The EU’s ‘Foreign Policy’ Towards Georgia – Analysis


By Tatia Gurgenidze

The war between Georgia and Russia in 2008 not only raised several questions on who to directly blame, but also exposed flaws and shortcomings in the policies directed towards Georgia from external actors that might have led to diminished stability.

The EU’s foreign policy towards Georgia has been widely assessed as ‘weak’ by several scholars; the EU’s influence upon Georgia’s development path has been considered limited, especially concerning regional security and Georgia’s conflict zones in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Despite the growth of its conflict management capacity, the EU still finds itself unprepared, especially ideologically, to handle certain types of conflicts. As one observer has noted in relation to Georgia, “the EU runs the risk of becoming entangled in conflicts that it lacks the capacity to address and of exposing its weaknesses as a foreign policy actor”. Therefore, it is not only interesting, but also necessary to examine the underlying reasons for the weak foreign policy engagement of the EU toward Georgia to avert non effective policy decisions in the future.

One of the reasons for this weakness could be the ideological framework with which the EU has developed its foreign policies. The EU has been pursuing a neighborhood policy to encourage and stimulate economic and democratic reforms through various means, such as the European Neighborhood Policy’s (ENP) Action Plan for Georgia and the Eastern Partnership (EP) program. Towards the South Caucasus region and individually towards Georgia, the European Union has been acting in line with long-established liberal internationalist principles which encompass cooperation incentives in return of quick progress in democratization – free market reforms, cross-border cooperation and promotion of other liberal objectives. The questions is whether this benefits the countries to which the policy is directed, and mainly, whether this is the case with regards to Georgia.

In this article, the role of the EU as an actor in international politics will be first discussed, as it is important to understand it when analyzing the nature of the EU’s foreign policy. Thereafter, the underlying reasons for the EU’s liberal strategies will be discussed and  it will be explained why liberalism is a poor practical guide when it comes to foreign policy decisions. Moreover, using the report of the Independent International Fact Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia as a source, it will become clear that the EU’s lack of political will has indirectly contributed to the escalation of the conflict and the EU, who has claimed to be interested in Georgia’s development, can be hardly viewed as a strong foreign policy actor in Georgia, since it has found it hard to manage to contribute to the resolution of one of Georgia’s most important challenges.

The EU as an Actor in International Politics

Extensive literature has been devoted to the EU’s status as either a single international political actor or as an institutional playground of its member states’ converged interests. However, when analyzing the nature of the EU’s foreign policy towards Georgia, understanding the EU as a distinctive international political actor specifically in its relations with Georgia is essential. As one author noted “the European Union’s foreign policy is an ongoing puzzle”. Karen E. Smith proposed, that the most prominent opponent in this case would argue that the EU constitutes an ineffective foreign policy actor, whose influence on third countries and generally on international politics is inherently limited.

Nonetheless, much specialized literature is dedicated to arguing that the EU already conducts something which can be called foreign policy. For the same K. E. Smith, the most obvious evidence to establishing the operational quality of the EU’s foreign policy was setting out of common foreign policy goals within the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. Based on those principles the author singled out five more explicit objectives which the EU claims to be fundamentally pursuing in its external relations with other political actors of international relations.  These objectives are: the encouragement of regional cooperation; the advancement of human rights; the promotion of democracy and good governance; the prevention of violent conflicts; and the fight against the international crime.

By allying with those who consider the EU as a significant foreign policy actor in international politics, the Union pursues a particular course of foreign policy towards Georgia and does so in a style and manner appropriate to the standards of international liberal thought. The perception of the EU’s particular course of foreign policy with regard to Georgia can also be reinforced through apprehending the following important condition: the EU has been so far operating its relations with Georgia through a number of legally binding agreements, which exceed in relevance and significance any other bilateral agreement signed between Georgia and individual EU member states.

The EU as an Embodiment of Liberal Principles

The EU has guided its policies with regard to Georgia in accordance with its broader adherence to the principles of international liberal democracy. Perhaps the best formulation on which I basically rely when I claim that the EU is fundamentally a liberalist phenomenon both in its internal and external dynamics, is proposed by Frank Schimmelfening in his article “The Community Trap: Liberal Norms, Rhetorical Action, and the Eastern Enlargement of the European Union”:

[T]he EU is the main organization of the European international community. It is based on a European and liberal collective identity. The belief in and adherence to liberal human rights are the fundamental beliefs and practices that constitute the community. They define legitimate statehood and rightful state action in the domestic as well as the international realm. In the domestic sphere, the liberal principles of social and political order – social pluralism, the rule of law, democratic political participation and representation, private property, and a market-based economy – are derived from and justified by these liberal human rights. In the international sphere, the liberal order is characterized by the democratic peace and multilateralism. Both institutions are based on liberal norms externalized from the domestic sphere.


