Georgia’s EU Membership: A Path Filled with Challenges

Georgia’s application for EU membership has been fast-tracked by the EU, expressing support for Eastern European and Caucasian nations facing Russian aggression. However, challenges persist in Georgia’s potential membership, not only from Russia but also from within. Georgia’s political elites have pursued European integration ambitions cautiously, signing an association agreement with the EU in 2014 and focusing on rebuilding relations with Russia.

In 2014, direct flights resumed between the two countries, including visa-free travel, and high volumes of bilateral trade helped ease tensions with Russia. Georgia’s imports from Russia increased by 79% in 2023 to US$1.8 billion, while exports to Russia increased by 32% in the same year. Despite normalizing ties with Russia, the number of takers for the European project increased proportionally to the increasing anti-Russia sentiments year-on-year.

However, the political elites in Tbilisi, who have aspirations for NATO membership and a Euro-Atlanticist future, justify the Russia-Ukraine war by blaming Kyiv’s aspirations for NATO membership and employ wider anti-Brussels rhetoric. Accepting the conditions set and implementing them may pose a challenge for the ruling Georgian Dream Party, as some of their political interests may conflict with the Euro-Atlanticist aspirations of the Georgian people.

Tbilisi currently adheres to 43% of the EU foreign and security policy, with nine conditions for Georgia’s EU membership. These conditions include combating disinformation, aligning Georgian foreign policy with EU policy, strengthening democratic institutions, implementing Venice Commission recommendations, and de-oligarching sectors of the Georgian economy. Despite 89% of Georgians wanting to join the EU, the Georgian political elite has been slow to enact reforms, highlighting the divide between population aspirations and elite politics.

Georgia’s GDP is half that of Bulgaria, the EU’s poorest member, and it does not share a land border with any EU country. To join the EU, Georgia would require the Georgian Dream Party and EU oversight committees to work on reforms, including distancing Georgia from Russian influence.

Russian dependence in Georgia is increasing, with over 15,000 Russian companies registered in 2022, an increase of 16 from 2021. Economic ties have seen Russian exports to Georgia surge, leaving the share of Russian energy at 51%. The number of visitors from Russia has also surged by 20% since 2021.

Increasing interaction with Russia and connectivity issues will be a concern for EU membership, as Georgia does not have a border with any EU country. The war in Ukraine has further deteriorated EU-Russia ties, and Georgia’s trade with Moscow and growing Russian influence will pose a problem for the EU.

Georgia, a key hub for the Belt and Road Initiative, is facing concerns over the increasing influence of China. The country’s involvement in projects like the Anakila Deep Sea Port, Middle Corridor, Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Railway, and free trade agreement with China has intensified cooperation.

This could be a concern for Brussels, as the EU and several member states are recalibrating their relations with Beijing. Georgian politicians are divided on the EU question, with former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, an oligarch, and pro-EU President Salome Zourabichvilli, who is not supported by the Dream party. Georgia faces the challenge of balancing its pursuit of EU membership with the risk of Russian adventurism, necessitating a cautious approach to avoid potential repercussions in the northern regions.

The EU expansion could lead to a multi-speed Europe, where different nations integrate at different levels and paces depending on the political situation in each country. The political elite of Georgia is cautiously dealing with the accession question, with the Georgian Dream Party confident of a victory in the elections this October.

EUEU foreign and security policyEU MembershipEuropean UnionGeorgiaGeorgia's EU Membership: A Path Filled with Challenges