Thursday’s vote in the UK, in which a slight majority voted for their country to leave the EU, will have substantial and immediate impacts on domestic politics in the UK as well as on the foreign policy, trade and economic future of that country. Similarly, the EU could find itself in greater turmoil if other countries seek to follow Britain’s lead and try to exit the EU.
Brexit also has many implications and raises numerous challenges for Georgia, making it necessary for Georgia’s leadership to think about their foreign policy in a very different light today. The most obvious way that Brexit will effect Georgia is that it raises the possibility that Georgia may be moving closer than ever to the EU at a time when the EU may be breaking apart. In this scenario, Georgia could finally achieve a longstanding and extremely important foreign policy goal only to find out that the prize itself is hollow. Even if this is not the case, and that an EU without the UK is able to move forward smoothly, there remains a possibility that the Georgian people will see the EU as a less dependable or valuable foreign policy goal and therefore the thus far reasonably resilient pro-European consensus in Georgia could be undermined.
There are, of course, other challenges Brexit will raise for Georgia. The vote in the UK may be met with dismay in Brussels, Tbilisi, elsewhere in Europe as well as in Washington, but the view from Moscow is different. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin will almost certainly see Brexit as good for Russia and perhaps a harbinger of further problems with, or departures from, the EU. This is likely to lead Moscow to continue its policy of involving itself in European politics, primarily by supporting far right political parties who, not coincidentally, are in most cases hostile to the EU but friendly to Russia. A Russia that is sufficiently emboldened by this victory that it will involve itself more in European politics and push more aggressively against western powers is precisely what Georgia does not need, but that is precisely what the voters of the UK have given Tbilisi.
Less dramatically, another result of the Brexit vote will, at the very least, mean that the UK, one of Georgia’s staunchest supporters and advocates, will need to focus much of its attention on the fallout from Thursday’s vote. Things like negotiating trade and other agreements with the EU and other countries and determining, with regards to both big picture questions and specific issues related to countries such as Georgia, what their role in the world will be moving forward are among the issues that will consume the British political class in the next few months, and probably years.
The sentiment that appeared to provide the foundation for the electoral support for the Brexit is one that is also not good for Georgia. While there were many positions that drove the Brexit victory, nationalism, opposition to immigration, and a desire to be less involved with the rest of the world were among the most significant. These opinions are on the rise, and the voices that have always supported these views are getting louder, throughout Europe and the US.
The most extreme expression of this may be the energy and passion among a segment of the American population that has contributed to the rise of Donald Trump as a political force. Trump’s appeal is drawn in substantial part from his celebrity personality, proud ignorance on any of the major issues facing the US or the world and ability to contradict himself with righteous pride, but he has also campaigned on racist and nativist themes that have resonated well. It is unfair to tar all of the Brexit voters with the Trump brush, but the two are related. The latter believe the US can wall itself off from Mexico and symbolically the rest of the world, while the former just voted, in a political sense, for the UK to turn the water surrounding their country into a moat to keep the rest of the world out.
While Trump may be an American original, there are voters throughout Europe who share the hostility to immigration and suspicion of the outside world that contributed to the Brexit victory. It is also worth noting that Georgia is not immune to these types of political movements either. Georgian political parties that have expressed a preference for what they see as traditional Georgian values, a strong identity with the Georgian Orthodox Church and a wariness of further integration into the west are products of the same economic uncertainty and political frustration that fueled the successful Brexit effort. It may be that there are no countries in Europe where these voters can from a majority in the near future, but they will, at the very least, begin to make more demands on policy makers and vote for those politicians and parties who share these views.
All of that is bad for Georgia. A Europe, and for that matter US, where internationalist policies and a welcoming approach to immigrants are being challenged is one that creates many problems for Georgia. This is particularly true given that Georgia is well along on what has proven to be a agonizingly frustrating and slow path to visa liberalization with Europe. The arguments that Georgia has made to western powers regarding why further integration of Georgia into western institutions is good for Europe and the US will not even be listened to if voters in those countries are loudly demanding a different path. This has not yet come to pass, but represents perhaps the worst outcome for Georgia.
While much can be made of voter sentiments, Putin’s machinations, and changing attitudes in Europe and the US, it is also true that while the EU without the UK is not going to automatically collapse, it will be significantly weaker. The UK had been one of the biggest, most prosperous and most militarily powerful state within the UK. In the probable case that Brexit is neither a fatal blow to, nor the beginning of the end for, the EU, the EU is still smaller, weaker and poorer without the UK. Therefore, the political entity that for over a decade has represented the sum of Georgia’s political and symbolic aspirations is not as powerful as it was even a week ago.
Brexit’s impact on the EU will not, unless the dissolution of the EU occurs more quickly and decisively than most expect, force Georgia to immediately rethink its goals of further integration into western institutions, but it is a clear indicator both that there is now a strong political barrier to joining those institutions and that membership in the EU is less valuable than it once was. This puts Georgia, once again, in the position of both having to continue to pursue these goals while also further exploring, in the longer run, what further deterioration of the EU would mean for Georgia. Additionally, Georgia will, almost immediately, need to have significant discussions regarding trade and immigration with a longstanding ally, the UK, whose voters have just sent messages that cannot be pleasing for leaders in Georgia. Georgia is not alone in this as Ukraine, Moldova and other countries now face these challenges as well.
There was no good time for Brexit, but this vote coming only a few weeks before the Warsaw NATO summit is particularly problematic for Georgia. Warsaw was already shaping up to be another summit from which Georgia would return not empty-handed, but also not with a MAP. The Georgian government should already have been trying to determine both what they would get form NATO as well as how to present it to the Georgian people as a reason to remain steadfast in their commitment to NATO. Now, that summit will occur in the shadow of Brexit meaning that NATO may too begin to look inward more as the political sentiments behind Brexit, and kindred movements in other countries begin to spill over into the real of defense and security. This is unlikely to be a climate in which further expansion of NATO will get a particularly sympathetic hearing.
After Brexit, the Georgian government now faces the parallel tasks of maintaining a solid relationship with a UK that is no longer in Europe, reinforcing a domestic consensus for membership in an EU that may be perceived as fraying and trying to make the most of a NATO summit where Georgia has now been pushed further from the top of the agenda. This must be done in the context of a Russian regime that may see itself as having achieved a major political victory in Europe and be preparing to seek more victories. This would be a daunting task for any government, one that is made even more complex by an election that is now less than four months away.
The Georgia Analysis is a twice monthly analysis of political and other major developments in Georgia. Lincoln Mitchell is a political development, research and strategic consultant who has worked extensively in the post-Soviet space. If you would like to be on the Georgia analysis mailing list or are interested in more research, analysis or consulting for your business, government, campaign or other organization, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.