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Georgians protest the "foreign agent" law in Tbilisi on May 26.
Georgians protest the "foreign agent" law in Tbilisi on May 26.

Welcome to Wider Europe, RFE/RL's newsletter focusing on the key issues concerning the European Union, NATO, and other institutions and their relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe's Eastern neighborhoods.

I'm RFE/RL Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak, and this week I'm drilling down on two issues: the meeting this week of NATO foreign ministers in Prague and the hard choices the EU needs to make regarding Georgia.

Briefing #1: How Can The EU Respond To Georgia's 'Foreign Agent' Law?

What You Need to Know: EU foreign ministers will discuss the situation in Georgia when they assemble in Brussels on May 27. Brussels is still hoping that the country's controversial "foreign agent" law, which is expected to be finally passed this week, will be withdrawn or sufficiently watered down. The bill has been heavily criticized by Western countries and rights groups for creating a framework to clamp down on civil society and free media.

Until the law is adopted, the EU is unlikely to do anything. But what then are the bloc's options? The European Commission will be tasked with drawing up a paper, and there are roughly four major things that could be done: cut EU money to the country, sanction high-ranking Georgian politicians, stall the country's EU accession process, and suspend visa liberalization.

The perhaps most obvious option, and one that the U.S. Congress is currently considering, is to slap asset freezes and visa bans on leading Georgian politicians. The potential wrench in the works here is that you need unanimity among EU member states, something that will be hard to achieve.

Cutting funds from the EU budget is something the European Commission can do without a green light from member states, but there is an obstacle here as well. Georgia gets some 85 million euros ($92 million) a year in grants, some of which goes directly to the state and some to organizations within the country. A lot of that money supports the country's civil society sector -- something Brussels wants to protect now more than ever.

Deep Background: What about Georgia's EU accession process? When the Georgian Parliament voted in favor of the controversial legislation for the third time on May 14, the EU issued a statement noting that "the adoption of this law negatively impacts Georgia's progress on the EU path."

At the moment, Georgia has official candidate status, and the next step is to open accession talks. In many ways, though, the point is moot as no enlargement decisions are expected anytime soon. The European Commission's big report on the issue is due in October, and then, based on that, EU member states will decide in December.

One slight complication is that most likely at the end of June, the EU will aim to formally start accession talks with Moldova and Ukraine, as well as advancing the EU integration processes of Serbia and Montenegro. There is already a lot of tricky political choreography in trying to please various camps of EU member states that are advocating for the EU hopefuls in the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe. Very few EU officials I have spoken to want to complicate matters further by adding Georgia to the mix.

Some members of the European Parliament have called for Georgia's candidate status to be reversed, but that is something that has never happened in EU history. And to do that, you would need to secure the ever-illusive unanimity.

The most likely scenario is maintaining the status quo: Georgia would remain a candidate to join the EU but without accession talks starting anytime soon. The question for policymakers is whether the Georgian government would even see this as a setback. Negotiations take years even with the best candidates, and the ruling Georgian Dream party can always point to the fact that it was actually them that delivered Georgia's candidate status in 2023.

Drilling Down:

