June 14. 2024. 1:17

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Beyond Georgia, the EU needs to get its messaging straight


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Georgia’s risk of democratic backsliding should be a warning for others, including the EU if it doesn’t get its messaging straight.

Some thousands of Georgians poured into the streets of the country’s capital Tbilisi this week, as anger over the ruling Georgian Dream party’s ‘foreign agent’ bill made way to a display of how Georgians want to be seen.

It resembled in many ways the mood of Kyiv in 2014, where thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets after the country’s pro-Russian president withdrew from signing an integration deal with the EU.

The EU requested this week, that the ruling Georgian Dream government party take back the bill or risk jeopardising the progress made by being granted candidate status to the bloc in December.

They only did so, however, after a painstaking exercise to find the right common wording for a joint statement. But in the absence of united messages from Brussels, some stepped up to fill the vacuum.

Baltic foreign ministers, who came to Tbilisi for talks with government officials and civil society, stepped up the pressure with the same message: With this law, the path to the EU is not only more difficult but there is no path at all.

When they addressed the crowd on the square in front of the parliament building in the evening, they made a compelling case: We were you and you can be us in the future.

“During the Rose Revolution of 2003, the Baltic states stood with you. Just five months later, we made it to NATO, and then to the EU, and many of us believed Georgia could quickly move along this path as well,” Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Gabrelius Landsbergis told the crowd.

“We started this journey together and remain frontline nations who know what it means to face the gravity of Moscow’s expansionist rage and despair,” he added.

Estonian Foreign Minister Margus Tsahkna noted that “every nation has the right to decide where they belong, what values they are sharing and what kind of values they are standing for.”

For Georgians standing up to the Georgian Dream’s authoritarian shift, the European presence – be it European foreign ministers, national parliament officials or other Western delegations – this week was a sign they are not fighting alone.

For the ruling party, the visit was an unwelcome interference in Georgia’s internal affairs, which they also tried to misuse for their narrative.

“The [Georgian] government cannot lie about what messages Europe is sending them, everything is out in the open for people to see,” a member of a Georgian civil society organisation, who didn’t want to be identified for his safety, told Euractiv.

“Contrary to their visits to European countries, where they come back and say ‘all is fine’ and ‘they agree with us doing XYZ’, they got proper pushback here – and people have noticed,” he added.

Euractiv understands that further European visits, potentially including Western European diplomats, could follow in the next few days.

For some EU officials and diplomats, this week’s developments in Georgia, and North Macedonia, were a reminder of what happens when the EU looks away (for too long).

“We can’t afford to sit down and wait for Georgia to finally move away from its EU integration path and democracy,” Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Gabrelius Landsbergis told Euractiv in Tbilisi.

Given Georgia’s halting progress over the past decade, to a growing number of EU diplomats, Brussels should not hesitate to take steps to signal that a suspension of the country’s EU candidacy is in the cards if the law passes.

Rather than measures that would target the population, such as EU visa liberalisation, threaten the country’s oligarch class with personal sanctions on travel and assets should there be a bloody crackdown on protesters.

Asked what the EU can do against the backsliding spreading throughout the EU’s neighbourhood, Landsbergis said: “We have to stop it here. The message was quite specific, that [Georgia’s actions] are incompatible with the EU path and will be heard by others as well.”

A failure to be consistent on Georgia could result in undermining the bloc’s whole messaging on its near neighbourhood.

“We said so many times, enlargement is back, we care about our neighbourhood and we’ll see it through with you to the end – but then we also need to make sure those are not empty words,” said one EU diplomat.

“Because if there is only the slightest doubt about our intentions, we could lose the citizens of these countries, which could be far worse than political changes in governments,” they added.

Tinatin Akhvlediani, a research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) warned, that “if the EU fails to act, its accountability and geopolitical actorness will be undermined.”

“This juxtaposes with the Kremlin’s successful meddling and emphasizes the urgent need for the EU to support its candidate countries in upholding European values,” she told Euractiv.

“Losing Georgia to the hands of Russia would signify a failure of the EU’s enlargement policy and its geopolitical influence,” Akhvlediani added.


WIDER EUROPE

NEXT STAGE | Georgia’s President Salome Zourabishvili on Saturday put a mostly symbolic veto on the “foreign influence” law that sparked unprecedented protests and warnings from Brussels that the measure would undermine Tbilisi’s European aspirations. The ball is now in the country of Georgia’s ruling Dream Party.

