Georgia and the EU
02 August, 2012

Georgia is negotiating a trade agreement with the European Union that will bring it closer to being a part of that community. But how does Georgia view the EU? In traveling around the Baltics, I have noticed substantial differences in how they view Europe as compared to Georgians.

 

For the Baltic countries, they feel that becoming a part of the EU was a process of returning home. They naturally belonged within Europe; they had been unfairly torn out of it, and wanted to become a part of it again. What is interesting is that the nature of Europe had changed while they had been apart from it. Europe had gone from being an ill-defined cultural ideal to being a legal entity. Before WWII in reality, Europe was a vague area on a map.  Many portions of it had industrialized early, become wealthy, and colonized much of the world, while other parts had remained more traditional.  There were many different political structures, but few thought of themselves as ‘European’.  There were Germans and Frenchmen and Englishmen each with their own conception of culture as well as a negative view of the ‘uncivilized world’.

 

The destructive results of the war made people realize how dangerous these cultural differentiations. Europe had become tired of negatively judging the values of others and set about a process of finding out what they could agree upon themselves. The first area they could find agreement was in lowering trade tariffs. Slowly they came up with other things they could agree on. Like ending the death penalty and the relaxation of borders to promote worker mobility. They harmonized legislation to make trade and other aspects of living in concert easier. Harmonization was a word they used constantly. They slowly developed the legal structures and agreements necessary to harmonize.

 

The Baltic countries had the opportunity to join the European Union only after it had transformed from a collection of destroyed nation states into a larger legal entity. They were relieved that they had this chance and they pursued it enthusiastically. Their arguments with the EU were few, but the few they did have were usually about their own efforts to strengthen national culture, which had been stifled under the Soviet Union. In the end, however, the priority was economic development and not culture.

 

I wonder if this is the case in Georgia. What does Georgia want from Europe? Is it the long term economic guarantees that come with being associated with the European market? Those benefits are substantial but they will take a long time before Georgians experience them. And the causes of prosperity are not easy to isolate: people may or not realize where prosperity is coming from when it arrives. Maybe the government will say it was due to their policies and not the EU.

 

Nowadays, many more people in Georgia seem to think about culture than is the case in Western Europe or in the Baltics. They are more interested in knowing “what somebody is” in terms of their ethnic background and in thinking of the world in terms of a collection of nations rather than a collection of economic interests and laws. It is possible to join a legal entity or a market, but answering these culture-obsessed questions is not so simple. Furthermore the answers tend to be unproductive especially in our increasingly global world of cultural exchange.

 

Another substantial difference between Georgia and the Baltics is that Georgia had only three brief years as a social democratic republic followed by seventy years of colonialism. The Baltics on the other hand had an entire generation to learn the lessons of independence in the twenties and thirties. Perhaps that is what accounts for the difference. For people in Georgia, there are two different ways to look at the EU: the first centers around questions like, “Are we culturally European, and if so do we want to join the rest of the the cultural Europeans?”, or alternatively, “Finally we are independent and can choose our own direction, are we ready to give up some of our independent decision making to this big legal entity?” The other way to look at the EU would be, “What do we need to do to now to become a part of this common market?”

 

It seems like there isn’t as much public discussion as there ought to be about this. There was in the Baltics in the mid-nineties when it went from unthinkable that they would join the EU to a reality. They made their choice. Georgia should discuss that choice because we need a consensus.