Why Granting Georgia the EU Visa-Free Regime Matters

European integration represents a historic choice of the Georgian nation, for which it has had to endure significant sacrifices. In the course of history, Georgia has been always trying to return to its natural habitat - Europe, because Georgia is an integral part of Europe not only geographically, but in terms of culture and civilization.

The Georgia's European way wasn't particularly easy. Georgia has undergone a number of daunting challenges since the restoration of independence - armed confrontations and a fully-fledged war with its northern neighbor, fighting criminal, corruption and many hangovers from the Soviet era. And today, despite ongoing occupation of 20% of its territory, Georgia can boast its utmost commitment to the political, economic, or human rights reforms carried out, and those efforts of the Georgian Government and people deserve to be welcomed with open hands and open borders.

What reforms and changes has Georgia carried out

The Visa Liberalisation served as an important tool, a catalyst for advancing reforms to meet successfully all the requirements of the Visa Liberalisation Action Plan (VLAP) and it brought about significant improvements in strengthening rule of law, good governance, independent judiciary, human rights and fundamental freedoms, migration and border management systems, etc. Altogether, in excess of 130 legislative changes, along with 8 national strategies and action plans were adopted and 7 international conventions ratified.

The most important reforms carried out under the VLAP:

- Establishment of high standards for document security;

- Modernization of the Asylum system;

- Adoption of the Law on Personal Data Protection and introduction of Personal Data Protection Inspector;

- Adoption of the Law on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination and its effective implementation;

- Adoption and implementation of the Human Rights Strategy and Action Plan;

- Adoption of the new Law on Civil Service - an effective, transparent and professional public service;

- Establishment of the Labor Inspection Department to monitor and inspect the labor conditions.

Since receiving the VLAP in 2013 Georgia has modernized its migration management policy. The Law on Labour Migration has been adopted, the Concept of the Migration Risk Analysis System and accompanying Action Plan for 2016-2017 developed. A new draft Migration Strategy 2016-2020 approved and Unified Migration Analytical System initiated. The Migration Department within the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Temporary Accommodation Centre for the foreigners staying in Georgia without proper legal grounds have been established and unified immigration database (so called over stayer's alert system) created in order to improve the migration data quality and its monitoring.

Asylum system has been significantly improved by creating institutional structures, relevant mechanisms and procedures including contingency planning for sudden influxes of asylum seekers. Asylum-seekers new Reception Centre has already started functioning with additional capacity. At the same time, free legal assistance and representation in court is accessible for asylum-seekers, refugees and humanitarian status holders.

Legal and institutional framework in the field of combating Trafficking in Human Beings has been consolidated.

The reform of the Main Prosecutor's Office has been a critical component of the overarching justice reform.

Comprehensive reforms have been implemented in order to build up the data protection system. The data protection inspector is operational and equipped with relevant institutional and financial capacity. The mandate of the Inspector fully covers public (including the law-enforcements authorities) and private sectors.

Progress reflected in figures

All these reforms, which Georgia carried out over the past several years, has transformed it into a country with remarkably business-friendly environment and are reflected in Georgia's positions in international rankings.

Georgia in international rankings:

- 1st in the region, 14th in Europe and 24th globally - World Bank's "Ease of Doing Business 2016";

- 23rd (among the 178 countries) - "Economic Freedom Index 2016";

- 1st among former Soviet states (except of the Baltic States), ahead of some EU-member states. 48th (out of 168 states) least corrupt state in the world - Transparency International "Corruption Perception Index 2015";

- 3rd safest countries worldwide - Crime Index for Country 2016 Mid Year.

- 1st (out of 13 countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia region) - Open Government Index 2015.

The successful implementation of all the VLAP criteria was confirmed by the 22 evaluation missions that assessed 13 directions of VLAP and four progress reports published by the European Commission.

A number of important statistical trends confirm Georgia's progress in implementing the European standards and readiness for a visa-free travel. According to the latest statistics by EUROSTAT Georgia is no longer among the first 20 asylum seeker countries in the EU MS. There has been an 11.9 % reduction in the number of first time asylum applicants from Georgia to the EU-28 in 2015 compared to 2014.

It is further confirmed by the continually decreasing number of the Georgian citizens who are refused the entry at the external borders of the EU. In 2014, the number of entry refusals at the external borders of EU-28 decreased by 61% compared to 2013, with a further 56% drop in 2015.

