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Security and enlargement: two sides of the same coin

EU enlargement is about more than just geography and economy. This has become even more evident at a time when one European country is waging a brutal war of aggression against another.

April 17, 2023 - Ilhan Kyuchyuk - Articles and Commentary

European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi giving a press conference in 2020. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock

The European Union is, first and foremost, a peace project. Decades of peace have brought Europeans growth and prosperity — not vice versa. Today our continent is once again shattered by the horror of war and aggression. History is repeating itself, and we need to demonstrate that we have learned the lessons of the past.

Two things need to be done for the sake of our common European future: strengthening European defence and security and providing a realistic EU membership roadmap for Ukraine and other EU candidates. We cannot allow these two crucial matters to get stalled, delayed or lost in bureaucratic and political formalities. These issues will shape the basis of our security in the coming decades and establish the foundations of the next chapter of European history. 

Ukraine’s war is the EU’s war

Despite the gloomy predictions, in February 2022 Ukraine stood up to the existential threat of a full-scale military attack from its giant neighbour. It did not fall or collapse as a state but decided to prove that the aggressor was wrong and weak. As President Volodymyr Zelenskyy rightly said during his recent speech to the European Parliament, Ukraine is defending nothing less than the European way of life. Ironically, those who we kept outside the EU are now protecting us, serving as a living shield against this brutal attack on our most fundamental common values and principles. One year later, the battle for freedom and justice is still ongoing. And it is as much a European battle as it is a Ukrainian one.

In these most dramatic circumstances, the Ukrainians have definitively declared the characteristics of their nationhood — that it is sovereign, free and undeniably European. Their fierce and united resistance has also inspired the EU to change. A newfound unity among member states has been established and unprecedented direct military aid to a third country has been provided, while Germany’s defence U-turn would have been difficult to imagine before February 2022.

These changes have spurred a new phase in Europe’s development. The EU has changed both on the levels of citizens and institutions. On the people’s level, we see unprecedented support and openness towards Ukrainians as refugees and future members of the EU family. On the policymaking level, the controversial issues of defence and enlargement have risen back to the top of the EU agenda. The EU has been standing with Ukraine from the first days of the full-scale Russian invasion. Yet we can and should do more. We need to extend our hand in helping them defeat the aggressor and join our club as a full and legitimate member.

The war in Ukraine has thus had effects far beyond Ukrainian territory. The brutal and unprovoked attack on a sovereign country has become both a physical and symbolic assault on the entire democratic world — that part of the world where human life and freedom have absolute value. In the face of violence, injustice, and tyranny, our differences and disputes have faded away, giving way to a common stance vis-à-vis the aggressor. We no longer have the moral and historical right to step back from this unity and determination but rather must finish the tasks that are in front of us. 

Investing in defence is investing in peace 

In today’s interconnected world, security has multiple facets, including cyber, ecological, energy and food. However, the traditional concept of security as concerning militaries and defence has fully regained its relevance. The peace Europeans have enjoyed for decades can no longer be taken for granted. After the war in Ukraine is over, the EU will be different — it must be. ‘Never again’ should not only become our revived guiding principle but must be turned into very concrete, practical and forward-looking policies and actions.

This year’s Munich Security Conference has shown that EU-US relations are stronger than ever. NATO remains our main collective security umbrella, with its relevance reinforced by Finland’s entry and Sweden’s application to join. Nevertheless, instead of relying solely on transatlantic ties, Europe should also strengthen itself internally. The EU must strive to become more capable, more sovereign, better prepared and more efficient in its cooperation and communication with allies. Thus, our short- and medium-term goals must be enhanced capabilities, increased spending and — above all — improved coordination and increased standardisation among the member states. These steps will strengthen Europe as much as NATO and increase our collective defence potential, irrespective of political and leadership changes in Europe and North America. 

To achieve this, the EU will need to transform from within. Abandoning the unanimity rule on defence and security issues — as well as on foreign policy — is long overdue and is the first and most necessary step. Decisions of the utmost collective importance and urgency cannot be blocked or stalled because of a single member state or individual interests. This step is indispensable for Europe to build and maintain a new security architecture after the war. 

The full-scale invasion of Ukraine has also made clear that there is no place for Putin’s Russia in the European security ecosystem. Aggressors cannot determine the nature of post-war peace arrangements and security guarantees. Conversely, the construction of these arrangements is unthinkable without Ukraine. The country is not part of the problem but rather part of the solution, and it will play a central role in the eventual peace talks and in designing and maintaining the overall post-war European security architecture. 

No long-term European security without enlargement

Finally, the cornerstone of a peaceful and free Europe is enlargement. The EU does not exist in a geopolitical vacuum. Illiberal competitors are growing in influence, not least in the EU’s neighbourhood. We cannot take the goodwill of our long-aspiring neighbours — from North Macedonia and Albania to Ukraine and Moldova — for granted. If the EU remains reluctant and vague towards integrating new members, it will inevitably lose international credibility and geopolitical weight.

Granting candidate status to Ukraine gave a much-needed impetus to a project which many had considered to be stalled. It gave Ukrainians a renewed sense of purpose and the incentive to fight for European values, to continue transforming their country and to move ahead with liberal reforms, despite the ongoing war. It has also renewed the pressure within the Western Balkan countries that have been waiting in limbo for years. The EU must now take the aspirations of candidate countries seriously and provide them with a realistic, tangible and time-specific roadmap to full accession. Renewed enlargement is the only way to preserve and strengthen the liberal order on the European continent.

It is thus time for the EU to embrace the new reality fully and enhance cooperation on the defence and enlargement fronts. I am proud that liberals are taking the lead on both. The EU needs to overcome any inertia, ‘fatigue’ and resistance to modernising. It must consider the new circumstances and realities, both within and outside its borders. We must give the Ukrainians everything they need to win this atrocious war. We should embrace new members into the EU family without unnecessary delays. We must invest in collective defence and in integrating our military capabilities. We should abandon the unanimity rule and become more efficient, bold, and modern in the international arena. When Europe is united, it is a mighty power that is able to make a difference. A united Europe will help define how the world of tomorrow will look.

Ilhan Kyuchyuk is a Bulgarian Member of the European Parliament from the Renew Europe Group and the Co-President of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE Party).

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