Speaking to Euractiv in Tbilisi earlier this week, Zourabishvili warned that the controversial ‘foreign agent’ bill profoundly changes the country’s relationship with its Western partners and the EU should take the outcome of the upcoming elections as a basis to reassess its ties with Tbilisi.

DEFENCE BRIEFING

NEW EUMC | It is the neutral country of Ireland which will take over the top EU military position next year, after beating NATO members and high-spending Slovenia, and Poland, in a move raising questions about the member states’ interest in a stronger EU defence.

MISSION CHANGES | The EU training mission in Mozambique is changing mandate to provide assistance, including advising, mentoring and training for the Quick Reaction Force of the country’s armed forces, the Council decided Tuesday (14 May).

EUAM EXTENDED | The mandate of the advisory mission for Kyiv’s security sector reform was extended for three years, until 31 May 2027. It also provides support in the investigation and prosecution of international crimes by Russia since it launched its illegal invasion in the winter of 2022.

DEFENCE BIDS | A total of 581 legal entities from 26 EU member states and Norway were selected by the European Commission to participate in the research or development of 54 projects under the European Defence Fund (EDF).

NUMBERS GAME | Moscow does not have enough troops for a breakthrough in northern Ukraine or around the city of Kharkiv, NATO’s Supreme allied commander said on Thursday (16 May), following a meeting of the military alliance’s chiefs of defence.

DEFENCE POST | European Commission President and candidate Ursula Von der Leyen made clear on her campaign trail that a full-fledge post for Defence Commissioner would be created if she is re-elected.

EU IN THE WORLD

SANCTIONS LATEST | Four Russian state media outlets will be added to the European Union’s blacklist, while other measures for the 14th sanctions package against Moscow are still in the early stages of discussion following a meeting of EU ambassadors this week.

MIGRATION PACT | EU member states adopted the bloc’s migration and asylum pact this week, after almost ten years of debates and negotiations. They are already looking at ways to externalise the procedures to non-EU countries, a move supported by Commission President – and candidate – Ursula Von der Leyen.


WHAT ELSE WE’RE READING

  • As Europe’s Power Shrinks, Its Fear Is Growing – And The Result Is Huge Mistakes [Guardian]
  • Biden’s Catch-22 in Ukraine [Foreign Policy]
  • From Bosnia to Ukraine: How a Serb Sportsman Became a Russian Fighter [Balkan Insight]
  • Russia Is Using The Soviet Playbook In The Global South To Challenge The West – And It Is Working [Chatham House]
  • Biden’s Weakness With Young Voters Isn’t About Gaza [The Atlantic]
  • How Will Taiwan’s New President Handle China? [Foreign Affairs]

ON OUR RADAR NEXT WEEK

  • Inauguration of Taiwanese President Lai Ching-te
    | Monday, 20 May 2024 | Taipei, Taiwan
  • European affairs ministers meet to prepare June EUCO
    | Tuesday, 21 May 2024 | Brussels, Belgium
  • EU-Moldova Association Council
    | Tuesday, 21 May 2024 | Brussels, Belgium
  • Weimar Triangle foreign ministers meet
    | Wednesday, 22 May 2024 | Weimar, Germany
  • UN Security Council meets on Gaza
    | Wednesday, 22 May 2024 | New York, United States
  • EU member states’ experts meet to discuss the European Defence Industry Programme (EDIP)
    | Wednesday, 22 May 2024 | Brussels, Belgium
  • EU-ESA Space Council, ESA inter-ministerial summit
    | Wed-Thu, 22-23 May 2024 | Brussels, Belgium
  • Candidates vying to head next European Commission hold debate
    | Thursday, 23 May 2024 | Brussels, Belgium
  • UN General Assembly votes on resolution to create an international day of commemoration of the Srebrenica genocide
    | Thursday, 23 May 2024 | New York, United States
  • G7 finance ministers meet, likely to discuss Russian frozen assets
    | Thu-Sat, 23-25 May 2024 | Stresa, Italy
  • EUI State of the Union Conference
    | Thu-Sat, 23-25 May 2024 | Florence, Italy
  • French President Emmanuel Macron travels to Berlin
    | Sun-Tue, 26-28 May | Berlin, Germany

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