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Wider Europe Briefing: The Georgian Gamble And The Big EU Enlargement 20 Years Later

Protesters swarm the streets of Tbilisi to demonstrate against the so-called foreign agent law on April 28.
Protesters swarm the streets of Tbilisi to demonstrate against the so-called foreign agent law on April 28.

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 sanctions issues: How Georgia is gambling on its EU prospects; and the EU's "big bang enlargement" 20 years later.

Brief#1: The Georgian EU Gamble

What You Need To Know: The Georgian government is once again testing Brussels's patience by attempting to reintroduce a so-called foreign-agent law, with the first of three readings in parliament already successful.

Ruling Georgian Dream and its allies tried to adopt an almost identical bill last year but backed down after massive street protests and pressure from the West.

While this looks like a bid to consolidate and fire up Georgian Dream's electoral base ahead of October's parliamentary elections, the question is whether the party has cynically mastered the art of having its cake in its relationship with the EU and eating it, too.

Deep Background: There is arguably no better time to push through a foreign agent law, which requires civil-society organizations and media outlets that get foreign funding to not only report the fact to local authorities but also submit to oversight that could encompass sanctions for as-yet-undefined criminal offenses.

The European Parliamentary elections on June 6-9 will kick off an almighty backroom scramble for top jobs in Brussels that could last months. When Brussels isn't navel-gazing, much of its focus will be on aiding an ailing Ukraine in its war against Russia or seeking to prevent the entire Middle East from descending into war.

Sure, Brussels spoke out rather forcefully on Tbilisi's recent move: EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell urged "Georgia to refrain from adopting legislation that can compromise Georgia's EU path, a path supported by the overwhelming majority of Georgian citizens."

European Council President Charles Michel was even more blunt when he tweeted, "Let me be clear: the draft Law on Transparency of Foreign Influence is not consistent with Georgia's EU aspiration and its accession trajectory and will bring Georgia further away from the EU and not closer."

On April 25, the European Parliament overwhelmingly passed a resolution that included unmistakable criticism directed at Tbilisi.

Drilling Down:

  • Look more closely, however, and it's clear Brussels isn't totally focused. At the EU summit in Brussels earlier in April, the leaders of all 27 member states adopted conclusions on Ukraine and Turkey and spent most of their time haggling over how to make the bloc more competitive. Not a word on Georgia.
  • When EU foreign ministers assembled in Luxembourg last week, Georgia wasn't on the agenda. Lithuania and Croatia raised it at the very end of the meeting under "any other business," but there were no real decisions.
  • It may well be that a group of EU foreign ministers plans to travel soon to Tbilisi, or Georgian Foreign Minister Ilia Darchiashvili might attend an upcoming EU foreign affairs council. But in the meantime, the European Parliament's resolution, while tough-sounding, is nonbinding on member states.
  • I hear from Brussels that there are no potential sanctions on leading Georgian political figures in the pipeline, and neither is any sort of "midterm" assessment of how Georgia is faring on reforms needed to take the next step in its EU accession process (going from candidate status to open membership talks).
  • The real enlargement report by the European Commission is due in late October, so there's plenty of time to reverse any decision in Tbilisi. Some of my Brussels sources expect someone in Tbilisi -- potentially even former Prime Minister and current Georgian Dream Honorary Chairman Bidzina Ivanishvili -- to water down or withdraw the bill altogether in an effort to appear statesmanlike.
  • It's also clear the Georgian government is dividing its eggs among multiple baskets, not only the pro-Western one. It cannot be going unnoticed within Georgia's leadership that Russia is far from capitulating in Ukraine, and Brussels must recognize this as well.
  • How else to interpret France's invitation to Russian representatives to mark the 80th anniversary of the Normandy landings that helped end World War II, raising the specter of EU-sanctioned Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov showing up?
  • Or take the Ukraine-led so-called peace summit in Switzerland in mid-June. Kyiv is hoping more than 100 countries will be in attendance, including China. But from what I hear from Brussels, Beijing is mainly demanding that "peace plans" other than just Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's be discussed, potentially paving the way for some sort of Russian presence at the next such meeting.
  • In a sense, Georgia's moves increasingly resemble those of another EU candidate country: Serbia. And Belgrade, despite its open praise of Moscow and refusal to align itself with Brussels' Russia sanctions, is still a front-runner among EU hopefuls.
  • Granted, Serbia has neither opened nor closed any EU accession chapters in three years, but don't rule out that this could change in June if some EU member states demand Belgrade move forward a bit if there's a green light for the de facto start of enlargement talks with Ukraine and Moldova.
  • Despite being generally "difficult" for Brussels on so many issues, Belgrade still gets lots of carrot and not much of a stick. It has so far escaped EU sanctions over last year's deadly attack by armed Serbs on Kosovar police officers in the village of Banjska in northern Kosovo. And when the EU recently approved a three-year, 6 billion-euro "growth plan" for the Western Balkans, Belgrade was made the single-largest recipient.
  • Georgia may very well repeat the same trick. EU diplomats recently approved 30 billion euros for the country in nonlethal military aid via the so-called European Peace Facility (EPF) -- an off-budget vehicle the EU has mainly used to finance arms deliveries to Ukraine.
  • As with Serbia, Georgia is counting on the help of a special friend inside the bloc: Hungary. Under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Budapest has leveraged green lights for Ukraine on various EU-related issues to help, for example, Bosnia-Herzegovina move ahead as well. And with Hungary occupying the six-month, rotating EU presidency starting in July, Budapest has made clear its priority to move EU enlargement forward -- and that very much includes positive steps for Tbilisi.

