very closely with the Venice Commission with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) because their legal opinion is very important to us to better proceed on those,” Darchiashvili said.

Despite the progress, the government has not yet fully implemented reforms addressing the most significant problems highlighted by the European Commission, analysts and civil society organisations say.

This would concern the de-oligarchisation draft law in which the Georgian Parliament is awaiting assessments from the Venice Commission and another regarding de-polarisation.

In March, mass anti-government demonstrations shook Tbilisi over a ‘foreign agent’ law for which protesters accused the government of deviating from the country’s pro-Western course.

The bill sparked strong international condemnation, adding to the mounting criticism from rights groups and Western capitals over Georgia’s democratic practices over the last year.

Asked whether EU member states were reassured after the protest in Georgia earlier this year, Darchiashvili said that “the most important thing, looking from the Georgian perspective, is that we always listen to our partners and their opinions”.

“The discussion of this draft law has also skyrocketed polarisation between the ruling party and the opposition, the ruling party and the media and the ruling party and the civil society,” Paata Gaprindashvili, director of the think tank Georgia’s Reforms Associates (GRASS) and former Georgian ambassador, told EURACTIV.

“The situation towards the media and civil society had even worsened thanks to the initiation and adoption of the law on the transparency of foreign influence before it was withdrawn due to domestic and international pressure,” he said.

According to Gaprindashvili, the EU’s directorate-general for neighbourhood and enlargement negotiations (DG NEAR) ““should be more actively involved, and the EU should formalise cooperation with Georgian civil society as an official part of the accession process.”

Asked whether Georgia would like to see more technical support from the European Commission side, as there is currently with Ukraine, Darchiashvili emphasised there is also a lot of “bilateral cooperation and partnership with different EU member states”.

“We consider that the technical support, based on experience these countries have, is also supporting our process – especially those which just recently joined the EU, which had a challenging path – their experience and general knowledge is extremely valuable to us,” he added.

Member states hesitant

Provided that positive progress is noted in the European Commission’s oral and regular autumn assessment reports, some EU officials and diplomats believe the bloc could decide to let Tbilisi catch up with the other two Associated Trio countries – Ukraine and Moldova – by the end of this year, to avoid leaving the country behind for longer.

Asked which countries still need to be convinced, Darchiashvili said, “There had been dynamic visits, the travelling to different EU member countries to assure them to show them all those commitments we have taken and at the same time practically delivered”.

However, member states remain split between those that argue in favour of a political signal to the country and those stressing that current reforms haven’t yet been enough to convince them, EURACTIV understands.

Over the past weeks, Germany and France have pressed Tbilisi to conduct reforms amid increasing concern over the Caucasus country’s democratic record.

“The door is open wide for Georgia to get EU candidate status,” Germany’s foreign minister Annalena Baerbock said in Tbilisi in March but added, “there can be no shortcuts and no concessions” over Tbilisi’s compliance with democratic standards.

In April, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna warned there was still “work to do, ” adding that Georgia should move on “brave reforms to guarantee the independence and impartiality of justice, protecting institutions from the influence of private interests, and guaranteeing press freedom and pluralism.”

[Edited by Georgi Gotev/Alice Taylor]


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