The EU should depoliticise Georgia’s visa liberalisation process

#CriticalThinking

Asia

Picture of Fraser Cameron
Fraser Cameron

Director of the EU Asia Centre

The EU is in desperate need of a good news story in its neighbourhood. The ‘ring of friends’ has turned into the ‘ring of fire’ with one notable exception – Georgia. Yet the country now faces the possibility of being lumped together with Ukraine on visa liberalisation. This would be a huge and costly mistake. The revised European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) talks of ‘differentiation’ and a ‘merit-based approach’ but now, facing its first major policy choice in the region, the EU looks set to ditch its own principles.

The small South Caucasian country is the one bright spot in a region characterised by conflict and corruption. In the past decade, successive Georgian governments have consistently pursued a path towards closer European integration. Now, under a dynamic new Prime Minister, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, it is making good progress in implementing the association and free trade agreements with the EU and scores top marks in international rankings for economic development and ease of doing business. NGOs rate it miles ahead of its neighbours in democracy, human rights and the rule of law. After all this, to link Georgia with Ukraine means that despite it having fulfilled all the EU’s requirements, the country would have to wait until Kiev also makes the necessary reforms.

Any further delays from the EU will be used by Russia for propaganda purposes

In an election year in Georgia, the stakes are high. The EU’s battered image and influence will suffer another blow if it fails to live up to its own criteria. The merit-based approach of the revised ENP was agreed last year by all 28 member states. But by seeking to link the fates of Georgia and Ukraine, the EU is going against its own principles. Most member states, focused on Ukraine, are playing a dangerous all-or-nothing game with some hoping for the double success of visa liberalisation for Ukraine alongside Georgia. But others are looking to bury visa liberalisation in the face of domestic concerns about immigration.

Some member states seem happy with a delay, as the improved flow of people across borders is not the flavour of the month. But it would be entirely wrong to deny the citizens of an advanced country like Georgia the opportunity to travel to the EU without a visa just because of the current refugee crisis. Visa liberalisation would allow Georgians to come as tourists and as businessmen, not to stay or seek employment. And when Ukraine has fully met the criteria, it too should be granted a visa-free regime.

A decision to delay visa liberalisation for the front runner in the Eastern Partnership would have serious political consequences. It would send the wrong message to Georgia, to Ukraine and to the other countries of the region, including Russia. There is little doubt that any further delays from the EU will be used by Russia for propaganda purposes. When the European Commission report on Georgia was delayed last December, Putin was quick to propose visa-free travel to Russia for Georgians. It is time for the EU to accept its own procedures. Georgia is a rare success story and fully deserves to be treated on its own merits.

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