Managing Expectations: Navigating Georgia’s Path to EU Membership

January 2024

Vita van Dreven

Student of the Erasmus Mundus Joint Master Programme

In December 2023, Georgia was granted EU candidate status, with the condition of completing the European Commission’s recommendations. The degree of progress of these recommendations has been a longstanding focus of media, think tanks, and research institutes alike. Yet, few focus on the main driving force behind the push for European Union membership, namely the Georgian population. Its drive is vital for the accession process, but it simultaneously presents a risk: if their support wavers, the entire process can lose its momentum. What are the population’s expectations and how substantial is the risk of disappointment? This article discusses the future hurdles for Georgia’s EU membership both during and after its accession.

Brief Historical Context

Relations between the European Union and Georgia started quickly after Georgia regained its independence in 1991. Under the European Neighborhood Policy, an action plan was signed in 2006 which was aimed at strengthening economic integration and deepening political relations (European Union External Action, 2023b). Three years later, the Eastern Partnership was created as part of the ENP, hence resulting in similar objectives with a particular focus on rule of law and promotion of human rights. In 2014, an Association Agreement between the EU and Georgia was, furthermore, signed. It is in line with the ENP and Eastern Partnership regarding its economic and political goals, facilitating for instance partial integration into the EU’s internal market and visa free travel into the Schengen area for Georgians. Originally, the government had planned to submit an application in 2024. Yet, in light of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, Georgia (together with Moldova) formally submitted its application in March 2022. In June of the same year, the European Council issued 12 recommendations that needed to be fulfilled in order to receive candidate status. While in November 2023 only 3 were marked as completed, the European Commission recommended candidate status nonetheless, which was consequently adopted by the European Council.

In the months leading up to the December decision, many questioned whether Georgia’s aspirations to join the EU had lessened, largely in light of the government’s growing ties to Russia. While these accusations are not new, recent government actions have been highly criticized by the Georgian population, civil society, and external actors like the European Union. In March 2023, the government proposed a ‘foreign agents’ law, which would require individuals, civil society organizations, and media outlets to register as ‘agents of foreign influence’ if they receive more than 20 per cent foreign funding (Nechepurenko, 2023). The law has been likened to the Russian foreign agent law and resulted in heavy criticism from the population and the EU. Ultimately, following several days of intense protests met with the use of tear gas and water cannons, the law was temporarily put on hold. In May 2023, Georgian Airways resumed direct flights to Russia, a move which was again criticized by the European Union.

The Georgian government has additionally been relatively quiet in its support towards Ukraine after the full-scale invasion. Then Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has stated that Russia’s actions can be explained through Ukraine’s desire to join NATO and overall, a narrative exists that Ukraine and the West are forcing Georgia to open a second front against Russia (Reuters 2023). It has been stated that Georgia will not join Western sanctions against Russia, while the president and certain state institutions emphasize compliance. Consequently, Georgia has faced (potential) sanctions aimed at countering circumvention. Garibashvili justified the overall decision by stating that the Georgian part within the Russian economy is negligible, while Russia is Georgia’s second most important trading partner. Yet, Georgia’s refusal is not necessarily problematic, as Moldova also did not join sanctions, but the consequent (lack of) actions. Ukraine and the United States have even accused Georgia of helping Russia evade sanctions, which the Georgian government has denied. Unlike the EU which has restricted the issuance of visas to Russian passport-holders, Russians can still enter Georgia visa-free and stay for up to a year, without passing any background checks (Liboreiro 2022). This is again not necessarily illustrative, as the same rule applies for many other passports (the EU included), but it has been noted that Russian opposition activists are stopped and denied entry (Gabunia 2022). Both the subtle and more open anti-EU actions by the Georgian government are in stark contrast with the population’s persistent support, both towards the EU and to Ukraine. This is even further illustrated through their protests, street art, and display of Ukrainian flags across Tbilisi.

Current Public Perception and Expectations

It is no secret that the level of support towards EU membership is very high among the Georgian population. As data by the National Democratic Institute shows, support for EU membership at the end of 2022 was 81 per cent, and as the graph shows the support has fluctuated between roughly 70 and 85 per cent, with 61 per cent as the absolute lowest point (National Democratic Institute 2023).

