This live blog is now closed.
13.00 Brussels / 16.00 Tbilisi
We are now bringing this live blog to a close. The European Parliament around midday today adopted by a huge majority a report which recommended giving Georgians visa free travel to EU Schengen countries. This measure, which has been under consideration for some years, is now likely to become operative from the end of March of this year. The decision was warmly welcomed in Georgia and marks an important step in Georgia's European journey. We will continue following this story and other issues related to relations between georgia and the European Union in our daily stories on commonspace.eu.
12.55 Brussels / 15.55 Tbilisi
Georgian Political Analyst Ghia Abashidze told commonspace.eu,
"Truly a historic day amid world’s current developments. We heard clearly from Brussels - Let Europe stand firm with Georgia as Georgia stands firm with European values in spite of its numerous challenges. I do hope that Georgia's friend and ally Ukraine will share this celebration very soon"
12.45 Brussels/ 15.45 Tbilisi
Georgians are sharing congratulatory messages following the decision of the European parliament to adopt a report endorsing visa free travel for Georgian cittizens.
Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirkashvili tweeted
A similar message was sent out by the President of Georgia, Giorgi Margvelashvili
12.00 Brussels / 15.00 Tbilisi
The European parliament has voted overwhelmingly to support a measure that grants Georgians visa free travel to EU Schengen countries. The vote was 553 MEPs in favour, 66 were against, and 28 abstained.
11.50 Brussels / 14.50 Tbilisi
We hear there is a big cake with the Georgian and EU flags ready to be cut in the Georgian parliament where MPs and journalists are anxiously awaiting the vote in the European parliament expected now in the next minutes.
11.41 Brussels / 14.41 Tbilisi
The Chairman of the Georgian Parliament, Irakli Kobakhidze, has just arrived in the plenary session of the parliament and has been officially welcomed. He will be present when the vote is taken shortly.
In Tbilisi meantime, MPs are gathered in the lobby of the Parliament buikding, where they are joined by many journalists watching the proceedings in Brussels. This is truly a historical moment for Georgia, and there is obviously a lot of interest, and even emotion. (Photo below is a screen grab from Rustavi 2 TV)
11.40 Brussels / 14.40 Tbilisi
I think it is important at this point to recall that many people have put huge efforts to get this measure adopted in these difficult times, as Prime Minister Kvirikashvili mentioned this morning. David Bakradze, the former State Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration was instrumental in the negotiations that took place in 2014-16. Another key person, whose contribution to the process, and whose role is not always fully appreciated, is the Georgian Ambassador to the European Union Natalie Sabanadze. The Oxford educated Sabanadze became Georgia's ambassador to Belgium, Luxembourg and the head of the Georgian mission to the European Union in May, 2013 and has been the key person steering the negotiations for georgia in Brussels. On the European side, apart from the many officials in the EU institutions, the rapporteurs Mariya Gabriel and Andreij Mamekins were absolutely instrumental for the measure to be steered through the different political icebergs that face any sort of EU legislation or legislative measure.
11.30 Brussels / 14.30 Tbilisi
Georgian State Minister for European Integration, Victor Dolidze, has just appeared on TV stations explaing to Georgians why they cannot go to Europe without visa tomorrow - because of the procedures that remain to occur.
11.15 Brussels /14.15 Tbilisi
An interesting angle to this whole discussion is how will this impact the residents in Georgia's secessionist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The de facto authorities claim they are independent states, but ofcourse this is not recognised by EU and EU member states - as well as most countries of the world. Georgia's Minister Minister for Reconciliation and Civil Equality Issues Ketevan Tsikhelashvili said this morning that the challenge ahead was to find ways in which the benefits of the visa liberalisation measures can also be extended to the inhabitants of the separatist territories.
She said, "all benefits of cooperation formats with the EU or other partners should be available for those living in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region. Visa-free travel is one of the particular benefits every single Georgian will be able to enjoy and our task is to make it as easily available for Abkhazians and Ossetians as possible,' she said. ‘We also plan for biometric passport to be more easily available for those living in occupied territories', she added.