There is a decrease in number of false visa and residence permits used by Georgian citizens - 15, down from 25 the previous year - which amounts to extremely modest 0.6% of the overall number.

The Readmission Agreement between the European Union and Georgia has been effectively implemented by the competent Georgian agencies since its entry into force, which is confirmed by the statistics - 93.9% of the readmission applications positive decisions have been made as of 1 June 2016.

Why Visa-Free Matters

The main idea behind the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) was to achieve the closest possible political association and the greatest possible degree of economic integration between EU and its neighbors. This goal was to be constructed on the shared values and common interests. Georgia is one of the most successful precedents in the terms of the ENP and it was recognized by EU in a "Global Strategy for the EU's Foreign and Security Policy" published in June, 2016: "Within this group [Eastern Partnership (EaP) and southern Mediterranean countries] are currently countries such as Tunisia or Georgia, whose success as prosperous, peaceful and stable democracies would reverberate across their respective regions".

Indeed, Georgia is recognized as one of the most advanced EaP partners. Country is quite successful in terms of building a democratic and transparent state, free from corruption, which is almost exceptional and sets an important precedent in the post-Soviet space. It's no exaggeration to say that not only in the region, but in the wider area Georgia stands out as an example of the successful cooperation with the EU. In the times of the doubt and skepticism in the sustainability of the European dream - it matters, because it is important to support the confidence of the neighbors that the EU is fulfilling its commitments and that the European choice delivers concrete results.

A very eloquent manifestation of Georgia's adherence to the humanitarian principles of the free world and its willingness to share the burden of collective security, to be part of European Security architecture, has been country's active participation in NATO and EU-CSDP missions. Georgia is the second largest troop contributor to the NATO Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan. Successful participation in the EU military mission in the Central African Republic (CAR) paved the way to Georgia's further engagement in other EU crisis management operations, i.e. two successive missions in the CAR, as well as in Ukraine and Mali.

As a free, democratic and open country, Georgia has a strong role to play as a regional actor, contributor to the European order and development. Georgia has become a vital transit and energy corridor. Pipelines linking Caspian oil and gas fields to Turkey and Europe pass through Georgia, as well as new road and rail networks. The further development of Black Sea ports, including the new Anaklia Deep Sea Port, makes Georgia an important logistical hub linking Europe with Asia.

The entry into force of the Association Agreement (AA) in July, 2016 opened a qualitatively new page on Georgia's road towards European integration. The DCFTA is already showing substantial results, as Georgian exports to the EU rose by 15% since the Provisional Application of the AA from September 2014, while exports of some Georgian products doubled or even tripled. Georgia has also started exporting some products to the EU that it was not exporting before.

At the same time, Georgia is becoming increasingly attractive destination for the tourists from European countries, whose number increased by 7% between 2014 and 2015. The same trend was maintained in 2016. The first seven months of 2016 witness a further 8% increase in the flow of tourists from European countries. From September 2016 new cheap flights will be available from Georgia to seven European cities - Berlin, Munich, Dortmund, Milan, Thessaloniki, Larnaca and Sofia.

Prevent strengthening Euro-skepticism

Further delay of the Visa Liberalisation process will cause the growth of Euro-skepticism. On the other hand, granting Georgia visa-free regime will be an important message of support for the pro-western forces. It is important to neutralize the negative attitudes that were generated by the postponement of Visa Liberalisation process. Failure to do so might open the way to the pro-Russian political parties in the upcoming election, on the 8th of October.

Progress on the path of Visa Liberalisation and European integration does not belong to any particular political force, but to the entire Georgian nation and a succession of Georgian leaderships, which have been moving in this direction from the very day of restoration of independence. Therefore, Visa Liberalisation will signify the support for the Georgian people as a whole, rather than to one or another political party or leadership.

The Visa Liberalisaton will promote the European values in Georgia, because "mobility of people means mobility of values". Enhanced mobility through Visa Liberalisation and various European educational, scientific and cultural programmes will further improve people-to-people contacts between the citizens of the EU and Georgia and will serve as a proof of the EU's commitment to the further democratic reforms of Georgia, silencing the voices of dispropaganda and skepticism. At the same time, granting Georgia visa-free regime will strengthen EU's credibility in the region and will create a positive spillover effect on the region and beyond.