The overwhelming support has been acknowledged by the European Union itself and even played a large role in securing the candidate status. As stated before, the progress regarding the 12 recommendations was rather limited. High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission, Joseph Borrell, stated the following after the European Commission recommended granting candidate status: ‘[The] Georgian people have shown their unshaken commitment to European values, and they have done it many times (European Union External Action 2023a).’
Academic research has identified three groups of predictors for support of EU membership: utilitarian, political, and cultural/identity-based factors (Javakhishvili and Butsashvili, 2023). In the case of Georgia, cultural/identity-based factors are outweighed by utilitarian and political factors. Concretely, this means that the expectation of economic growth and increased security against foreign threats are considered more important than the (potential) threat towards Georgian culture. In exactly these factors also lay the future hurdles of Georgia.

Future Hurdles for Georgia’s EU Membership

The biggest (perceived) threat against Georgian culture, largely rooted in its Georgian Orthodox faith, is ‘LGBT-propaganda.’ The Georgian population is largely unaccepting towards the LGBT-community. Moreover, many outdated stereotypes, such as the belief that homosexuality can be transmitted to others or that the phenomenon is not natural, are still prevalent. One of the most common misperceptions is that EU accession requires the acceptance of legislation on non-heterosexual marriage. Coincidentally, this then also ties in with another EU recommendation, namely combating the spread of anti-EU disinformation. Moreover, the wider belief that homosexuality is something Western has persisted throughout the years. The deep-rooted homophobia within society becomes especially prevalent when looking at the history of pride events in Tbilisi. The 2021 Pride was canceled after violent anti LGBT-protests took place. The so-called protesters went after civil society and media outlets as attendees were already rescued, resulting in the death of a cameraman who was reporting on the protests. The protestors also burned the EU flag in front of the parliament building. In a response, the EU stated that these actions constituted ‘direct attacks on Georgia’s democratic and pro-European aspirations.’ The 2023 Pride was also canceled, after far-right protesters stormed the site of the event and the police could no longer guarantee the safety of attendees.

Coming back to the accession process, the EU does not have mandatory legislation focused on the protection of LGBT+ rights. It does have legislation on combating discrimination, including based on sexual orientation, such as article 10 in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, yet aspects such as marriage remain the sole competence of a member state. As the Georgian government continues to politicize the issue, it is possible the Georgian population will withdraw its support for EU membership. Overall, protection of the LGBT-community presents a major hurdle and could potentially stall the accession process. It both gives the EU reason to not grant membership as protection of minorities is one of the recommendations, but simultaneously gives the Georgian government arguments to drag its feet even more.

This ties in with another potential hurdle, namely the prospect of a lengthy process. As described above, Georgia’s intention to join the EU has been questioned, highlighted by its lack of progress on the European Council’s recommendation. In June 2022, it did not receive candidate status rather a ‘European Perspective,’ unlike Moldova and Ukraine. Consequently, in the 2023 decision, the European Union ran the risk of pushing the Georgian government further away and more towards Russia, if postponing the candidate status again. Right now, the EU chose to turn a blind eye to the lack of progress on its recommendations. In the future, this is unlikely to happen again, and progress will have to be made to reach the standards set by the EU. If the Georgian government continues to focus on the low-hanging fruit, without facing the difficult (and maybe unfavorable) steps, the population can lose trust in the government’s ability to succeed in reaching the goal of EU membership. This erosion of confidence could present an opportunity for a change in government or at least call the Georgian population to the streets, as has been proven successful in the past. Moreover, part of the accession process is the alignment of national legislation with the European Union’s legislation, which is reflected in the 35 acquis chapters (European Commission 2012). These chapters do not only cover the major selling points of the EU, such as freedom of movement of goods, capital, and workers, but also the (sometimes) trivial matters, for instance, the ban of single use plastic (European Commission 2021). Yet, exactly these measures can become a point of contention as they present tangible losses in one’s day to day life, which are more likely to trigger grievances.

