Can the Association Agreement be Georgia’s Pathway into Europe?

Gvantsa Ichkiti*

The Georgia-European Union (EU) Association Agreement has been a major subject of discussion since being signed in 2014. The Association Agreement is a complex document that went into force in July 2016. At 752 pages long, full implementation of the agreement will take years. Most interested observers are excited by the prospect of association with the EU, but few know what it really means for Georgia’s future.

Some (mistakenly) believe that the Association Agreement guarantees future membership in the EU, while others have no expectations at all. According to a 2014 poll by the National Democratic Institute, 79 percent of Georgians were aware that Georgia had signed the Association Agreement, and 69 percent supported the signing. The Agreement’s economic implications are especially important. Of those supporting it, 58 percent expected the Association Agreement to improve the country’s economic capabilities.

In order to fully understand the impact an Association Agreement can have on a particular country, it’s crucial to review the background—when and why the EU started concluding these types of agreements—and analyze how countries such as Georgia can use them to get closer to the EU.

In its relations with third states, the EU offers various benefits—reflected in different agreements—in exchange for socio-political, economic, and human rights reforms. Currently, the EU signs agreements with third countries under two main policies: The Stabilization and Association Process (SAP); and the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP). The Western Balkan countries are covered by the SAP and are subject to “Stabilization and Association Agreements” (SAAs), while the Mediterranean states and the countries of the Eastern European neighborhood are covered by the ENP and subject to Association Agreements. As for Russia, it has a special status within the EU-Russia Common Spaces in lieu of participation in the ENP.

The ENP itself is part of the European Union’s foreign policy, under which the Union strives to establish closer links with countries in its Eastern Neighborhood. Currently, Georgia is one of 16 countries covered by the ENP. The mechanism behind the ENP is simple—countries express their readiness and will to adhere to principles of human rights, rule of law, democracy, good governance, sustainable development, and market economics, and under the principle of “more for more” the EU supports them financially and technically with economic integration and eased travel regimes. Georgia has firsthand experience with this: the visa-free regime that was granted to Georgia on March 1, 2017 is an example of the EU’s support for and recognition of the country. On March 28, 2017, Georgian citizens holding biometric passports gained the opportunity to travel within the Schengen Zone without a visa.

Association Agreements are a key component of the ENP. According to the glossary of the European Commission, an “Association Agreement” is a bilateral agreement signed between the EU and a third party country. In addition to promoting cooperation on day-to-day issues, the Association Agreement serves as the basis for the approximation process. The EU currently has Association Agreements in force with several countries in addition to Georgia: the Western Balkan countries, Moldova, and Turkey.

Turkey’s association experience has been unique. Its involvement in European integration processes dates back to 1959 and includes the Ankara Association Agreement signed in 1963. Despite accession negotiations launching back in 2005, the EU and Turkey are unable to agree on a number of issues. Turkey thus perpetually holds the status of a candidate country. If one takes into consideration the results of Turkey’s recent constitutional referendum on April 16, 2017—the outcome of which will grant President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vastly augmented powers—it appears even less likely that the country will follow the path toward EU integration. This demonstrates that signing an Association Agreement is not a guarantee of eventual EU membership, especially if the candidate country doesn’t show an internal commitment to reform. 

The process of accession for the Western Balkan states started in 1999 when the EU launched the SAP and the Stability Pact, which was replaced by the Regional Cooperation Council in 2008. In 2003, all SAP countries were declared potential candidates for EU membership. The EU also granted visa-free travel in the Schengen area to Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Albania, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Currently, Albania (2014), the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (2005), Montenegro (2010), and Serbia (2012) hold the status of candidate countries, while Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo remain potential candidate countries. Since becoming candidates, the respective situation in each country has improved in nearly every sector. However, big challenges remain and full membership looks distant. In fact, the outcome is unlikely in the near future, even if reforms are successfully implemented.

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