  • It's worth remembering that the Georgian government has friends in high places that could alleviate the pain: Hungary, Slovakia, and Oliver Varhelyi, the Hungarian enlargement commissioner and ally of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, have all been supportive of Georgia's bid to join the EU.
  • As an illustration of their influence, it took 21 hours for the EU to issue a statement condemning the May 14 vote to approve the bill in the Georgian Parliament. Hungary and Slovakia blocked multiple drafts before the statement was signed on behalf of the 27 EU members states.
  • Diplomatic sources in Brussels from various member states told me Hungary believes the EU shouldn't interfere in internal matters. Slovakia's new populist government is also pondering a "foreign agent"-style law, which could be used to target civil society.
  • When member states couldn't agree on the wording, it was up to EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell to issue a statement instead. But that statement was held up by Varhelyi, who, in the end, withdrew his name from it, reportedly objecting to text linking the passing of the "foreign agent" law to Georgia's EU accession process. It will be interesting to see how much of a Georgia supporter Varhelyi will be going forward. After the Georgian prime minister accused him of threatening Georgia in a phone call last week, Varhelyi apologized, saying his words had been taken out of context.
  • That just leaves us with suspending visa liberalization. This is a solid option, as it doesn't require unanimity. To pass, it requires only qualified majority voting (QMV) -- meaning 55 percent of member states, normally 15 out of 27, representing 65 percent of the total EU population -- would suffice.
  • This, however, could be a controversial move as the visa-free regime, which went into effect in 2017, is perhaps the single most popular EU policy among Georgians. And many diplomats from EU countries feel it would be unfair to target the entire population this way.
  • My understanding, however, is there is a growing number of countries -- though possibly not yet enough for a QMV majority -- that are considering this option or at least haven't ruled it out completely.
  • For the visa suspension mechanism to be triggered, it is enough that one EU member state signals to the European Commission that there are problems with a specific third country enjoying visa-free travel to the EU. The commission must then issue a report on the matter. If the commission sides with the complainant, EU member states can temporarily suspend visa-free travel for a limited period of time via QMV, and then, if the issues persist, fully suspend it again via QMV.
  • The EU has only suspended visa liberalization once. That was in the case of Vanuatu, an island country in the South Pacific. In March 2022, the visa waiver was temporarily suspended due to the country's use of investor citizenship schemes, known as "golden passports." As Vanuatu didn't do anything to address Brussels' concerns, a decision to fully suspend visa-free travel was taken in November of that same year.
  • From EU officials I have spoken to, it seems there is a consensus that visa suspensions should only be considered when there are clear "home affairs issues" -- say, for example, third-country citizens using visa liberalization to seek asylum in the EU, or there are too many overstays from the 180-day limit. But there is also the so-called democracy criteria, and other diplomats I have spoken to believe that enacting the "foreign agent" law would be a clear case for tightening visa requirements.

Briefing #2: Ukraine Tops Agenda Of NATO Meeting In Prague

What You Need To Know: The foreign ministers of the 32 NATO countries are coming to Prague this week for an informal ministerial meeting. These annual "informals," where they meet somewhere other than NATO headquarters in Brussels, have become something of an annual tradition for the military alliance.

In order to "break the pattern," as one NATO official described it to me, they do one off-campus meeting, often ditching their formal attire, with the goal that ministers will speak more openly and without any pre-scripted notes that tend to be the norm for regular ministerial meetings. In 2022 they were in Berlin, last year in Oslo, and next year they will convene in Ankara.

This year, it's the Czechs' turn to host. Right from the off, it's worth noting that they aren't expected to take any real decisions. They will, however, have plenty of time to exchange views, first at a dinner on May 30 and then at a working session the following day.

The upcoming summit in Washington, D.C., on July 9–11 will be the main order of business at this week's meeting, in particular what sort of aid for Ukraine can be delivered ahead of the summit. NATO tends to be rather conservative at such times and prefers issues to be settled and agreed on, at least informally, before a summit in order to avoid any last-minute surprises falling into the laps of the leaders.

Deep Background: Essentially, there are three things that the NATO foreign ministers will touch upon in Prague when it comes to Ukraine: Ramstein, training, and price tags. Ramstein refers to the American air base in western Germany that, for the past two years, has hosted many of the meetings of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, a gathering of about 50 nations coordinating weapon deliveries to Kyiv.

The idea is that NATO will take over the coordination of the contact group from the United States. That's likely to happen in the near future; however, it's not clear if the military alliance will be more efficient in cajoling countries to send military equipment to Ukraine.

Patriot missile-defense systems are a good case in point here. Ukraine desperately needs to bolster its missile defenses, but no country has so far rushed forward. Eyes have turned to Greece, Spain, and Sweden, who all have missile systems. But so far none of those countries seems ready to send them.

Speaking on background, NATO diplomats say the reluctance is due to the fact that Patriot systems can take years to produce and replace. France and Italy have equivalent systems, like the SAMP/T, but those are apparently needed to protect the Olympic Games in Paris and the summit of the Group of Seven (G7) leading industrial nations in Italy later this year.

