Europe today faces its most feared nightmare: war.

A bloody armed conflict has erupted again in the center of the continent: Ukrainians are fighting in the streets to rout invading Russian forces, who are threatening to take over their neighbor and subdue their cherished independence.

Within days, the continent’s conscience was shaken to the core, leading to a strong surge of solidarity with Ukraine and a sudden reexamination of our common identity as Europeans.

Moved by both hope and hopelessness, the Kyiv government has submitted a lengthy application to join the European Union, a tedious, complicated and fragile process based on the political will of the 27 member states. Shortly after President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed the official application, two more countries followed: Moldova and Georgia.

None of these three states had previously been considered a serious candidate for inclusion in the bloc, but the horror and shock of war suddenly shifted the narrative in their favor. The accession process, which had largely stalled, has now been revived and given new meaning, even if the chances of a successful solution are still slim and full of obstacles.

But another hurdle appears for Georgia: Does it really belong to Europe?

Article 49 of the EU treaties states that “any European state” that respects the bloc’s core values ​​can apply for membership. At first glance, the provision has a double dimension: geographical – somewhere within the European continent – and political – compliance with the basic principles of the European project, ie an open democracy based on the rule of law and human rights.

In terms of democracy, Georgia has a mixed record. As a parliamentary republic, the country has made great strides in overcoming its Soviet legacy and regularly holds elections to choose its public representatives. But the system is shaky, with frequent allegations of fraud and unreasonable obstacles for opposition parties.

“Oligarchical influence affects the country’s political affairs, policy decisions and media environment, and the rule of law is undermined by politicization. Civil liberties are protected inconsistently.” says Freedom House, a non-profit center that conducts research on democracy and human rights.

Freedom House calls Georgia “partially free,” while The Economist’s Democracy Index describes it as a “hybrid regime.” Reporters Without Borders says The country’s media are “pluralistic, but not yet independent”.

While political flaws are a major obstacle to EU membership, they are not set in stone.

In fact, the accession process is designed to progressively improve a candidate’s political standards, so that by the time the newcomer eventually joins the bloc, the newcomer is perfectly connected to the other member states.

The geography, on the other hand, is set in stone – in the truest sense of the word. And in the case of Georgia, the rock beneath his feet might raise some uncomfortable questions.

Between two continents

Georgia is a small country of almost four million people in the Transcaucasia region south of the Caucasus. It borders Russia to the north, Azerbaijan to the east, and Armenia and Turkey to the south. The western part of the country borders the Black Sea and opens a direct sea route to two EU countries, Romania and Bulgaria.

This particular position puts Georgia at odds with Europe’s traditionally defined borders, which extend to the Ural Mountains in Russia, follow the Urals down to the Caspian Sea, and then sweep past the ridge of the Caucasus Mountains until they reach the Black Sea.

This classic interpretation is followed, among others, by the National Geographic Society – their map of europe tiptoeing past Georgia – the Encyclopædia Britannica and that of the CIA World Fact Book.

Since the Caucasus acts as Georgia’s natural northern border, the most conventional understanding of Europe misses the land, leaving the region as a sort of transcontinental bridge “at the intersection of Eastern Europe and Western Asia,” as Wikipedia puts it.

“I call the Caucasus ‘the countries in between’. Geographically, the countries lie between Europe, Asia, Russia and the Middle East, culturally on the border between Islam and Christianity and democracy and authoritarianism,” says Thomas de Waal, author of The Caucasus: An Introduction. , during a 2019 question round.

“It’s a confusing, interesting region that’s not just a frontier geographically.”

Georgia’s character as a transit zone seems to confuse international organizations.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) excludes Georgia from its periodic economic policy outlook for Europe. Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Commission, also ignores the country in his study of regions and cities covering the entire Turkish territory.

However, the Council of Europe considered Georgia a part of the European family of nations when it granted the country membership in 1999. (The Council of Europe is a human rights organization with limited powers and is completely independent of the EU institutions.)

“I am Georgian and therefore European,” said Zurab Zhvania, Georgia’s prime minister, when his country joined the organization less than a decade after the collapse of the USSR.

Zhvania’s triumphant words evoked a sense of belonging that transcended geographic boundaries and instead embraced common bonds forged across culture, faith, and history. At its greatest extent, the Roman Empire extended to the Caucasus. The area now known as Georgia was then called Colchis and Iberia.

“The interesting and tricky thing about the concept of Europe is that it has been literally debated for at least 2,500 years,” says Giancarlo Casale, a professor at the European University Institute (EUI) specializing in the Ottoman Empire and its connections with the modern world.

“Behind these arguments lies a predisposition to define Europe in a certain way. One way of defining it is Christian. So if you want to see Europe as Christian, then it makes inevitable sense that Georgia should be included, because although it’s out there in the Central Caucasus, it’s one of the oldest Christian civilizations in the world.”

“No clear agreement”

Today, as the continent of Europe becomes increasingly connected, borderless and digital, its true character, and therefore its borders, are transcending the physical realm that characterized ancient empires, a trend that President Vladimir Putin seems keen to reverse.

Conceptual factors such as political affinity and social structures now have a greater influence in shaping a collective sense of Europe. This abstract dimension came to the fore during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an act of war that turned Kyiv into something of a frontline guard for the Western model of democracy.

“Two months ago I didn’t hear anyone say that Ukraine is a European country because, whether it’s a democracy or not, there was no question that it would join the European Union,” Casale told Euronews in a video Interview.

“You can see how quickly these kinds of discourses can change the politics of the moment and how people think about what they want to be as Europeans and how other countries fit into this model.”

This flexible interpretation of what Europe is could pave the way for Georgia’s EU ambitions, or at least for being granted candidate status. The formal change would open the door to the bloc’s multi-billion Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA). financial program helping countries to carry out the necessary reforms to move closer to the EU legal order.

Cyprus, a country that is geographically part of Asia Minor but is majority Christian and Greek-speaking, benefited from this resilient understanding when it joined the bloc as part of the 2004 enlargement wave, at a time when political will to enlarge the EU was crucial stronger than today.

Balkan countries with large Muslim populations such as Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina have also been accepted as prospective members, although their fate remains uncertain at best.

“There is no clear agreement on what a ‘European state’ means. This requirement can be read from different perspectives, including geographic, cultural, political and strategic terms,” said Corina Stratulat, senior analyst at the European Policy Center (EPC). studying EU enlargement, says Euronews.

However, Brussels’ willingness to turn the map of Europe upside down is not infinite.

In 1987, Morocco’s application to join the European Communities, the predecessor of the EU, was rejected on the grounds that it was not a European country. However, as Stratulat notes, Turkey’s application, submitted in the same year, “was accepted despite its geographical location in Asia”.

The political sensitivities surrounding the EU accession process, which requires capitals to unanimously green-light every step of the process, suggest that the final map of the continent will first be drawn by prime ministers and later polished by cartographers.

“Is the European project motivated primarily by geography or by other economic and strategic/security considerations? Can geography be a key consideration in an age shaped by the internet and globalization, where distances and borders don’t matter? Is enlargement for the EU vital or optional? ?” Stratulat is surprised.

“Depending on how member states respond to these questions, it will determine how far the Union can stretch.”