What Do the EP Elections Mean for Georgia?

The European Parliament elections are over, with the liberal wing sighing with relief, while the right wingers can smugly point to the increase to 25% of representation in the world 's second largest democratically elected parliament. But what does the new set-up mean for Georgia? As a Georgian at the European Commission, I tried to answer that in a piece written for the Georgian Foundation For Strategic and International Studies (Rondeli Foundation).

The mood on election night was quite gloomy in Brussels. Europeanists from all sides felt anxious about the possible populist surge. It did not happen, yet there are still not many reasons to celebrate.

The good news is that the European Parliament (EP) elections gained something of a new momentum. Since its first ever direct elections in 1979, the voter turnout has continuously shrunk, while this year we saw an increased participation by almost 9% compared to the previous elections. This positive trend suggests that people are interested in Europe again, that there is an awakening of the European demos, who no longer view the EP elections as 'second order' elections. More good news is that the populists and nationalists are contained, and hysteria of a genuine cleavage among pro-EU and anti-EU populist forces is over.

The bad news is that the EU is left in uncertainty. Not because of fragmentation, after all the major parties secured a majority, but because of the growing division among the Member States, which hold conflicting visions on the future of Europe. In the new setting of the Council, it will become more difficult to reach agreements. The political ambiance is affected by the populists as well. Although they did not rise significantly, their share of seats increased from 20 to 25%. It is particularly worrisome that Italy, a founding Member State, is drifting away from EU principles and in the words of Nathalie Tocci, has “chosen a path of national marginalization.” Salvini's far right League party came first in Italy. It promises to change the rules of the EU game together with France, the UK, Hungary and Poland. Marine Le Pen's victory, although with a small margin, signals the weakening of Macron's Renaissance vision of the EU, while in the UK, Farage is again in the spotlight. In Belgium, election night turned out to be a 'Black Sunday' - the nationalist, separatist and anti-immigrant party, the Vlaams Belang (Flemish interest) won triple elections (regional, federal and European). The rise of these types of parties illustrates that the times of political taboos are over, and people are not shying away from proclaiming themselves extreme right.

These trends again confirm that the political architecture in Europe is in constant flux. However, we should not be mistaken into reading the European trends in the votes of a single country. If green politics appeal to German and French citizens, the same is not valid for example for Central and Eastern Europe. The voters' preferences appear fragmented, shedding light on the regional divisions and disparities within the Union.

But what do the EP elections mean for Georgia?

First of all, it means that there is a new balance of power in the European Parliament. 40 years of majority between the conservative center-right EPP (European People's Party) and PES (Party of European Socialists) is over, and broader coalitions are expected to be created, including among the Liberals and Greens. Now the challenges for Georgia might be that agreements and decisions on country specific issues and on foreign affairs (the Eastern Partnership), will be more complex and prolonged. Georgian diplomats will need to adjust their negotiation strategies to various political groups; however, their efforts will be in vein if national political parties do not decide to cooperate. The cross-party partnerships of leading Georgian parties will be needed to secure attention from Europarty (parties with EU-level officials, Members of the European Parliament) and relevant political figures. It is high time that the Georgian political parties pool their resources to lobby in a coordinated manner the country's strategic interests at the EU level.

Georgia's level of ambition will also depend on who will take the EU's top jobs. The key question here is will the next Commission be political or technical? If the Commission President will be chosen via the Spitzenkandidaten (lead candidate) procedure (which means that the European Council should propose a candidate taking into account the election results of the European Parliament), the Commission will emerge as a more political institution, strong enough to support by itself the new formats and partnerships with the neighborhood countries, including Georgia. If the Council decides to reject this procedure, the President will be nominated by the European Council. This will signal a return to intergovernmentalism, shifting the power balance towards the member states, which don't show much enthusiasm for the enlargement agenda. It is no coincidence that the European Commission recommended opening accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia in an annual report published recently; however, as Martin Selamayr, the European Commission's Secretary General, confirmed in a private talk, the result of the upcoming Council Summit in June will be zero, as Member States are reluctant. Naturally, in order to advance the neighborhood policies, it will be essential to have a strong High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, as well as a committed Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy.

Looking ahead, it is clear that while the EU will need to fix its internal challenges, among others reconciling the populist moves and the green waves, Georgia should not find itself put aside. Its political elites should find a cross-party consensus and build a solid strategy involving civil society to advance the country's interests by enhancing its channels of strategic communication at the EU and Member States' level.

By Teona Lavrelashvili

Image source: ft.com

10 June 2019 17:31