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Georgia's European destiny

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On 18 June 2020 the Eastern Partnership Heads of State Summit was held in Brussels. The Eastern Partnership, which is linked to the European Neighbourhood Policy, is a joint initiative launched in 2009 between the European Union (EU), its member states and six countries of Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine, writes Centre for Foreign Policy Analysis Director of Publication Analyst Didier Chaudet (www.capeurope.eu).

The aim is to support regional co-operation with the main priorities of security, prosperity, democracy and the rule of law. While the aim is to export the EU's values and promote trade relations with the countries in the area, it does not offer them a prospect of immediate accession. However, one country has made particularly great efforts in recent years to bring itself into line with European standards and it makes no secret of its pro-European intentions: Georgia.

In July 2019, the Republic of Georgia President Salome Zurabishvili (French-speaking, former French diplomat and a graduate of Sciences Po Paris) stated unequivocally that her country's objective was to one day become a member state of the EU. She even confided that Georgia "would be very happy to take the place left by [the United Kingdom]"! A country on the road to reform For several years the European Union and Georgia have been working to strengthen their bilateral relations. An Association Agreement and a comprehensive and deep free trade treaty entered into force on 1 July 2016.

Georgian citizens also benefit from the possibility of visa-free travel within the Schengen area since 28 March 2017. Through these treaties, Georgia reaffirms its commitment to the common values that determine the raison d'être of the European Union. On 29 June Georgia took another important step towards the EU, when the parliament adopted the amendments necessary for the electoral reform.

Without a doubt, this reform is a great victory for democracy in the country: it strengthens proportional representation, and makes sure no single party could obtain a disproportionate concentration of power. This way, it avoids the possibility for one single party to change the constitution single-handedly. On the economic front, the reforms undertaken by the Georgian government have already produced excellent results: the EU being its main trading partner, it continues to align its legislation with European norms and standards in order to facilitate trade. Georgia will of course be impacted by COVID-19, but it should nevertheless be noted that the country has enjoyed solid economic growth in recent years (GDP growth was +4.8% in 2018).

This success is due to the structural reforms that have been undertaken by the current Government and, in particular, thanks to the country's openness to foreign investment and trade. Strong administrative simplification measures have improved the business environment. According to the classification established by the World Bank in 2020, Georgia ranks 7th out of 190 countries in the "ease of doing business" index, whereas France, for example, only ranks 32nd. Of course, Europe is not limited to its economic dimensions. On issues of the rule of law and fundamental freedoms, the Georgian Dream led government has also embarked on a reform process aimed at strengthening the independence of the judiciary, the functioning of institutions and the fight against corruption.

Last year Georgia adopted a fourth package of measures in the field of the judiciary. In its annual report on the implementation of the Association Agreement, the European Commission highlighted the improvements made on the issues of disciplinary violations, the rules of operation of the High Court of Justice and the reform of the latter, in particular as it is obliged to justify all its decisions. With regard to the procedures relating to judicial proceedings, the separation of the functions of investigator and prosecutor was enacted in 2019. While these points may seem technical, they prove the path taken by the Georgian government to ensure a more efficient justice system clearly separated from the executive and legislative branches.

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The country is equally continuing to implement an anti-corruption strategy that is showing convincing results. In 2019, Transparency International ranks Georgia 44th in the Corruption Perceptions Index. The country ranks ahead of official candidate countries and countries in negotiations to join the EU (Serbia ranks 91st and Montenegro 66th). Above all, it does better than some EU member states (for example, Italy ranks 51st and Malta 50th). Georgia has acceded to the European Convention on Human Rights and for the first time in its history Georgia chaired the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe from November 2019 to May 2020. The Georgian Foreign Minister, David Zalkaliani, made it clear that his country would work during these six months to strengthen human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

The country is continuing its efforts to ensure respect for fundamental rights. In May 2019, Georgia adopted a number of laws to eliminate, inter alia, all forms of discrimination and to protect the rights of the child. With regard to freedom of expression and the media, the index compiled by Reporters Without Borders ranked Georgia 60th out of 180 countries in 2019. Here again, it does much better than the EU candidate countries (Montenegro 105th and Serbia 93rd) or some EU member states (Bulgaria 111th, Greece 65th). Georgia already benefits from some European projects, such as the Erasmus + exchange programme. Last year they signed a cooperation agreement with the European judicial agency Eurojust. Georgia also works with Europol and the police services of the member states in the fight against organised crime. Finally, on the military front, despite being a non-EU country, Georgie has proved its solidarity as evidenced by the sending of 32 soldiers to the EU Military Training Mission in the Central African Republic. They also sent an officer to Mali.

Symbolic gestures perhaps, but significant of an understanding of security issues for Europe. Giving Georgia a European perspective Georgia has thus clearly embarked on the European path and the government led by Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia is making every effort to do so. Of course, it wants to be realistic because it is well aware that European capitals are cautious when it comes to EU enlargement. The difficulties experienced by the western Balkan countries that are already candidates or potential candidates in obtaining a clear vision of their entry into the European club reflect the road still to be travelled by Georgia. And yet this country of 4 million inhabitants has its rightful place in Europe by virtue of its history and geography.

President Zurabishvili recalls Georgia's historically European and Christian roots, which go back to the fourth century. She also likes to point out that Georgian women were granted the right to vote as early as 1918, when the country became a democratic and parliamentary republic, before being invaded by Soviet Russia in 1921. Although the Caucasus region may seem remote to a Western European, it should be recalled that for General de Gaulle, Europe is defined "from the Atlantic to the mountain ranges of the Urals".

For him it was "nonsense and a bad policy to separate Eastern Europe from its Western part" when Europe would be in a position "to decide the fate of the world". Over and above geopolitical considerations, it was also a question of responding to the aspirations of a people, the vast majority of whom wanted to be part of the European family. The latest opinion polls indicate that almost 80% of the population wants to join the EU. The policies and reforms carried out by Mrs Zurabishvili and Mr Gakharia only reflect an entire people's desire for democracy, freedom and prosperity.

The European Union must therefore prepare itself so that it can one day welcome this country into its midst. If it wants to continue to carry weight on the world stage, Europe must review its geostrategic position, including redefining its borders, and it must, of course, reform itself internally in order to be able to take decisions effectively at more than 27. The EU should be able to think about its development in the longer term, and prepare itself to one day welcome countries such as Georgia into its midst, when history, and even more so the political choices made by these countries, make them natural candidates for entry into the Union. This will, of course, involve internal reform work so that decisions can be taken efficiently, by more than 27 countries.

Redefining the way it operates while at the same time deepening relations with Georgia is the way forward for the EU. We must seize the opportunity and support a government that has chosen the path to the European Union. The support must be firm and unequivocal, otherwise we will disappoint a people who are fully committed, for the time being, to the European cause.

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