The Future Of E.U. Membership

On March 3rd, Georgia submitted its application to join the European Union in the wake of applications made by Ukraine and Moldova, and the increasing violence in the region. On June 17th, the Commission of the E.U. presented its opinion on the applications of the three countries, which the Council approved. Unlike Ukraine and Moldova, however, Georgia was not granted candidate status. The state instead was only recognized for its “European perspective,” a status with no legal grounds and which brings Georgia no closer to becoming an official member state. The Commission cited many reasons for its decision and published a detailed list of recommendations for Georgia to follow in order to progress further on its journey to E.U. membership. Though Georgia undoubtedly has much change to enact before it can hope for membership, the question remains whether the E.U. has made the right decision by denying Georgia membership candidacy.

Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova now join a long queue of hopeful countries seeking to join the European Union. Four Western Balkan nations plus Turkey are currently recognized as candidate countries, in addition to the two potential candidate countries, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. Most of these nations have been candidate states for almost a decade, and while progress has been made, that progress is largely defined by languor. The Commission has repeatedly stated in its recent communications that, despite the speed with which the recent candidacy statuses were awarded, the process will still “[go] by the book,” and that the same lengthy process awaits Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. Potential candidate countries will thus be expected to fulfill the Copenhagen and Madrid criteria, which emphasize the need for stable, democratic institutions, an operational market economy, and an adherence to the Union’s aims and goals, encapsulated in the acquis.

The accession procedure is undoubtedly arduous. The acquis in itself amounts to over 140,000 pages, and every advance requires the unanimous agreement of all current member states. However, the time is ripe for progress. The Commission under Madam President Ursula von der Leyen seems keen to undo its predecessors’ mistakes and re-engage with the enlargement process as a tool for peace, development, and democratization. During von der Leyen’s time in office, the accession process has been again amended, with the aim to work more quickly and effectively through the necessary reforms, and progress has been made in the accession journeys of the Western Balkans. Accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, for example, opened in early 2020. The recent granting of candidate statuses to Ukraine and Moldova sends a strong message that accession is possible and relevant, not something that should be consigned to the past. von der Leyen’s Commission recognizes that the E.U. is built upon unity in diversity, that its strength lies in its inclusivity; a multi-faceted Europe that should be welcoming new candidates and helping them towards accession, rather than closing itself off from the rest of the continent.

This does not undermine how much work still needs to be done. Georgia, for one, must work through the lengthy list of reforms laid out by the Commission before it can hope to progress to candidate status. These reform demands include ending the political polarization between the ruling Georgian Dream party and the opposition; restoring the judiciary to ensure its independence, impartiality, and accountability; strengthening anti-corruption laws; and fighting against organized crime. The Commission will review Georgia’s progress at the end of the year.

Georgian President Salome Zurabichvili celebrated the E.U.’s decision, declaring at a rally in Tbilisi that “we must mobilize on this historical day for our country. Our message is that we want a European Georgia.” However, there is reason to fear that offering Georgia lengthy reforms and unclear timeframes in place of an official candidate status may have the opposite effect on the country. Subjected to the ardour of the accession process, many countries find themselves backsliding, discontent with the lack of progress and E.U. support. Serbia is a country which moved swiftly towards accession at first, aligning its policy of its own volition and earning visa liberalization and candidacy in swift succession in 2009 and 2012. Yet Serbia’s candidate status has made little progress in recent years, and it as well as other West Balkan nations are increasingly looking to other sources, such as China, for aid in the wake of the E.U.’s apathy.

Thus, despite the Commission’s repeated message that it is up to the nations themselves to enact reform and achieve progress, the E.U. must seriously consider its own response to the renewed prospect of enlargement. Instead of impeding progress, the bloc should aim to support the candidate nations to the best of its ability.

Some speculate that Ukraine and Moldova have been granted candidacy as a symbolic gesture rather than as a real offer of future admission to the union. If the E.U. truly believes in the European futures of these nations, it will have to deliver on its promises, in a way that it has not done with the Western Balkans. The goals set for the countries need to remain transparent and consistent, national interests must not interfere with the process, and the E.U. must be willing to reward progress rather than offering vague excuses surrounding the Union’s ability to absorb new members.

The question of the E.U. institution’s ability to cope with new member states is pertinent, and will undoubtedly need to be addressed, though how addressing this can be achieved remains unclear at the moment. There is much work to be done, but though this work may be difficult, attempting it is in both the E.U. and Europe’s best interests. The Union has helped stabilize, democratize, and establish peace and justice in the continent, which was achieved only through enlargement.

Enlargement and accession take time, there can be no doubt of that. As a possible interim measure, French President Macron has proposed the concept of a “political European community,” a parallel entity for candidate and potential candidate nations. Though the prospect of joining a subordinate form of the union had previously displeased several Western Balkan nations, for the most recent candidates this could be a viable solution in the short term, offering many of the Union’s benefits whilst the main work of accession is carried out in tandem.

Georgians will hopefully not be disheartened by the decisions made in Brussels, and the E.U. will, with hope, not grow complacent. The Georgian government has been divided and has come under much scrutiny for its response to the invasion of Ukraine, but it must stay true to its people, a considerable majority of whom wish for a European future.

Now is the time for change and progress. There have been no new European member states in nearly a decade, but the next few years may see a significantly enlarged Union, stretching further south and east. “The European Council is ready to grant the status of candidate country to Georgia once the priorities specified in the Commission’s opinion on Georgia’s membership application have been addressed.” With determination and collaboration, this can become a reality, but only if all sides are willing to commit fully to the process.

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