Security Policy

The Geopolitics of Enlargement: Should EU Candidates Join NATO First?

The decision facing EU countries is whether to anchor candidates under the umbrella of the Transatlantic Alliance before giving them membership. The question is what’s better for Europe’s security.

Engjellushe Morina is a senior policy fellow with the Wider Europe Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Engjellushe Morina is a senior policy fellow with the Wider Europe Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Justus Lemm

The EU enlargement process has increasingly turned into a geopolitical necessity. The reinvigorated process of integration is clearly being led by the situation in Ukraine, which has brought to the forefront an important question: To what extent can the enlargement process provide security for the neighbourhood as well as make EU member states safer?

On the 20th anniversary of the EU’s big bang enlargement, Ukraine is the victim of Russia’s aggression. Due to delayed or lack of EU and US assistance, Kyiv has not been able to regain much of its occupied territory since the start of the war in 2014. Sure, Ukraine is on its path to becoming a member of the European Union together with Moldova, Georgia, and the Western Balkan countries. Yet, the EU enlargement process alone cannot give Ukraine and other candidate countries the security and protection they need in the new geopolitical context. Nor can it secure and consolidate the European space. Russia’s aggression has prompted much-needed discussions about Europe’s defence capabilities. Can the full integration of candidate countries take place without first answering the questions of the European security architecture and its defence capabilities? Or can the two processes be looked at as one European approach?

„Not only the countries of the Western Balkans ... fear that Ukraine ... could be granted a faster track.“

Engjellushe Morina

Clearly, many valuable lessons can be drawn from the last waves of enlargement that saw 13 countries joining the EU in 2004, 2007, and 2013. To understand the importance of this, all we need to do is imagine if Eastern European countries and the Baltic states were not part of the EU against the backdrop of Russia’s aggression. Of course, being NATO members plays a huge role. But joining the EU has anchored these countries to the West while stabilising them politically and economically.

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