A Georgian parliamentary delegation has visited Hungary to cinch Budapest's support for Georgia's inclusion in the list of candidates for European Union membership. European heads of state are expected to sign off on an earlier recommendation to grant Georgia the status of candidate, but Hungary could be putting a spoke in the wheel at the last minute.
Europe's single most prominent naysayer, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, expressed opposition to the EU's next phase of enlargement, sparking a debate with the rest of the bloc's leaders. Orbán specifically spoke against opening talks with Ukraine on accession in the bloc, but it could have implications for Georgia as well.
War-torn Ukraine is the main protagonist in the EU's latest trajectory toward expansion, but Georgia and Moldova have been wrapped in the same package with Ukraine for the next phase of the EU's push for enlargement. The bloc's main executive arm, the European Commission, gave the greenlight last month to starting accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova, and granting candidate status to Georgia.
A summit of European leaders is expected to sign off on the Commission's recommendation next week, launching accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova, and formalizing Georgia's status as candidate. Once Georgia passes that milestone, the country hopes that it can swiftly catch up with Ukraine and Moldova, and also be included in accession talks.
But along came Hungary. With less than two weeks to go before the summit, Orbán demanded excluding the matter of Ukraine's accession from the agenda. "I respectfully urge you not to invite the European Council to decide on these matters in December as the obvious lack of consensus would inevitably lead to failure," Orbán wrote to Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, an assembly of EU leaders.
The EU's most Russia-friendly leader, Orbán is widely believed to be rocking the expansion boat out of deference to Moscow. Some observers believe that he also intends to milk the EU for funds in return for his consent on the enlargement goals. Either way, Georgia is watching the increasingly testy exchange between Hungary and the EU heavyweights with growing concern.
Although Orbán made no mention of Georgia in his objections to expansion plans, there are worries that the Hungarian leader intends to prevent the EU from reeling in close all three ex-Soviet countries at the summit. While top European leaders are pressuring Orbán to fall in line, Georgia appears to be doing its share to get Hungarian support for its EU integration goals irrespective of Budapest's stance against Ukraine's advancement.
Before taking off for Budapest, chairman of the governing Georgian Dream party and parliamentary majority leader Iraki Kobakhidze gave assurances that Georgia's status as candidate is not under threat. "We are confident that when the matter of granting Georgia the candidate status is going to be discussed next week, we will receive very strong support from Hungary," Kobakhidze told reporters on December 5.
He maintained that Budapest is a staunch supporter of Georgia's integration with the EU, but added, indicatively, that a constant dialogue is needed to make sure that support stays strong.
Georgia's government has been carefully courting Orbán recently. Hungary and Georgia signed a strategic partnership agreement last year. This year Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili visited Budapest to be a keynote speaker at an international right-wing conference, and then Orbán came to visit Tbilisi.
Georgia's and Hungary's leaderships appeared to have clicked on several matters, including social conservatism, deference to Russia and faith. "It is hard to be Christian Europe," complained Orbán in comments to the press during his visit in Georgia. Both countries are widely criticized for democratic backsliding, political elites' control over the judiciary and reluctance to take Moscow to task over its invasion of Ukraine.
Local observers believe that Georgia Dream even sees Hungary as a role model and in fact hopes to make Georgia Europe's next Hungary. The EU, however, demands that Georgia pass liberal democratic reforms to advance on its path to membership.
It remains to be seen if the Georgian leadership is willing to democratize and liberalize for the sake of EU membership, but failure to make a step toward membership at the upcoming summit will be a big blow to Georgian Dream. Parliamentary polls are due to be held next fall and most Georgian voters are adamant supporters of EU integration.
Georgian officials now say that they don't intend to get involved in the Hungary-vs-the rest of the EU debate over expansion, but will likely try to convince Orbán that regardless of his take on Ukraine he can still back up Georgia separately at the summit, at least for the sake for the recent bromance between Budapest and Tbilisi. Orbán has reasons to go along. Increasingly isolated within the EU, he could use a friend.