As protests grow in Tbilisi, EU member states on Tuesday (14 May) failed to agree on a common statement that would condemn the passing of the Georgian government’s ‘foreign agent’ law, which Brussels warned defies ‘European values’ and hampers the country’s path towards accession.

Georgian lawmakers passed the controversial law, which would brand hundreds of civil society organisations and media outlets as foreign agents, by 84 votes in favour and 30 against.

Under the new rules, organisations receiving more than 20% of their funding from abroad, will be required to register as “organisations serving the interests of a foreign power.”

Critics fear the Russian-style law will be used by the governing Georgian Dream party, to crack down on opponents of the government, especially before the country’s parliamentary elections in October.

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Taking to the streets against the proposal, demonstrators have voiced concerns the law would steer Georgia back under Russia’s influence, and constitute a threat to the country’s path towards EU membership.

Although President Salome Zourabichvili said she would veto the law if it is passed by parliament, the ruling party can override the veto by collecting a simple majority of 76 votes. Zourabichvili now has 10 days to do so.

No EU27 statement

While a joint EU27 statement condemning the adoption of the bill has been negotiated between EU member states since Monday  (13 May), it ultimately failed to materialise.

Georgia’s President Vetoes Controversial ‘Foreign Influence’ Law
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Georgia’s President Vetoes Controversial ‘Foreign Influence’ Law

Georgian President Zourabishvili on Saturday put a mostly symbolic veto on the "foreign influence" law that sparked protests and warnings from Brussels it would undermine Tbilisi’s European dreams.

Hungary, backed by Slovakia, objected on the premise that they “did not think it is right for the EU to interfere in the domestic politics of a third country,” according to several EU diplomats.

Even a watered-down version of the statement circulated on Tuesday failed to be agreed, leading to attempts for a joint statement likely to be co-signed by EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell and Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi.

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The statement had not been made public yet by the publication of this article.

Twelve EU foreign ministers in a letter, first reported by Euractiv, earlier this week called on both EU officials that the EU should assess how Georgia’s foreign agent law will impact the country’s accession process before the parliament’s final vote.

“If 12 EU member states imply that adopting the law should have consequences for Tbilisi’s accession path, it is a clear sign,” said one EU diplomat.

“Something now needs to happen, otherwise we risk normalising backsliding in general,” said a second EU diplomat.

According to several other EU diplomats, member states could look into “more immediate steps” shortly on how to respond to the situation.

Those could include restricting EU visa liberalisation for Georgians or calling an EU-Georgia Association Council in Brussels, where the Georgian counterpart would be invited for talks.

“We’re not talking about sanctions, that would be too radical at this stage,” a third EU diplomat said, adding that “however, we need to keep options on the table.”

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The EU should assess how Georgia’s foreign agent law will impact the country’s accession process before the parliament’s final vote, twelve EU foreign ministers said in a letter addressed to the bloc’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell and Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi.

Earlier on Tuesday, as Georgian lawmakers were still debating the legislation, the EU warned Tbilisi that passing the bill would hamper its push to join the bloc.

“EU member countries are very clear that if this law is adopted it will be a serious obstacle for Georgia in its European perspective,” EU’s lead spokesperson for foreign affairs, Peter Stano, told reporters in Brussels.

European Council President Charles Michel said he called upon Georgia’s Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze in a recent call to “stick to the rule-of-law principles, to democratic principles, and also to meet the expectations of the population.”

“I’m not in favour of sanctions – at this stage, the priority should be the dialogue, political dialogue,” said Michel, speaking on a panel at the sidelines of the Copenhagen Democracy Summit.

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