The small, emphatically pro-Western country of Georgia is on tenterhooks after the European Union on December 8 finally came within a fingernail of scrapping its visa-requirement for Georgian and Ukrainian citizens.
A European Parliament committee has approved the mechanism for suspending the visa-free rule for Georgia and Ukraine, and agreed to put it to general parliamentary vote next week. A green light for this mechanism, which allows the EU to halt visa-free travel if somehow overcome by immigrants from these two countries, clears the way for approval of visa-free travel to the EU for Georgians and Ukrainians.
The breakthrough put Georgia’s European-integration-seeking government and its supporters within the EU in high spirits. The “EU is delivering” on its promise of visa-free access, tweeted Manfred Weber, chairperson of the European People’s Party.
“[N]ow let's get a well-deserved swift visa liberalisation for #Georgia,” tweeted Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, after thanking Georgia’s EU backers.
Simplified travel access is expected to forge still closer ties between the EU and Georgia, beyond their 2014 Association Agreement. Georgia's ultimate goal is membership itself.
It's been anything but a straight path. The promise of visa-free access to the EU has dangled in front of Georgia for four years now and Georgian officials have long promised that access to voters. The immigration crisis in Europe is believed to have prompted the EU to go slow on its original visa- liberalization plans. With the suspension mechanism in place, the talks are expected to go back to speed.
The potential benefits, however, are political as well. Since its October re-election, the Georgian government has been grappling with a severe, nearly ten-percent devaluation of the lari against the dollar, which, amidst widespread complaints about inadequate work, has done nothing to endear it with voters.
But the prospect of visa-liberalization is good news even for those Georgians not caught up in applying for EU visas, exporting to the EU or worrying about voter-support.
Visa-liberalization would give most the sense that Europe accepts them as equals. And that they have put the negative associations of the chaotic early post-Soviet years firmly behind them.
To some degree, though, that also conveys a feeling of jitteriness about the vote on visa-liberalization -- like waiting to take a critical final exam.
But the unease, to some degree, is shared within the EU as well.
An inaccurate and semi-alarmist headline in The Independent about the December 8 decision, for instance, initially declared that the EU “just agreed to grant visa-free travel to 50 million people.” It was later corrected.
Nothing suggests that Georgia’s population of roughly 4 million plans to make a wild, visa-free dash into the EU. The visa-free status granted fellow former Soviet republic Moldova in 2014, for instance, had no sizable impact on the EU's border security, one Polish study found.
Rather, the real impact will be on Georgia itself, by conveying a sense of accomplishment in its EU quest after years of reforms. “We are very close to the desired end,” said Georgian Foreign Minister Davit Janelidze on December 8. “Georgia is firmly and irrevocably on track for European integration.”