The fact that the EU policy towards Georgia has been mainly determined by above-described liberal ideals is explicitly evident from the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) signed between the European Communities (EC) and Georgia in 1996. The document envisages:

  1. To provide an appropriate framework for the political dialogue between the Parties allowing the development of political relations;

  2. To support Georgia’s efforts to consolidate its democracy and to develop its economy and to complete the transition into a market economy;

  3. To promote trade and investment and harmonious economic relations between the parties and so to foster their sustainable economic development;

  4. To provide a basis for legislative, economic, social, financial, civil scientific, technological and cultural cooperation.#

As it can be seen from these, the first paragraph refers to very broad interest of establishing political relations and the rest of the article stresses that EC will support Georgia in order to strengthen the latter’s democracy, develop the economy and accomplish the transition to a market-based economy. It also underlines that the parties will promote trade and economic cooperation and lay ground for other civilian forms of cooperation in the fields of legislation, science and culture. Further down, Article 4 explains preconditions for continuing relations and states the following:

[T]he Parties shall as appropriate review changing circumstances in Georgia, in particular regarding economic conditions there and implementation of market oriented economic reforms. The cooperation Council may make recommendations to the Parties concerning development of any part of this Agreement in the light of these circumstances.

Thus the founding document of EU-Georgia relations explicitly gives priority to commonly recognized liberal principles such as democracy, market economy and free trade, and sets the future fate of relations on the conditionality defined by Georgia’s progress in economic conditions and market-oriented reforms.

However, according to Patrick Morgan, liberalism is a poor practical guide because it contains number of inconsistencies. For instance, the liberalist approach to international relations finds it hard to answer which should come first in peace-building efforts – a stable and effective government or support to economic policies, trade and improved human rights? The author contends that one of the oldest such inconsistencies with the liberal tradition is the tension between self-determination and the need for effective states. “The problem has arisen repeatedly in new states carved out of the old Soviet Union (like Georgia). Liberalism offers no ready way to resolve these inconsistencies and little help for governments in making the relevant decisions”.

Europe’s actual approach towards Georgia

The core of this discussion is the availability of reliable scholarly accounts of the weakness of the EU’s foreign policy towards Georgia. One suggested source of such an account is  the report (PDF) by the Independent International Fact Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia (IIFFMCG), which was established by the Council of the EU in December 2008 with the goal of achieving “a common understanding” of facts related to the war of August 2008 between Russia and Georgia. At one point, where the report provides an overview of conditions leading up to the armed confrontation, it reads the following:

[I]n summary, over the years there was a gradual increase in European involvement in Georgia, which may be called forthcoming in terms of economic aid, politically friendly on the bilateral side, cooperative but cautious on contentious political issues and, except for some bilateral support from very few EU members, mostly distanced in terms of military support and sensitive security issues.

Then the authors go on to indicate some of the shortcomings that might be considered as consequences of such attitude from the EU side. Namely,

[A] good case in point was the European reluctance to take over the Border Monitoring Mission on the Caucasus range facing Russia, after Russia had vetoed the hitherto OSCE engagement in 2004. It may have been that this cautious approach was reflected, too, in the decision of the Bucharest NATO summit of April 2008 to take a positive line on Georgia’s request to become a NATO member, but to abstain from steps leading immediately to its admission.

Logic and wording of the above quotation might suggest that the two mentioned aspects – rejection by the EU to take over border monitoring tasks between Russia and Georgia and NATO’s indecisiveness to assign a Membership Action Plan (MAP) for Georgia – can be seen as representing significant factors which have ultimately contributed, alongside other negative dynamics, to the escalation of tensions between Russia and Georgia. By some estimations, this indicates a recognition by IIFFMCG that a lack of political will by Euro-Atlantic structures indirectly contributed to conflict escalation.