Drilling Down:

  • What about the training of Ukrainian troops? The United Kingdom, Germany, and Poland have been doing this for the past two years on their home turf. Would it make sense for NATO to coordinate more or even put everything under the NATO flag? Possibly, although there is the very sensitive issue of whether there should be NATO or NATO member state military trainers on the ground in Ukraine.
  • Some countries, notably Estonia and France, have not ruled deploying noncombat troops to western Ukraine, although that will probably be a tough sell. It's worth remembering, though, that there were NATO trainers in Ukraine for several years before and even in the run-up to Russia's full-scale invasion of the country in February 2022.
  • Then there is the price tag. This will be a sticking point and one that is expected to become a political hot potato given the reluctance of some members of the U.S. Republican Party to green light more aid to Ukraine.
  • Ahead of the July summit, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg is pushing the 32 NATO members to commit to giving Kyiv $100 billion for the next five years. Details regarding who would contribute what though are still in short supply, and nothing has yet been agreed.
  • NATO has failed to fulfill commitments before. Take the "Wales pledge" from 2014, where NATO allies pledged to spend 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on defense in a decade. Ten years later, only 18 out of 32 member states have done so, and there are no real consequences for the laggards.
  • Two other issues could also come up in Prague. First, there is Ukraine's possible NATO membership. Nothing is moving on this front. The unofficial line is that Kyiv will become a member sometime in the undefined future. Don't expect much more ambitious language than that in Washington in July. And then there is the selection of the next NATO secretary-general. The smart money is still on outgoing Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, but outsider Romanian President Klaus Iohannis hasn't yet thrown in the towel. We should have some clarity on this in the weeks ahead but probably not at this week's ministerial meeting.

Looking Ahead

EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on May 27 are expected to approve a new sanctions regime targeting people and entities committing human rights abuses, specifically in Russia. Known as "Navalny sanctions" in Brussels after the slain Russian opposition leader, the first batch of restrictive measures will target those the bloc believes are responsible for his death in February.

That's all for this week. Feel free to reach out to me on any of these issues on Twitter, @RikardJozwiak, or by e-mail at jozwiakr@rferl.org.

Until next time,

Rikard Jozwiak

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here.

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (left) meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on April 24, 2023, in Zhytomyr, Ukraine.
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (left) meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on April 24, 2023, in Zhytomyr, Ukraine.

Welcome to Wider Europe, RFE/RL's newsletter focusing on the key issues concerning the European Union, NATO, and other institutions and their relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe's Eastern neighborhoods.

I'm RFE/RL Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak, and this week I'll be focusing on Estonia, in particular its outsized role in assisting Ukraine, following a few days in Tallinn at this year's Lennart Meri Conference.

Briefing: Bold But Also Vulnerable -- Estonia's Leading Role On Ukraine

What You Need To Know: The mood at this year's Lennart Meri Conference, which brings together policymakers, analysts, and military officials to discuss foreign and security policy, shouldn't have been the best. Things are not going well in Ukraine, with Russia pounding the Kharkiv region, sensing a window of opportunity as the bulk of the U.S. aid agreed a few weeks ago has still not arrived.

And as the three-day event in Estonia's capital Tallinn kicked off on May 16, news filtered through from Beijing that China and Russia had agreed to deepen their "no-limits partnership." That partnership was agreed in 2022 during a visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, and the two countries deepening ties further will result in sustained Chinese political, economic, and even military support for the Kremlin.

Yet, the mood at the conference wasn't as gloomy as the Munich Security Conference in February. The more upbeat tone began with the opening remarks from Indrek Kannik, the director of the Tallinn-based International Center for Defense and Security (ICDS), which organized the event. He noted that "the situation is shit, but that is the fertilizer of our future." The expression was one coined by Lennart Meri, the first post-Soviet president of the country, who dragged Estonia back to the Western world. In front of an audience of foreign diplomats and political commentators, the joke nearly brought down the house.

That set the tone for the conference, with this year's theme being "Let us not despair, but act." And acting, especially when it comes to supporting Ukraine, is something that Tallinn has done.

Deep Background: Estonia has put huge amounts of effort into gathering evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine and bringing perpetrators to justice. It came up with the idea of actually seizing frozen Russian assets in the European Union to pay for both Kyiv's war effort and the eventual reconstruction.

Earlier in May, EU ambassadors finally agreed to seize the annual profits of Russian central bank assets held in the EU, which could generate some 3 billion euros ($3.27 billion) for Ukraine every year. Estonia, however, has gone one step further. Last week, its parliament voted in favor of a law that would allow the confiscation of assets in the country belonging to private Russian citizens if there is a proven link to the Russian war machine.

