Structural changes in the Government of Georgia were unveiled in November 2017, right before the Eastern Partnership Summit. As a result of these changes, several ministries will be optimized and merged. According to the bill initiated by the Government of Georgia, instead of 16 ministries and two offices of the state minister, 13 ministries and one state minister’s office will remain after corresponding changes are made in the law. The Office of the State Minister on European and Euro-Atlantic Integration is among the agencies that will be affected by these changes. According to the Prime Minister, the office will be merged with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia (MFA), under subordination of the current Vice Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia Mikheil Janelidze. The package of the legislative changes was approved by Parliament with third reading on 7 December 2017. As to merging of the Office of the State Minister with the Foreign Ministry, it will be approved by the Government of Georgia with a corresponding legal act.
The Office of the State Minister on European and Euro-Atlantic Integration was created in 2004 as the primary coordinating body in the field of integration with the European Union and NATO. The Office is in charge of coordinating and monitoring implementation of the Association Agreement. In partnership with the Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development, it also coordinates implementation of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA). The scope of activities of the Office of the State Minister also entails coordination of EU’s assistance, coordination of issues related to Euro-Atlantic integration and strategic communication about integration of Georgia with the European Union and NATO. Setting up the Office of the State Minister also had a political significance as it underlined Georgia’s commitment to European and Euro-Atlantic integration in domestic and foreign policy.
The decision to merge the Office of the State Minister with the MFA was not preceded by consultations with civil society and other stakeholders, and it remains unknown how and in what way will the current functions of the Office be transferred to the Foreign Ministry. At first glance it may seem that merging of the Office with the MFA will bring the interrelated areas under one umbrella, since negotiations with the EU on the Association Agenda were coordinated by the MFA while the Office of the State Minister only participated in it. However, one must consider that the Office of the State Minister on European and Euro-Atlantic Integration is primarily responsible for coordinating important domestic reforms and so it constantly communicates with other agencies, while the MFA is mostly in charge of planning/executing and coordinating foreign policy.
According to representatives of the government, as a result of these changes, high political importance will be attributed to the European and Euro-Atlantic Integration since the Foreign Minister also has the status of the Vice Prime Minister. While this is true now, there are no guarantees that current or future Foreign Minister will maintain the status of the Prime Minister in the long-term. It is safe to assume that after merging of the two agencies, one of the Deputy Foreign Ministers will be put in charge of the functions and responsibilities of the Office of the State Minister, while political level of a deputy minister is lower than that of the State Minister.
Because successful implementation of the Association Agreement is a top priority for Georgia, it is important to bolster coordination and monitoring of the process of this magnitude and complexity. Elevating/approximating coordination/monitoring functions of the Office of the State Minister to the prime ministerial level would have attributed greater political importance to the process.
This option can also be more effective for organizing functions of other departments of the Office of the State Minister, including in the area of strategic communications. The strategic communications division at the MFA is primarily responsible for coordinating communication of diplomatic missions abroad, while the department of strategic communications at the Office of the State Minister is mostly responsible for developing, coordinating and monitoring the action plan for implementation of the strategic communication on issues of European and Euro-Atlantic Integration. Following the reorganization, the area of strategic communications should be bolstered and turned into a separate department under the Foreign Ministry, one that will hold a leading position among agencies responsible for strategic communication.
In relation to the international experience, it is interesting to consider the experience of the Republic of Croatia, the newest member state of the European Union, and draw some parallels. In 2000, the Government of Croatia established the Ministry of European Integration with the primary responsibility of monitoring harmonization of the national laws with the EU legislation. The Ministry exited five years, until it was merged with the Foreign Ministry in 2005. The name of the Foreign Ministry was subsequently changed into the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs of the Republic of Croatia. It is important to keep in mind that when Croatia made these changes, its relationship with the EU was more advanced than Georgia’s current relationship with the Union. In particular, Croatia launched accession negotiations the same year the ministries were merged, which is why the abolition of the Ministry on European Integration and merging of the ministries raised no question marks.
We should also consider the example of Estonia. The Office on European Integration was set up at the State Chancellery of Estonia in 1996 and was put in charge of coordinating domestic processes in preparation for EU membership. Accession negotiations were conducted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with participation of the Office on European Integration. By setting up this office at the prime ministerial level, Estonia attributed greater political significance to the EU membership process and domestic coordination. After Estonia joined the EU, the Office on the European Integration was turned into the European Union Secretariat that continues to operate under the State Chancellery.
Georgia has a long and difficult road to go in the process of European and Euro-Atlantic Integration. Jonining the EU and NATO means overcoming numerous challenges and most importantly fulfilling current commitments in a quality and timely manner. Appropriate and effective coordination and monitoring of domestic reforms is a necessary precondition in this regard. Sharing Estonian experience and elevating the coordination functions to the prime ministerial level can greatly improve effectiveness of the process.
The following recommendations should be taken into account in merging of the Office of the State Minister with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs:
- To improve national coordination of implementation of the Association Agreement and other domestic reforms, including strategic communication, functions and responsibilities of the Office of the State Minister should have been elevated to the prime ministerial level by creating a special office/secretariat. The Office of the State Minister also serves as the secretariat of the governmental commission on integration with the European Union, which is why it would have been logical to elevate the function of organizing the commission to the prime ministerial level as well.
- The European Integration Coordination department at the State Minister’s Office (in charge of coordinating implementation of the Association Agreement) should be moved to the Ministry of Foreign affairs as a separate department, instead of merging it with the MFA’s Department on European Integration as a subordinated division; otherwise, political importance of the Department of the State Minister’s Office will be undermined.
- The Department of Strategic Communications at the State Minister’s Office is vitally important in view of the propaganda and hybrid threats. The MFA has a division on strategic communication that operates under subordination of the Political Department. In merging of the two entities, importance of the area of strategic communications should be considered and a separate department of strategic communication should be created at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which will combine in itself functions and responsibilities of both entities.
- To avoid any question marks over abolition of the Office of the State Minister on European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, the structural changes should be reflected in the name of the Foreign Ministry and the latter should be renamed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration.
- Because European and Euro-Atlantic Integration is a foreign and domestic policy priority for Georgia, the process of planning of the structural changes should be transparent and the civil society should be allowed to actively participate in it.