In recent days, Berlin has been seeking to block an EU proposal to grant Georgians visa waivers for short-term travel to 26 European countries that form the passport-free Schengen zone. As the EU’s justice and home affairs ministers meet on June 9–10, Georgia’s chances of securing the waiver arrangement look slim. This effort by Berlin undercuts Georgia’s optimism toward Europe. But it also damages Germany’s credibility as Europe’s leader in the post-Soviet space.
Europe’s visa-waiver policy is supposed to be about technical standards and checklists. Evaluating Georgia’s progress against its standard criteria, the European Commission said in December 2015 that the country had met these targets. The European Parliament has backed this opinion politically. But at a meeting of EU ambassadors on June 8, Berlin blocked the matter. The German objection came so late and was based on such a slim pretext that it reportedly left some EU diplomats baffled.
A barrage of press reports in Germany that painted Georgian immigrants as criminals and that Berlin used to justify its political position in Brussels has irked the Georgians, who see the coverage as particularly mean-spirited and unfair. Fueled mostly by experts affiliated with Germany’s Christian Socialist Union, the Bavarian sister party of the ruling conservative Christian Democratic Union, these articles claimed that Georgians committed “most” burglaries in Germany. The news magazine Der Spiegel had to correct such reports in its online edition after being confronted by official police data. Georgian students in Germany have petitioned the German government and media, saying “Georgia is not a criminal country.”
Trying to assuage Germany’s concerns, Georgia has agreed to make the implementation of visa waivers conditional on the EU putting in place a so-called suspension mechanism. This device would allow individual EU states to block the application of visa-waiver rules if the asylum claims or crime rates of a particular third country were to spike.
Berlin also makes a diplomatic argument by trying to link Georgia’s visa waiver to those of Ukraine and, possibly, Turkey. But such a linkage is fundamentally prejudicial to Georgia. Ukraine’s population of 45 million and Turkey’s 77 million citizens dwarf the immigration problems that Georgia’s 3.7 million people may present. Politically, reforms are stalling in an embattled Ukraine, while EU talks with Turkey (which are outside the technical process Georgia went through) depend on uncertain arrangements on immigration. Linking Georgia’s fate to the progress of these two countries might delay the visa waiver indefinitely.
By blocking Georgia, Germany undermines the credibility of two core EU policies. The first is the predictability of procedures. Georgia has done its homework, and it deserves a predictable response rather than a constant raising of the bar.
The second is the more-for-more approach much lauded by European officials, which promises closer integration in return for greater movement toward the EU model of development. Few countries have achieved as much in such a short period of time as Georgia has. Georgia’s police reform—with its many successes and some failures—serves as a blueprint in the post-Soviet space and beyond. The country’s corruption rates, as measured by Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, are consistently below those of many countries in Central Europe and most of the Western Balkan states—now EU membership candidates. Georgia’s e-governance systems are so advanced that Microsoft is negotiating a partnership agreement with Georgia’s Data Exchange Agency to jointly develop and market software that allows various government databases to securely exchange information.
More importantly, Germany’s reticence comes across as arbitrary and undermines the country’s image as the leading EU power in the post-Soviet space.
Georgia is a litmus test for the success of pro-Western policies in Europe’s Eastern neighborhood. Former Soviet states do not identify with the successes of the three Baltic states in the EU, as the Baltics were often considered culturally European outsiders in the Soviet Union. But the progress achieved by once notoriously corrupt Georgia can serve as an iconic proof of hope. Tbilisi’s successes to date have already inspired copycat reforms not only in Ukraine but also in Armenia and even in authoritarian Azerbaijan. Georgian experts are solicited farther afield, in Central Asia and North Africa.
Germany’s actions resonate with the tenor of Russian propaganda aimed at undermining hope among its neighbors. Russian-sponsored news outlets pump out the powerful message that Europe is haughty, is devious, thinks little, and cares less about the fate of its Eastern neighbors. Russia does not propose a viable economic or political model for its neighbors; rather, it peddles hopelessness in the absence of a better alternative. German leadership should be cherishing the hopes of reformers, not dashing them.
Failure to receive a visa-waiver deal will also feed nastily into the unfolding campaign ahead of Georgia’s October 8 parliamentary election. Both the governing Georgian Dream party and the main opposition, the United National Movement, claim to have pro-European credentials. But both contain Euroskeptic streams. In the case of the Georgian Dream–led coalition, some sitting parliamentarians are prone to a particularly nasty form of xenophobic and nativist discourse. Among some United National Movement officials, more traditional Euroskepticism prevails: they decry Brussels bureaucracy and the stifling effect that European overregulation might have on economic growth. A lack of progress toward the EU will strengthen both of these groups.
More worryingly, anti-European, xenophobic, and nativist movements have been growing. They repeat the familiar mantra of the treacherous EU imposing a so-called gay culture and undermining Georgia’s Orthodox Christian faith. These views are given airtime in Russian-backed media outlets and have already resulted in disturbing attacks on ethnic minorities, homosexuals, and even a vegan café. Some people advocating these opinions hope to make it into the parliament this October. Receiving a positive signal from the EU would help foster a more mature, policy-based election campaign.
The Georgian president, prime minister, and parliamentary speaker are all engaged in a last-ditch effort to reverse Berlin’s opinion as EU foreign ministers meet on June 20. Germany will be well-advised to keep Georgia’s hopes alive, lest its actions turn Berlin’s skepticism about Georgia’s readiness to get closer to Europe into a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Jaba Devdariani edits the Clarion, a web magazine promoting dialogue on European affairs.