This is unlikely to be replicated at the EU level, but it could get the ball rolling on eventually seizing the frozen Russian state assets -- rather than just their annual profits -- which are estimated to be worth more than 300 billion euros ($326 billion).

And it doesn't stop there. Tallinn has given Ukraine roughly $640 million worth of military, humanitarian, and financial aid. While perhaps that contribution isn't too much in absolute terms, it constitutes 1.6 percent of Estonia's total gross domestic product (GDP), more than any other country that has supplied Ukraine with aid.

The challenge now is how to sustain all the different contributions to the ailing country -- and here Tallinn is pushing for various options. One of Estonia's ideas, much touted at the conference, is for all Western allies to commit 0.25 percent of their GDP in military aid to Ukraine. So far, the idea has not gained much traction.

Another option is the issuing of joint EU bonds (Eurobonds) to boost defense production on the continent. This is something that the French have firmly backed, and with which Estonia is fully on board. While the practice of joint EU borrowing was agreed upon for the first time ever to finance the post-coronavirus pandemic reconstruction in 2020, the idea is unlikely to fly.

Accruing debt is anathema both for the German liberals who hold up the current government coalition in Berlin and for the new, financially hawkish Dutch government soon to be sworn in. Speaking at one panel, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas was, however, still defiant on the Eurobonds option, noting that it was "not dismissed completely [in Brussels], so then it is not dead yet."

But what about the much more sensitive issue of having Western soldiers on the ground in Ukraine? French President Emmanuel Macron famously didn't rule it out when the topic was broached earlier this spring and has since refused to walk it back. Charles Brown, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitted last week that a NATO deployment of trainers in the country is likely to happen over time.

This is also something I heard from Estonian officials in Tallinn this weekend. For quite some time, the Baltic nation has assessed the possibility of sending Estonian soldiers -- preferably under a NATO umbrella -- but only in support roles a long way from the front line.

Drilling Down:

