Kakha Gogolashvili, Senior Fellow at the Rondeli Foundation
In 1999, a new European Parliament building designed by the “Architect Art Studio” was opened in Strasbourg. Back then, many expressed criticisms at the building’s exterior. The fact of the matter is that the architectural idea of the building is a reflection of the famous medieval Flemish painter Peter Bruegel’s (Senior) similarly famous painting – “The Tower of Babel”. According to the Bible, The Tower of Babel was never built because the builders spoke different languages and could not understand each other. The higher the tower rose in the sky, the harder it was to build. The resemblance of the European Parliament building to the Bruegelian Tower of Babel raised doubts that its symbolism would adversely affect the attitudes and abilities of MEPs to reach a mutual understanding in a multilingual and multicultural environment, helping to advance the EU.
Since then, this building has witnessed numerous heated debates and arguments, however, the debates in the European Parliament on March 1, 2022, dispelled the doubts forever. As a result of the debate, more than 600 parliamentarians supported the resolution on “Russian aggression against Ukraine.” The heads of the main institutions of the European Union – the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Council Charles Michel, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell – intervened at the meeting. The meeting was chaired by the President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola.
It seemed quite natural that the pathos and content of the meeting, as well as the calls of the Members of Parliament, representing the different European political groups in the European Parliament, were in complete agreement with the common position of the European peoples, without any dichotomy. The positions and assessments of the heads of the various EU institutions were also uniform. It is noteworthy that the European Parliament and the EU institutions have never been so unanimous, emotionally vigorous, and strong. In the hall where all the important initiatives of the European Union are evaluated and initiated, there reigned complete mutual understanding.
At the meeting, the leaders of the European Commission, the European Council, and the European External Action Service presented their positions on the ongoing Russian aggression in Ukraine. They also spoke about the measures the international community and, in particular, the European Union needs to undertake to prevent this aggression. Representatives of the European Parliament’s political groups then expressed their views on the draft resolution in support of Ukraine, voted on measures that would increase Ukraine’s resilience and ability to contain aggression, help it withstand economic and social hardships, damage Russia’s military, financial, and economic capabilities, and contribute to the consolidation of the international community and the effectiveness and efficiency of their actions. The resolution calls for multibillion-dollar financial assistance to Ukraine, the supply of lethal weapons worth almost half a billion Euros, effective assistance in cybersecurity, protection of critical infrastructure, full assistance in rebuilding the war-torn country’s infrastructure, and accepting refugees and internally displaced persons in the EU member countries and delivering appropriate assistance to them.
Of particular interest is the fact that a European Parliament resolution calls on EU member states and its institutions to grant Ukraine EU candidate status. This record was an instant response to the request of Ukrainian President Zelensky for accelerated accession to the European Union. The President of Ukraine made this statement on February 27, and already on February 28, Ukraine submitted an official application for membership in the Council of the European Union. The EU leaders, including heads of states and governments of a number of countries – Ursula von der Leyen, Josep Borrell, Charles Michel, Polish President Andrzej Duda, and others – responded to the initiative.
Such an entry in the European Parliament resolution, the support of EU leaders, and the actual application has raised many questions in the public, which we will try to answer briefly:
- What can be achieved by the calling in the European Parliament resolution for granting Ukraine candidate status? The European Parliament resolution is not a binding document- it is recommendatory in nature. Such a unanimous decision of 90 percent of Members of Parliament will undoubtedly have an impact and be duly reflected in the decision taken by the Council of the European Union (as it is within its competence). The reason is that when political parties have full consensus on an issue, the governments of the countries are usually on board as well.
- What are the next steps and how fast will Ukraine receive candidate status? The Council of the European Union will instruct the European Commission to prepare a report on Ukraine’s application, which will determine the expediency of satisfying the application. As a rule, the European Commission thoroughly studies the institutional and legislative system of the applicant country, their shortcomings, economic and political challenges and achievements, the state of infrastructure, and other important parameters. This usually takes about 9-15 months, but with the will and interest of the member states, it is possible to speed up the process and reduce it to a few months.
- What are the benefits of the EU candidate country status? A country with such a status is not merely at the cooperation stage but is elevated to the integration phase with the EU. It receives increased support in the form of EU assistance programs and projects, and acquires greater access to the financial instruments and full political backing from the EU. At this stage, the EU is intensively studying the country’s regulatory framework, comparing it with the EU legislation and identifying areas in which further alignment is necessary. As a result of the analysis (called “screening”), the EU sets the agenda and the date for accession negotiations. This phase, in terms of duration, is not precisely defined, however, it may last anywhere from one to ten years.
- What is expected at a later stage? Direct accession negotiations are underway, focusing on approximation to specific chapters of the EU legislation and their realization. At this stage, the country is called an “Accession Country”. The subject of negotiations is the full transposition of the Acquis Communautaire, all 35 relevant chapters, through reforms in the country’s legislation. Countries are often unable to accomplish this, so they make pledges (reservations) regarding the deadlines for the implementation of certain legislative acts and institutional decisions.
- How difficult are negotiations? The negotiations are often a long and arduous process that also takes years. Its duration depends on how effectively and quickly the country implements the necessary legislative changes. When the talks are completed and all negotiation chapters are “closed”, the date for signing the membership agreement is set. The agreement is signed by the government of the applicant state and the governments of the EU member states, followed by the ratification process of the document in the member states and the European Parliament. The process takes approximately two years.
As we can see, even with the most optimistic calculations, the country will need at least 5-6 years after making the application to gain full EU membership. It is therefore unreasonable to expect Ukraine’s admission to the EU in some kind of accelerated manner. EU membership requires the country to have and demonstrate the ability to meet the obligations set out in the EU founding treaty, requiring time for preparation, and “passing exams”.
What impact will Ukraine’s advancement in the European integration process have on Georgia’s accession prospects?
Until now, Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova were advancing on the path of the EU integration at about the same pace. Together, they signed the Association Agreements and also received the right to visa-free travel with the EU. In 2021, the three associated countries formed a format of cooperation – the “Associated Trio” and planned to advocate in the EU institutions the issue of further integration in a coordinated manner. However, Ukraine’s advancement may reduce its interest towards this format. It is possible that in such a case, the EU’s interest vis-à-vis Georgia will also wane, as sub-regional policy approaches towards the three together were emerging in the EU. Further, Georgia on its own may become less attractive to most EU countries due to its geographical distance, and this will reduce the prospect of its accession.
To avoid these risks, it is necessary to engage in intensive advocacy together with the Moldovan government to grant Georgia the status of a potential candidate (a number of Western Balkan countries have had and still have), if not a candidate country. It is also necessary to continue close relations with Ukraine, while acquiring its full diplomatic support in the talks with EU institutions. It is necessary to convince the EU of the need for the joint accession of these three countries, by perceiving them as a subregion and, consequently, using common instruments of integration. To achieve this, the government and Parliament of Georgia must immediately develop an effective strategy and tactics.
On March 1, the Georgian government promptly applied for EU membership in the Council of the European Union, seeking candidate status, along with Ukraine. The Georgian government was planning to do so in 2024. The application itself does not guarantee that the EU will also speed up the process, so the main task now for the Georgian government is to meet the demands put forward by the EU in recent times (especially in judicial reform and the depoliticization of institutions in general)- the issues it still awaits a proper response on. Only then can we hope for a positive response to Georgia’s application and a chance to receive EU candidate status in the near future.