However, more important is where the report underlines in which instances European engagement has been more effective with Georgia and where there was a deficit of engagement. The text reads that the EU policy can be characterized as politically friendly on the bilateral side, cooperative and effective in terms of economic aid but insufficient in terms of controversial political issues, military aspects and security concerns. If translated into political science language, this explicit distinction of pursued policies reflects the EU foreign policy and development aid being largely guided by liberal agenda which prioritizes economic aid and cooperation incentives even in places where security is of utmost importance. That Georgia’s political climate has been dominated by security concerns ever since its independence in 1991 is a rarely disputed fact.

On the other hand, it has been proposed that the EU, at large, sees itself as a contributor to international peace and stability. Concerning the EU role in Georgia, although the text of the PCA remains relatively vague, the Union has shown increased interest in this respect in the new century. If we look at the text of the European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument (ENPI) Country Strategy Paper for Georgia (2007-2013), it becomes evident that the European side has viewed its continued commitment in the broader context of the European Security Strategy adopted in December 2003.

In order to obtain a more encompassing view of the evolving dynamics of the EU-Georgian relations, the chronology of the occurrence of most significant factors in this relationship within the above set time-frame will lead to more understanding:

  • July 1999 – Partnership and Cooperation Agreement enters into force

  • July 2003 – EU Special Representative (EUSR) for the South Caucasus is appointed

  • June 2004 – Georgia is included in the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) program

  • November 2006 – EU-Georgia ENP Action Plan is adopted

  • September 2008 – EUSR for the Crisis of Georgia is appointed

  • October 2008 – EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM) is established in Georgia

  • March 2009 – Georgia becomes part of a newly launched Eastern Partnership (EP) program

If we match the logic behind the progress of these events with a wider set of events in Georgia, it might occur to an outside observer that the European approach to Georgia has been more reactive than proactive. For instance, it is somewhat controversial that Georgia, along with other South Caucasian states, were initially excluded from the ENP launch in 2003, but swiftly became part of this initiative in 2004, only after it became evident that the November 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia demonstrated remarkable democratic potential. Another point in favor of this style of reasoning is the deployment of the EUMM to Georgia, which was a direct and immediate response to the August War of 2008 and is by all means designed to address the need to monitor the contact line between Russian and Georgian forces on the administrative borders of break-away regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It is however important to remember that the EU had been invited, specifically in 2004, by the Georgian side to become more active in the execution of peaceful monitoring missions  on problematic dividing lines (PDF) between Georgia and Russia. The EU turned down the invitation. However, it is argued that its consent in 2004 could have presumably saved it from encountering a far more complex and costly task of setting up of the EUMM as a response to the August Conflict of 2008.

Liberal Ideological Foundations of the EU’s Foreign Policy with Georgia

To identify logic behind the EU’s rather reactive engagement in Georgia, I turn once more to the ideological foundations of the Union. As the EU external Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner described it,

[T]he EU, as an organization founded on respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law, believes democracy is inherently valuable and universally desirable. And we are morally obliged to foster those values in all our international partners. But it is not just a question of high-minded principle, the EU’s Security Strategy makes clear “the best protection of our security is a world of well-governed states”. Democracies are, on the whole, more prosperous and more stable and therefore make better partners. And better governments for their people.

However, in the same speech the Commissioner importantly admits that “Democracy is not something that can be instituted overnight – it takes time not only to build new institutions but the widespread trust in them that must be developed”. However, it is precisely this ideological agenda that is most influential in rendering the EU’s external mission a highly gradual and time-consuming job.

Another analyst, Bruno Coppieters, maintains that conflicts in Georgia are related to the controversial issues of identity and are not defined by economic interests. Therefore, the EU’s hopeful anticipation that accomplishment of liberal reforms will consequently contribute to increased security and stronger statehood of Georgia is a misleading position. As factual evidence tells, the EU’s increased activity in Georgia and its contribution to Georgia’s growing economy and improving governance has not been able to stop the escalation of tensions between the central government in Tbilisi and breakaway regions. Nevertheless, security has remained the main central challenge for Georgia’s statehood and both its government and public have viewed other important issues facing the country through the prism of security. Therefore, the EU, who has claimed to be interested in Georgia’s development,# can be hardly viewed as a strong foreign policy actor in Georgia since it has found it hard to contribute to the resolution of one  of the most important challenges that Georgia encounters (PDF).