11.00 Brussels / 14.00 Tbiisi
We welcome to those who have joined us on this live blog as we cover events in the European parliament where a vote is scheduled to take place in the early afternoon on extending visa free travel for Georgian citizens. You can also follow us on facebook or on twitter with the hashtag #WelcomeGeorgians
Someone has asked us, so will Georgians be able to travel to the European Union without visa tomorrow? Our political editor told us "Well, nothing in the EU is so simple or fast, but certainly we are at the end of the journey on this issue. This morning, European Parliament rapporteur Marija Gabriel told the Georgian TV station Rustavi 2 that she expects that the legislative measure being adopted today will become a law by 2 March, after which it will be published in the official gazette of the EU a week later.The law will become operative twenty days after that. So it means Georgians will be able to travel visa free by 1 April - and no it will not be an April fools joke but the realisation of a long and difficult process".
10.55 Brussels / 13.55 Tbilisi
The debate in the European parliament has now ended, with the MEPs overwhelmingly supporting the measure. We expect the vote in the next hours. Our correspondent in Tbilisi says that Georgian social media sites are expressing great appreciation for the very positive remarks in the European Parliament - a sense of pride, but also a sense of appreciation.
10.51 Brussels / 13.51 Tbilisi
Gabriel says this is not just a gesture but a tangible expression of support, and she urges members to vote for the measure.
10.50 Brussels/ 13.50 Tbilisi
The EU Commissioner in charge of this issue has just concluded the debate, saying there is no need to delay the vote any more and the measure should be voted. The Rapporteur Marija Gabriel is now doing the winding-up.
10.45 Brussels/ 13.45 Tbilisi
MEPs from across Europe are expressing support for the motion to extend visa free travel to Georgians. One Baltic MEP said "We in the EU dont build walls, we build partnerships"
10.40 Brussels/ 13.40 Tbilisi
The debate in the European Parliament has now started and MEPs are expressing their views. Opinions are overwhelmingly in favour.
You can watch live on the European Parliament website
10.30 Brussels /13.30 Tbilisi
A high level delegation from the Georgian Parliament is in Brussels and will be watching closely the proceedings in the European Parliament. The delegation is headed by the Chairman of Parliament Irakli Kobakhidze, who is making his first visit to brussels since taking office. Kobakhidze is accompanied by several senior MPs, including the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Comittee, Sophiko Katsarava and the Chair of the European Affairs Committee, Tamar Khulordava and her 1st Deputy Chair, Irine Pruidze, as well as the Deputy Chairs of the Foreign Relations Committee, Nino Goguadze and Dimitri Tskitishvili, as well as the Chief of the Speaker's Cabinet, Nikoloz Samkharadze.
Yesterday they were busy meeting the different groups in the European Parliament. All the major groups, including the European Peoople's Party and the Socialist and Democrats, have already expressed their support for the measure to be voted today, so no surprises are expected.
Irakli Kobakhdize later told journalists that visa-free travel regime for the citizens of Georgia with the Schengen zone countries will be another important milestone in moving closer to the EU. Kobakhidze thanked European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee for supporting Georgia's euro-integration process. The sides spoke about the democratic processes in Georgia and the activities of the Constitutional Commission as well.
10.20 (Brussels)/ 13.20 (Tbilisi)
Today’s vote in the European Parliament is of course awaited with great interest in Georgia itself. This morning, Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili spoke about it when addressing the weekly meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers, describing it as a historic day
Kvirikashvili said, ‘I would like to thank to all MEPs that will take part in today’s voting as this day is of historic importance for Georgia. I would also like to thank to all public servants that have contributed to the great success. I would like to express my gratitude to the parliament of Georgia and to all those that have participated in this process that resulted in a big success for Georgia,’ the PM has remarked. According to him, today’s decision will confirm concrete results of being close to the EU. The prime minister called on Georgians “to show great responsibility and obey the laws of those countries that they will visit as a result of this measure”.
