Strength in numbers: Why an enlarged EU is a more secure EU

The case of Ukraine shows how enlargement would benefit the EU’s defence, security and energy supply, creating a more stable and resilient union.
The European Union flag is projected on the National Library building in Sarajevo in October 2022.

By Amanda Paul and Svitlana Taran

Amanda Paul is deputy head of the Europe in the World Programme and senior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre and Svitlana Taran is a fellow in the Europe in the World Programme at the European Policy Centre.

03 Apr 2024

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has become a turning point in Europe’s history and a geopolitical awakening for the EU. The war has threatened the EU’s security, reinforcing the relevance of the geopolitical dimension of enlargement. Doubling down on enlargement is in the EU’s own interest, as it is an investment in our security and stability.   

A credible enlargement policy should end the strategic ambiguity towards the ‘grey zones’ that left Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia in no-man’s land, behind a de facto locked EU door, and the countries of the western Balkans in the EU’s ‘waiting room’ for about two decades. This ambiguity, along with the weak reaction of the West to Russia’s aggression in 2008 and 2014 – coupled with an underestimation of Russia as a security threat – helped bring about the invasion of Ukraine two year ago.  

The war in Europe and the subsequent geostrategic shift have relaunched the enlargement process after years of stagnation. Now it is widely recognised that EU enlargement and neighbourhood policy should be transformed by integrating broader regional security and defence considerations. At the same time, the war has also challenged the EU’s capacity to act in the face of multiple crises and revealed the need for internal reforms to pursue new geopolitical and enlargement goals. 

Deeper partnerships 

Along with the geopolitical and security dimension, the strategic geo-economic dimension of EU enlargement is also becoming increasingly relevant in a new era of a more fragmented and confrontational global economy. EU membership has created deeper partnerships and more resilient economic integration, which cannot easily be jeopardised by a change in leadership.  

As such, enlargement could become a significant asset for the EU’s pursuit of greater economic security and reduced strategic dependencies. This would be particularly advantageous for the EU in the case of Ukraine. The country can help reduce EU dependencies in strategic industries such as food, energy, metals and raw materials, as well as in defence.  

Doubling down on enlargement is in the EU’s own interest.

Ukraine’s agricultural sector could contribute to EU food security and address rising food prices, allowing the EU to significantly increase its weight as a geostrategic actor and a guarantor of global food security. Ukrainian accession could also further open up the country’s energy potential, and facilitate Europe’s transition to renewable energy sources. Ukraine has the potential to become a leader in the production of critical minerals and increase domestic sourcing of the metals and raw materials necessary for Europe’s industrial resilience and green transition.  

Meaningful incentives 

Furthermore, a clear and credible membership perspective and the conditionality of the EU accession process represent a powerful incentive and tool for the transformation of accession countries. Ukraine and Moldova have proved this by implementing long-awaited reforms such as fighting corruption and strengthening the rule of law in order to get their membership negotiations opened in December 2023.   

The recently proposed upgrade of the enlargement methodology allows gradual integration of accession countries into the single market and is expected to create more meaningful incentives to spur reform. In the case of war-torn Ukraine, the accession process is also decisive for its further consolidation, morale and resilience, and is closely linked with reconstruction during and beyond the war.