Additional Causes for the EU’s Weak Performance in Georgia

It would, however, be unreasonable to study the impact of liberal ideals on the EU’s foreign policy with Georgia in complete isolation from other determinants. Indeed, the above analysis leads to the belief that this single factor has become effective only in combination with other important factors, which so far have deliberately omitted from this study. The objective in this case is just to demonstrate that there is a good enough reason to believe that these forces also have their share in defining the limited nature of the EU’s foreign policy involvement with Georgia.

The first factor is the distribution of the EU’s foreign policy competences across its various representative bodies. Conducted analysis showed, that ambiguity and incoherence caused by the complexity of the EU’s overall organizational structure has respectively manifested itself in EU-Georgia relations too. This manifestation has taken place on two levels – one is the degree of unity between positions of different member states of the Union in regard to Georgia and the second level is the degree of coordination of policies carried out in Georgia by different EU institutions and representative organizations. Differences in opinion among member states have indeed occurred on a number of important cases and this has had a paramount significance on the level of EU’s engagement in Georgia. Perhaps, one of the clearest examples of this effect was above mentioned case in 2004, when Russia blocked the extension of the mandate for the OSCE led Border Monitoring Operation which was designed to monitor Russian-Georgian border on the Caucasus range. Subsequently the Council of Ministers of the EU discussed the request a number of times. Yet, differences in positions among member states prevented the Council from reaching an agreement.

As said above, part of the problem in question is the over-stretching of competencies and functions across the EU structure. According to Whitman and Wolff the problem is twofold and lies at the bottom of the EU make-up – the first problem is structural and it is embodied in the absence of an integrated single institutional body responsible for pursuing external relations; secondly, there is a conceptual problem which is constituted by the lack of a coherent strategy for conflict management.

With regards to the second factor, my argument mostly relies on B. Coppieters’ study of the difference in time-frames of the EU and Georgia with respect to the resolution of Georgia’s territorial disputes. According to Coppiters, the EU is not at all a weak foreign actor in Georgia, but the overall effect of its policies in Georgia is nevertheless limited. This limited impact is caused by the nature of conflict transformation in secessionist conflicts generally and in this case in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The author maintains that successful conflict transformation requires the EU to facilitate the process by starting to draw the identities and interests of conflicting sides closer to each other, because the sides are unable to do so on their own. This, on the other hand, requires the EU to seek intensive engagement not only with Georgia’s central government, but with unrecognized political entities of Abkhazia and South Ossetia too.  However, the EU has been denied the chance to fully contribute to this process because of Tbilisi’s continued resistance to allow large-scale international engagement with the breakaway administrations. “The difference between the Georgian and EU approaches to the question of timing their conflict resolution policies has far-reaching consequences for their mutual relations”. Most importantly, Coppieters believes that these differences have been creating obstacles for the EU to achieve full-scale effects of its involvement in Georgia.


To come to a conclusion, the reasons for a weak EU foreign policy with regard to Georgia is mainly the predominance of liberal approaches in its profile for the management of international conflicts. Furthermore, the EU’s ideological and practical approach to international security, particularly to conflicts and their resolution, is dictated by liberal approaches that emphasize economic and governance-related factors as motives of conflicts. However, two additional independent factors show that a number of other important factors may as well be having their share in determining a weak foreign policy performance of the EU in Georgia. However, the outcome of the consequent analysis reinforced my prior assumption that the suggested weakness of EU foreign policy activity cannot be attributed alone to the predominance of liberal values in the EU’s approach to international security.

This inquiry did not examine developments after the establishment of the European External Action Service (EEAS) in 2010, as it is a genuinely new development in European Union (EU) foreign policy making and the impact of this institutional innovation on the Union’s external relations is beyond the scope and capabilities of this assessment.

Tatia Gurgenidze is a recent graduate in International Politics and International Studies (MSSc) from Uppsala University in Sweden. Having an undergrad in Public Policy from Tbilisi Technical University, and afterward having worked in the public sector in Georgia, her specialization in international public affairs focused on the Caucasus region are eminent.


Evolutsia.Net a news and analysis blogozine covering the political landscape of Georgia republic. Evolutsia.Net aims to provide the public with an objective and international perspective on Georgia’s work-in-progress transition to a modern, pluralistic democracy. Evolutsia.Net is led by three independent analysts with experience in and pertaining to Georgia. Evolutsia.Net has no political affiliations and endeavors to provide information and analysis without bias or prejudice.

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