Those following this blog can also do so on facebook and on twitter, where we are using the hashtag #WelcomeGeorgians
10.15 (Brussels)/ 13.15 (Tbilisi)
Discussions on lifting the visa requirement for Georgians wanting to travel to Europe have been going on for several years. The Georgian government hoped that it could conclude the discussions in 2016, and put huge efforts into implementing the reforms that were asked from it by the EU as a condition for this measure. Things however got delayed as a result of external factors - including the European Union's difficulties in tackling a huge refugee and migration crisis that saw million trying to enter the EU from countries in Africa and the Middle East. At a time when the emphasis was on tightening border controls, relaxing the entry requirements for millions of people was not a popular measure with the electorates in many countries and several EU governments wanted safeguards in place. In essence this is the reason for the delay. Not surprisingly the delays have caused huge frustrations among the Georgian public. But two factors remained constant, and helped to ensure that Georgia and the EU stayed the course: the first is support in Georgia for European and Euro-Atlantic integration has remained solidly positive. This support reflects itself also in the position of most political parties, including the governing Georgian Dream party and the two wings of the opposition UNM, which have recently separated. The second factor is that conversely, support for Georgia within the European Union - the institutions, the member states, the parliament, and wider public opinion, remained high, and remained solid. Today's vote will be the ultimate proof of that.
So what is the vote about?
In technical terms it is a draft law giving Georgian citizens the right to travel to the EU without a visa. Biometric passport holders will be able to enter the Schengen area for 90 days within any 180-day period for a holiday, business or any other purpose, except working.
Negotiators from the European Parliament and Council (representing the 28 member states) negotiators struck a deal on the legislation last December. The visa waiver will enter into force on the same date as the visa suspension mechanism, which allows EU member states to temporarily reintroduce visa requirements for reasons of public security.
10.05 (Brussels) /13.05 (Tbilisi)
Today's vote in the European parliament is the climax of years of complex negotiations. Relations between Georgia and the European Union go back to the early 1990s when Georgia regained its independence after the collapse of the USSR. The European Union was one of the first international organisations to engage with Georgia - initially offering emergency humanitarian aid to alleviate the suffering of massive poverty and displacement caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the conflicts . The European Union opened a delegation in Georgia way back in 1994, and soon after Georgia and the EU signed a Partnership and Co-operation Agreement.
Commonspace.eu political editor writes:
For Georgians, Europe is not simply an economic project, nor just a political alliance: it is a national vocation embedded in the sense of identity of the Georgian nation. Georgia has engaged with the EU for twenty-five years with missionary zeal, summarised simply but powerfully by Georgia's late statesman Zurab Zhvania in his first address to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe - "I am Georgian and therefore I am European". There were on the way many ups and downs, but eventually Georgia became an Associate member of the EU through the Association Agreement signed in 2014, and which came into force last summer. Visa free travel is not a part of that agreement, but is a crucial add-on that would make the hundreds of pages of association agreement tangibly relevant to the entire Georgian nation. The visa liberalisation measure has therefore assumed an importance for Georgians, and for Georgia's relations with the EU, that is far greater than would be the case with other countries.
It is ten o'clock in the morning in Brussels and one o'clock in the afternoon Tbilisi on Thursday, 2 February 2017.
Welcome to this live blog on commonspace.eu. We will be following the vote scheduled to take place in the plenary session of the European Parliament in a few hours time on the proposal to give Georgian citizens the possibility of travelling to European Union countries for business or tourism purposes without visa.
We will follow events in the parliament and hear from our correspondents in Brussels and Tbilisi.
More than 500 couples who had already started families but had no Church wedding participated in mass wedding ceremonies presided over by Catholicos Patriarch Ilya II