Let me start by thanking Professor Shengelia and the Caucasus University, for hosting today’s kick-off event, as well as fellow speakers, professors, experts and researchers who have come here today.
I see this event as a useful warm-up for our upcoming Europe Day. The day when we celebrate the history, values and achievements of the European Union, and pay tribute to its founding fathers – among them Jean Monnet.
The Caucasus University is no stranger to Jean Monnet, having worked on several Jean Monnet Projects in the past, and today celebrating its latest achievement, as the first ever recipient of a grant award for Georgia in the Centre of Excellence category! My congratulations!
You obviously could not have chosen a better timing, with Georgia filing its EU membership application just recently. It’s like opening an ice cream stand just before the heatwave!
Your services will be needed more than ever now as the topic of teaching, research and policy debates on the European Union needs to take another qualitative step forward in support of this process.
The filing of the EU membership application on 3 March, while maybe hasty in some ways, in the end was almost inevitable, following in the footsteps of Ukraine and, soon after, Moldova.
EU membership is what some 80% of the Georgian population wants, as demonstrated by consistent opinion polls over many years, and no government of Georgia would have been allowed to let this opportunity pass.
But it is not without risks, as it is a long-awaited undertaking that needs to succeed. Which, in turn, will require overcoming some difficult challenges here in Georgia.
But clearly, and in the first place, it is an historic opportunity. And it is this opportunity that needs to be at the centre of attention, that needs to encourage and drive the processes necessary to make this a success. While keeping a watchful eye at the risks.
One of them is exaggerated expectations. Currently the EU Council and Commission are taking matters forward at an unprecedented pace. What took Iceland – an old democracy and market economy, a NATO and EEA member – 9 months to achieve back in the days when they applied for EU membership – will now be done in 2 months for Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.
It underlines the unique moment, and sends a strong signal of the EU’s readiness to embrace partners in the region against the background of new geopolitical realities.
But as many of you in this room will know, enlargement has never been built on fast-track procedures and cutting corners. The European project itself is too important to its current Members for that. And very soon the logic of the Copenhagen criteria will be kicking in – which are, as you know, the rules that define whether a country is eligible to join the EU.
A process that will take years, and not months or weeks, to accomplish, but where the rules of the game are set out clearly. As we know, a European perspective, or even candidate status, gives no guarantee that the process will be speedy and truly transformative. In the Western Balkans, where countries received a European perspective more than 20 years ago, only one – Croatia – has so far succeeded in becoming an EU Member State.
But the real strength in Georgia’s membership application lies in its population and their strong desire to orient the country towards Europe; in its historical roots; the relative ease with which I can see this country embracing the EU’s fundamental values (despite current resistance to some equality and minority issues); and in the fact that the European Union wants Georgia to succeed and is ready to assist it along the way. As we have been doing for many years already, and as we have every intention to continue in the years to come.
And you should look at role models within the EU to help you. To me, Georgia should primarily be looking at the Baltic States, which in many ways faced similar challenges as Georgia today, but all of which in the end succeeded in joining the EU as an integral and uncontested part of the Class of 2004.
Today is what I like to call a “sit-up moment” for Georgia, to act on the choice made many years ago, which only gained more urgency after 3 March.
Part of this moment is to make sure that the all the pillars of society are properly lined up. Academia is such a pillar, which brings me back to this University and to today’s event – which is, as I said earlier, a very timely event, and a very timely Centre of Excellence project.
With these words, let me wish you all the best of success. The bottom line is that we need more people that properly understand the intricacies of the European Union in Georgia. And we need more people willing to listen to your advice.