EU Should Not Heed the Calls to Differentiate Associated Trio’s Applications

Irakli Sirbiladze is a Foreign Affairs analyst, holding an MA degree in International Relations from Queen Mary University of London. His wider research interests include International Relations Theory, Georgian Foreign Policy and Russian Foreign Policy.

As Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova – three Associated Trio nations seeking closer ties with Brussels — are awaiting the European Union membership candidacy, views differ on how the 27-member bloc should respond to their applications. In addition to traditional skeptics long-weary of the enlargement, the arguments vary from placing a premium on geopolitics and advocating for granting candidate status to the three states to suggesting differentiated handling of the three applications, in particular the EU giving candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, but refraining to do so vis-à-vis Georgia at this stage.

But the EU should not heed the calls to differentiate the Associated Trio when deciding on granting the candidate status. There are two major arguments to that end. First, the three states deal with the same conventional and non-conventional security challenges coming from Russia. Singling out any one of them would allow Russia to read between the lines and exploit the disunity.

Second, the three states face more or less similar structural problems in terms of fulfilling the Copenhagen Criteria. The EU should provide an equal starting point for all considering the history of an evolving partnership, but the pace of reforms could then lead to an individual path to the EU membership.

Additionally, it is understandably challenging for the EU to find the golden mean between geopolitical and institutional approaches. Granting conditionality-embedded candidate status to imperfect candidates however would benefit the EU’s geopolitical standing more than separating the three states that share the same aspirations and have thus far walked together towards the EU for over the decade.

Of Common Geopolitical Fate

The EU membership applications of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova are the products of geopolitics and the EU’s response should also be primarily rooted in geopolitics. While the scale differs, the three states share the threat that is Russia’s ultimate aim to attenuate their sovereignties and thwart their aspirations to join the Western institutions.

Ukraine and Georgia have already experienced the human tragedy of Russia’s direct aggression. Russia could well stir up trouble in the separatist Transnistria to pressure Moldova’s government. Planned referendum in Russian-occupied Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia on “joining” Russia could become Russia’s pressure point to trouble Georgia’s EU aspirations and further attenuate its sovereignty.

The EU’s differentiated handling of the applications would create the perception that some Trio states are geopolitically more important than the others.

The EU should show a right geopolitical state of mind and recognize that all three states face Russia’s threats and supporting their sovereignty is high on its peace and security agenda. Forging a common approach is further necessitated as the three potential members will continue to have territorial disputes with Russia, prompting the need for Brussels to come up with an overarching framework for resolving those disputes.

Equal Starting Point for All

Apart from geopolitics, fundamental normative and administrative issues define the EU as a project. Any state wishing to join the Union should meet the political and economic criteria, have capacity to implement the acquis and carry the membership obligations. The Associated Trio countries are more or less on an equal footing in terms of their ability to fulfill the Copenhagen Criteria.

The Freedom House puts the three states in Transitional and Hybrid Regimes with Democracy Score for 2022 being 3.07, 3.11 and 3.36 for Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine respectively. V-Dem’s Liberal Democracy Index (LDI) for 2021 puts Moldova ahead, followed by Georgia and Ukraine. CEPS’s total economic and political score puts Georgia with 1.93, Ukraine with 1.81 and Moldova with 1.71. Georgia leads significantly over Moldova and Ukraine in the 2021 Corruption Perception Index, while Moldova leads in the 2022 World Press Freedom Index followed by Georgia and Ukraine.

The EU’s own assessments of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova’s Association Agreement implementations highlight similar structural problems. All three need to advance their reforms in justice sector and judiciary, while Georgia in particular needs to consolidate its democracy. Reforms in other sectors are also highlighted as crucial for the alignment with the EU legislation.

These said, although the reports on democratic backsliding in Georgia – the country dubbed in 2016 by the EU as one of the success stories of “prosperous, peaceful and stable democracies” – could be the cause for worry, the EU should take a broader approach to judge the applications based on the history of an evolving partnership where the commitment to democracy in each state saw its ups and downs.

Given the iterative nature of the democratization process, the current state of relatively better democracy in some states could very well deteriorate in the future while the backsliders could get back on a democratic track.

The solution will not lie in the separation of the three based on the current state of their democracies, rather contrary. Granting candidate status with the list of reforms attached will lead to a new framework of relations, giving fresh impetus to the political parties, civil society and the public to take ownership, engage and regain trust in the political process.

The Golden Mean?

The EU’s overarching problem is to deal with imperfect candidates in both Western Balkans and Eastern Europe, as well as reverse democratic backsliding in some of its Member States. Whether it is ‘gradual, phased integration’ or sticking with existing enlargement practices, the EU needs to place a premium on reforms in fundamental areas while at the same time provide carrots to the candidate states.

Vis-à-vis the Associated Trio, the EU needs to find the golden mean between geopolitics and institutional practice. With imperfect candidates such as Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, symbolically granting the candidate status would make a geopolitical sense while embedding strict conditionality before the three states move to the stage of accession negotiations would make an institutional sense.

By merging the two approaches, the EU will demonstrate that it considers the three states as part of its geopolitical core and that it will not be deviated from its institutional practices in its dealings with the new applicants: win-win both for the EU and the Associated Trio.