Lastly, the prospect of economic growth and the population’s expectations can quickly turn public support. Economic growth is traditionally measured through gross domestic product (GDP), but other factors such as the unemployment rate or inflation can also give an indication as to how well an economy is doing. For the European Union, it is additionally also important whether a member state (eventually) becomes a member of the Eurozone, as they are subject to the monetary policy of the Eurozone made by the European Central Bank. It is still unsure if Georgia will adopt the euro as currency. Taking the newest EU member state, Croatia, which joined in July 2013, as an example. Economic analysis could focus on how GDP growth stalled over the years 2013-2014 or how unemployment was at an all-time high in the years 2013-2014. Yet, sentiments are maybe more important: people need to feel that they have more to spend or that their money stretches further. EU membership status will not change the population’s financial situation overnight and this could give rise to feelings of disappointment. At the same time, Georgia runs the risk of losing even more of its highly skilled/educated young professionals, as they move to other EU member states to study and/or work. This is already a common occurrence, but as a member state, Georgian students become eligible for the (often) lower or even free tuition fee for EU students, making it more accessible. EU membership would also open up new opportunities for Georgia’s skilled workers, allowing them to pursue their careers in a broader European context, potentially causing brain drain in Georgia. This loss could have far-reaching consequences for Georgia’s economy.

Romania serves as a notable example of a (relatively) new member state where the population’s expectations regarding economic improvement have not been met. Despite the significant increase in GDP per capita and income per capita, the nation has faced a severe brain drain, particularly in the northeast and south, leading to growing discontent among its citizens toward both their government and the EU. Corruption and ineffective implementation hinder the distribution of considerable EU funds intended for projects improving lives in the more rural areas. In turn, it is also a vicious cycle: money is allocated to projects aimed at improving the economic situation in rural areas; the funds do not reach where they are most needed; people migrate to improve their economic situation; less money is allocated to these particular regions. More generally, any major change will consequently have winners and losers. As can be seen in several EU member states, this provides fertile ground for the rise of populism.


In conclusion, as has been acknowledged by the European Commission, the Georgian population continues to be the driver behind EU membership because of the expectation of economic growth and increased security against foreign threats. Yet, this also presents a potential hazard: if their support wavers, the process could (temporarily) halt. I have highlighted some of the factors that could cause this, namely the politicization of the LGBT-community as a threat to Georgian culture, the length of the accession process, and the expectation of economic prosperity. This is not taking into consideration the other (existing and potential) hurdles, such as regional instability, territorial integrity, and overall, democratic governance and rule of law. The upside of these mentioned hurdles is that they can be mitigated, if only there is political will to do so. The Georgian government, civil society, and possibly the European Union should work together in order to inform the public about what EU membership exactly entails. Only then can the Georgian dream of EU membership become a reality.


European Commission. (2012, June 6). Chapters of the acquis. European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations.

European Commission. (2021, June). EU restrictions on certain single-use plastics. Environment.

European Union External Action. (2023a, September 7). The European Union and Georgia.

European Union External Action. (2023b, November 8). Candidate status to Georgia – 2023 Enlargement package – 08/11/2023 | EEAS.

Gabunia, D. (2022, October 28). Why we are wary of Russian émigrés in Georgia – so soon after Russian invaders. The Guardian.

Javakhishvili, N., & Butsashvili, N. (2023). Contestation but not Euroscepticism: economic and security concerns and the fear of losing national traditions in Georgia. Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, 24(4).

Liboreiro, J. (2022, August 31). EU foreign ministers agree to scrap Russia visa deal but stop short of full tourist ban. Euronews.

National Democratic Institute. (2023). Taking Georgians’ pulse: Findings from December 2022 face to face survey.

Nechepurenko, I. (2023, March 9). Georgia plans to withdraw foreign agents bill after protests. The New York Times.,power%E2%80%9D%20to%20register%20as%20%E2%80%9Cagents%20of%20foreign%20influence.%E2%80%9D

Reuters. (2023, May 20). Georgia to resume flights to Russia this week, drawing EU and Ukrainian criticism. Reuters.

Picture for the article: Source: Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty (RFRL)

Source: Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty (RFRL)

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