Georgia: Does Rise of Euro-Skeptics Spell Trouble for Tbilisi?

The strong showing of Euro-skeptic parties in May’s European Parliament elections raises questions about how easily Georgia can move from its recently signed EU Association Agreement toward its long-held goal of full-fledged EU membership.

The Strasbourg, France-based legislature, the European Union’s only directly elected governmental body, exercises authority over EU membership, immigration policy and budgets. It also approves appointments to the European Commission, which runs the EU’s daily affairs.

While Euro-skeptics won only about 140 out of 751 seats in the parliament’s May 22-25 voting, their numbers may be sufficient to hinder initiatives to advance Georgia, and fellow ex-Soviet republics Moldova and Ukraine, toward EU membership.

In two of Europe’s largest countries, the United Kingdom and France, anti-EU, anti-enlargement, and anti-immigration parties (the United Kingdom Independence Party and the Front National, respectively) gained outright, narrow victories. Representatives from Germany’s far-right National Democratic Party, Greece’s self-described neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, and Hungary’s pro-fascist Jobbik also won seats.

Against that backdrop, it now has become “suicidal” for any EU politician in the 28-country bloc to talk about further enlargement. That, in turn, makes it difficult for any aspiring newcomer to push for full membership, underlined Salome Samadashvili, Georgia’s former ambassador to the EU who is currently a visiting fellow at the Marten Centre for European Studies in Brussels.

“Voters feel enlargement fatigue and have sent a strong message to the traditional mainstream pro-EU parties,” Samadashvili said. “I don’t expect major shifts in … policy, but the Eastern Partnership countries now face a new environment.”

William Durtmouth, a European parliamentarian for the anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party, elaborated. In the event that Georgia joins the EU, “there will be massive immigration that will go disproportionately towards the UK,” spurred by “the huge disparity in income,” he predicted. He cited Poland, Romania and Bulgaria as past examples.

“Now, it is a perfectly rational decision for any Georgian, if they get the opportunity, to come to the UK,” Durtmouth continued. “What we strongly oppose are politicians, bureaucrats who want unrestricted enlargement.”

Governments in the UK and France may have to harden their stance on immigration and EU enlargement as a result of the rise of right-wing political movements, John Gaffney, a professor of politics at the UK’s Birmingham-based Aston University, wrote in a recent article for the online journal Berfrois.

The precise number of Georgian citizens working in the EU is hard to gauge, in part because many Georgians live there without official documentation. Their economic impact is much easier to track: according to the National Bank of Georgia, Georgians remitted about $403 million from EU member states in 2013.

That makes the Euro-skeptics’ dislike of immigration an important issue for Tbilisi. It could, in turn, also affect Georgia and Ukraine’s chances for visa-free travel (for 90-day stays) to 22 EU countries, a proposal that requires the agreement of the European Parliament, the European Council, which represents national governments, and the European Commission. Moldovans already have such a regime in place.

Georgia’s State Minister on European and Euro-Atlantic Integration Aleksi Petriashvili, a self-confessed optimist, believes Euro-skepticism will fade.

“The skepticism towards enlargement will change and by then Georgia will be ready [for EU membership],” he predicted in an interview with “The Association Agreement is the master plan for Georgia’s Europeanization. I am confident that the ratification process by member countries will go ahead without difficulties.”

“We are making it very clear to our citizens that visa-free travel is neither a work permit, nor a green card,” Petriashvili underlined. He expects a visa-liberalization agreement to be finalized by early 2016.

Some analysts believe a factor that could work in favor all three ex-Soviet EU aspirants is the lack of unity among Euro-skeptic parties: they have struggled to work together and that may make it hard to convert their numerical success into influence on policies.

“They [Euro-skeptics] are worse than Trotskyists for fissions, splits, schisms and general punch-ups whenever they try to cooperate,” wrote Gaffney in Berfrois.

Even so, plenty of room for concern remains; ironically, in Georgia’s case, recent domestic developments may create trouble for Tbilisi’s EU ambitions. For example, the July 3 arrest and pre-trial detention of former Tbilisi Mayor Givi Ugulava, a prominent opposition leader, on criminal charges prompted EU Ambassador Philip Dimitrov to note that the June-27 Association Agreement does not mean that “everything else,” including visa-free travel to the EU, “is guaranteed,” the Pirveli news outlet reported.

The EU’s foreign-policy department has urged Tbilisi to ensure Ugalava receives a transparent and politically neutral “judicial process.” Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili has termed the detention “a celebration of justice” and proof of Georgia’s respect for the rule of law.

Compared with Ukraine, Georgia should not be considered a major source of migrants, said Michael Emerson, a senior research fellow at the Brussels’ Centre for European Policy Studies. With a population of roughly 45 million in 2013, Ukraine has an estimated population nearly 10 times the size of that of Georgia. “I guess Georgia can, playing its cards carefully … get visa-free travel in a pretty short time horizon,” Emerson forecast. “It is a small country.”

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