Brief#2: 20 Years After The EU's 'Big Bang' Expansion

What You Need To Know: This week the European Union will look back on its "big bang" enlargement of 2004. On May 1, 20 years ago, the then largely Western European club of 15 democracies underwent what was arguably its single largest transformation by adding 10 new members, 75 million more citizens, and nine additional official languages -- among many other things.

That enlargement was indeed special, as apart from the two southern island states of Cyprus and Malta, it extended EU membership to eight countries emerging from ex-Yugoslavia (Slovenia), the former Soviet Union (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), or the defunct Warsaw Pact (Czechia, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia).

Three years later, Bulgaria and Romania joined the club, and in 2013 came the most recent addition, with Croatia formally acceding. With 2004, Europe was starting to "breathe with both its lungs again" -- a metaphor first used by Pope John Paul II to describe improved relations his Roman Catholic Church experienced with Eastern Christian Churches after the fall of communism in 1989 but which later became a catchphrase for a more politically united continent.

But amid all the celebrations, two major questions will inevitably will pop up: How well is the EU really breathing? And does the club have the lung capacity for more members, since there are 10 more states -- from the Western Balkans, Eastern Europe, and indeed, Turkey -- that still aim to join?

Deep Background: Asking officials in Brussels from countries that joined the EU two decades ago how important membership was, my question was met with near incredulity. One highlighted the freedom of movement between most member states and the benefits this has brought to students, workers, and family members across the bloc. More poignantly, an official from one of the Baltic states remarked dryly that they would be where Ukraine or Moldova is now: either at war with Russia or under intense political pressure from the Kremlin.

Yet there is no debating that the 2004 enlargement ultimately proved challenging. Ferenc Laczo, an assistant professor of European history at Maastricht University, noted in a recent article that the "big bang" 20 years ago "changed the union more than West Europeans had expected but less than East Europeans had hoped."

He added that billions in capital moved west to east in search of skilled but cheaper labor, whereas people traveled in the opposite direction in pursuit of higher salaries and better quality of life.

This is true, but with some qualifications. Most older member states imposed restrictions, some lasting up to seven years, for workers from the freshly minted member states.

The United Kingdom was an exception, and accepted millions of newcomers. Speaking about it today, many officials in Brussels say this was a significant factor in the Brexit vote in 2016, when the slogan "Take back control" summed up general discontent, including over immigration of all sorts.

Drilling Down:

  • The economics of the "big bang" are generally considered a success. Germany now imports more from Poland than France, and the Czech Republic might soon overtake Paris in that regard as well.
  • Speaking in the European Parliament, Poland's prime minister at the time of accession, Leszek Miller, noted Poland's GDP has grown 40 percent since membership.
  • In 2004, the average GDP per capita of the 15 old EU member states was around $20,000; for the 10 new members it was $9,000. That gap is still there, but it's narrowing.
  • Not one of the 10 Central and Eastern European member states (so adding Bulgaria, Croatia, and Romania to the mix) is a net contributor to the common EU budget, which is calculated by gross national income (GNI).
  • In fact, all of them are still below the EU's average GDP, although the Czech Republic and Slovenia are close. Twenty of the poorest regions in the bloc are in the east, even if some regions around capitals like Budapest, Bratislava, Prague, and Warsaw are doing well.
  • Then there is political development. Poland and Hungary are still under so-called Article 7 procedures, which can result in members losing their council voting rights due to fears over democratic backsliding and rule of law.
  • While Poland might soon exit the Article 7 procedures, there are fears that Slovakia under its new populist government might take its place. There have previously been serious concerns about the political direction of Slovenia under the premiership of Janez Jansa, or about former Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis's use of EU funds. Bulgaria and Romania just recently got partial (sea and air, but not land) Schengen membership despite fears over corruption and organized crime.
  • The question now is whether the EU is ready for another enlargement or is still grappling with the idea of keeping the club intact. The six EU hopefuls in the Western Balkans have made scant progress in the last decade and serve as a sober reminder to Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine that EU members' desire to enlarge waxes and wanes.
  • The ambitious idea by the outgoing president of the European Council, Charles Michel, for the bloc to be ready to take in new members by 2030 is no longer discussed much in the corridors of power in Brussels. Neither is the need for the EU to reform in order to enlarge, even though ideas continue to float around.
  • With farmers in many of the countries bordering Ukraine incensed about the influx of cheap Ukrainian agri-products that they say undercuts their domestic markets (something that would be the norm if Ukraine were to join) it's clear that even eastern EU members have misgivings about further expansion.
  • Polls have shown that support for Ukraine's EU membership remains strong, but recent research commissioned by the European Council on Foreign Relations shows such backing isn't overwhelming and support for Moldova and Montenegro joining isn't matched by similar enthusiasm for any of the other seven candidate countries.

Looking Ahead

On April 29-30, the bloc's European affairs ministers are assembling in Brussels to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the 2004 enlargement. They will be joined by their counterparts from the current EU candidate countries and focus on how to ensure the rule of law in an expanded European Union.

On May 2, the European Commission is expected to present to EU member states its proposals for more sanctions on Belarus and Russia. Among other things, the EU is set to restrict Russian funding for NGOs inside the bloc, impose an import ban on stolen Ukraine cultural objects, and punish companies in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan that facilitate the delivery of sanctioned goods to Russia.

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

Until next time,

Rikard Jozwiak

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.

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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.

To subscribe, click here.