  • In the meantime, the most pressing need concerns weapons deliveries to Ukraine, where Tallinn has also been leading the way. However, there are some harsh realities here as well. The "Estonian proposal," which swiftly became an EU-wide objective, to supply 1 million 155 mm shells to Ukraine by March 2024 only succeeded in delivering half of that. The current goal is to deliver the remaining amount by the end of the year.
  • Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur recently said that his ministry had managed to find another 1 million shells worldwide, but it may very well be that the Estonians have the same issues as the Czechs who, earlier this year, announced with much fanfare that they had "identified" 800,000 shells globally. The problems, as the Czechs discovered, is that identifying the shells in various third countries is not the same as actually having them and getting them to the Ukrainian front lines. As Czech diplomats admitted to me, it is a seller's market, after all, with demand exceeding supply. Russia is trying not only to outbid and buy them all up but also use other underhand means, including political pressure and sabotage, to prevent deliveries to Kyiv.
  • So far, nothing from the Czech initiative (which Estonia also backs financially) has been delivered, even though it is expected that a first batch of 180,000 shells will arrive at the beginning of June and another 400,000 later in the summer.
  • With all the busy Estonian diplomatic activity, it is no surprise that the country's politicians are being touted for top jobs in the EU and NATO. Prime Minister Kallas is a favorite to secure something when the positions are dished out in June after the European Parliament elections. And the Lennart Meri Conference felt very much like an audition for her, as she appeared on stage consecutive days and hobnobbed generously with the foreign journalists.
  • She seemed more mellow and less combative than usual, perhaps a play to win over Western doubters, some of whom have half-jokingly noted that she "eats Russians for breakfast." In perhaps a similar vein, an Estonian diplomat mentioned a recent vote at the United Nations where Estonia backed a UN resolution calling for full membership for Palestine. This was a complete U-turn from Tallinn, as it usually tends to be very pro-Israeli. With that vote, was the prime minister trying to be more "palatable" to Western Europeans?
  • It's still not clear if Kallas wants the job as the EU foreign policy chief, which many in Brussels think is hers already. She was rather red-faced when directly asked on stage about the position, saying that she had "no idea how it works, as she was not around in 2019," when the top EU jobs were handed out the last time. She did add that she was "honored" that her name was circulating but was quick to add that she was also frequently mentioned as a possible candidate for the NATO secretary-general position, which more or less appears to be going to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
  • There are two main obstacles for Kallas getting the EU job. The first is the arcane, behind-closed-doors negotiations by which the 27 EU heads of state and government choose the presidents of the European Commission, the European Council, and the EU foreign policy leader when they convene in Brussels. The three top jobs are chosen to reflect a geographic, gender, and political party balance. With the center-right European People's Party (EPP) expected to come out on top in June's European Parliament elections, it is likely that the new European Commission president will come from their ranks. They would likely (although not certainly) push for the German incumbent, Ursula von der Leyen, to be reselected for another five years. The center-left group, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), which looks set to finish runners-up, will likely claim the presidency of the European Council, an institution that sets the general political direction and priorities of the EU. Whereas Kallas's liberal Renew Europe group will fight out with the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) for third place and the the role of EU foreign policy chief. In terms of geographic parity, the idea is that someone from Central or Eastern Europe should get one of the three key roles, having been overlooked in 2019 and with Kallas probably not destined for the unrelated but somewhat linked NATO top job. Most front-runners for the three top jobs from the east are in the EPP and there are hardly any coming from the S&D, ECR, or Renew Europe. So Kallas, as a member of Renew Europe, does have a decent chance, but then the liberals must do well in the June elections, which is far from certain.
  • And then there is the second obstacle. The so-called "easterners" are far from a coherent bunch, stretching from Estonia in the north to Bulgaria in the south. And they are seemingly not very good at lobbying for each other to get what they want in Brussels. Take the decision among EU member states last week to elect Irish General Sean Clancy as chair of the European Union Military Committee, an obscure but increasingly significant body given the Ukraine war. The very fact that a neutral member state with limited military capabilities got that position ahead of a Polish general, with Warsaw being NATO's biggest defense spender per capita, raised a few eyebrows.
  • My biggest takeaway from the conference was, despite all the tough talk, the pervasive sense of Estonian vulnerability. Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur noted that in the last 25 years, NATO has seen a 61 percent increase in defense spending; in the same period, Russia's has grown by 600 percent. Worryingly, Pevkur then noted that the NATO defense plans that were agreed upon at the NATO Vilnius summit last year to protect every inch of the alliance's territory aren't fully executable yet, as there just aren't enough military capabilities. And while Russia is currently tied down in Ukraine and doesn't have enough firepower in the Baltic region, Pevkur cautioned that this could change and Russia could still test NATO with hybrid threats such as cyberattacks and sabotage. This point was also hammered home by Estonia's ambassador to NATO, Juri Luik, who said that in international waters such as the Baltic Sea, Russia has options. He said that underwater infrastructure would be a prime target, as the three Baltic states, together with Finland, Sweden, and Denmark, all share the same submarine power cables -- and the same vulnerabilities. Luik also noted that while Swedish and Finnish NATO membership has increased deterrence in the region, the balance of power has not changed when it comes to protecting the Baltic states. And this vulnerability is paradoxically increasing, he said, as Russia declines as a global power.

Looking Ahead

On May 23, the final debate is taking place ahead of European Parliament elections across the bloc on June 6-9. The debaters are the so-called "lead candidates" of the respective political groups in the European Parliament, with the idea that the party that gets the biggest vote share will end up putting forward their lead candidates for the European Commission presidency. Normally, the leaders of the 27 EU member states ignore this "electoral advice" and a new president is chosen in various backroom deals. But this time around, they might actually heed the advice, as the lead candidate for the center-right coalition set to finish first is the sitting commission president, von der Leyen.

That's all for this week. Feel free to reach out to me on any of these issues on Twitter @RikardJozwiak, or on e-mail at jozwiakr@rferl.org.

Until next time,

Rikard Jozwiak

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition subscribe here.

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About The Newsletter

Wider Europe

The Wider Europe newsletter briefs you every Monday on key issues concerning the EU, NATO, and other institutions’ relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe’s Eastern neighborhoods.

For more than a decade as a correspondent in Brussels, Rikard Jozwiak covered all the major events and crises related to the EU’s neighborhood and how various Western institutions reacted to them -- the war in Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, the downing of MH17, dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, the EU and NATO enlargement processes in the Western Balkans, as well as visa liberalizations, free-trade deals, and countless summits.

Now out of the “Brussels bubble,” but still looking in -- this time from the heart of Europe, in Prague -- he continues to focus on the countries where Brussels holds huge sway, but also faces serious competition from other players, such as Russia and, increasingly, China.

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