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Letting Ukraine into the EU will reinforce, not undermine, Europe’s security

Many Europeans fail to realise that EU enlargement is the only way to counter Russia and China – but this week, leaders must act

Policy brief in European Union 5 min read

Volodymyr ZELENSKYY (President of Ukraine, Ukraine)
Volodymyr ZELENSKYY (President of Ukraine, Ukraine) | Copyright: European Union

The Ukrainian counteroffensive has stalled. For the first time since the outbreak of the war, the feeling that Russia may actually be winning is taking root. The long-applauded Western resolve in support of Ukraine is waning. The Western Balkans are broiling. And next year’s presidential election in the United States does not bode well for Europe. In this context, the timing of the summit of EU leaders on 14-15 December could make it the most consequential in the bloc’s recent history.

For EU leaders, there is pressure to open accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova and agree a €50 billion package of financial help for Kyiv – and they would be well advised not to underestimate the gravity of these two decisions.

They need to send a strong signal to Russian president Vladimir Putin that his hopes to turn the tide of the war to his benefit are grossly premature. They must leave no doubt about the EU’s commitment to bringing Ukraine into the European bloc. And, more broadly, they must convey to European citizens why efforts to integrate Ukraine, and other countries, are the right investment for the future of the EU.

Such decisive action is needed more than ever. As a new opinion poll shows, large numbers of European citizens believe that Ukraine’s membership of the EU would undermine (45 per cent, on average) rather than strengthen (25 per cent) Europe’s security. Asked about the impact on their own country, only 15 per cent of the French and 20 per cent of the Germans expect any positives to manifest for their country’s security from such a move (and 39 per cent and 47 per cent, respectively, believe the outcome will be negative). Only in Poland do positive opinions clearly prevail (41 per cent versus 30 per cent).

For the Western Balkan countries, there are similarly gloomy views, with few Europeans seeing their possible accession as having any upswing in benefits for the EU’s security (23 per cent versus 33 per cent believing the opposite). The results of the survey – conducted in six EU member states (Germany, France, Denmark, Poland, Romania and Austria) by ECFR – are sobering, and a warning. European politicians continuously restate that EU enlargement is necessary for geopolitical reasons. But they have not yet managed to bring European societies on board to support this view. The worry that accepting new members could drag the EU into conflicts appears to be greater than the conviction that their membership would insulate Europe from Russian or Chinese influences.

Still, the conversation remains open. A plurality (37 per cent, on average) of the citizens in the six countries surveyed by the ECFR believe that Ukraine should be able to join the EU – and this often includes people who are aware of the negative consequences of such an event. It seems that the emotional support for Ukrainians is still strong and outweighs rational considerations.

There is less enthusiasm for the Western Balkans countries, though. Only 20-30 per cent of Europeans would like to see them as future members of the bloc. The differences in attitudes across the EU are significant. In Denmark and Poland, close to half of the populations (50 per cent and 47 per cent, respectively) support Ukraine’s accession. In Austria, only 28 per cent are in favour, while 52 per cent are against it. But in most countries, 20-40 per cent of respondents do not have an opinion or are indifferent to the prospect of Ukraine’s accession, as well as to enlargement in general. This suggests that there is a large constituency of Europeans who can still be convinced that their own future depends – like never before – on the EU’s resolve to make use of its main asset: integration of its European neighbours into the sphere of peace and economic prosperity.

The urgency to make meaningful steps towards this goal could not be more obvious. Should Ukraine lose not only a part of its territory, but also belief in the credibility of the EU’s offer, it will have dramatic consequences for Europe. In order to become a stable and predictable country, Ukraine needs to win the war. The key measure of its victory, however, will not be the restoration of full control of its territory, but winning control of its future as a European, prosperous and democratic country. The EU is Ukraine’s only chance. If this chance is lost, the EU will bear not only the responsibility but also the burden of dealing with the massive geopolitical impact of this failure. The same is true for the Western Balkans. It is perhaps the very last moment to stop those countries drifting away into the Russian or Chinese orbits.

Neither the European public nor many EU leaders seem to fully grasp the gravity of this situation. They appear to believe that maintaining the status quo is possible and the institutional reform debate constitutes an adequate response to the geopolitical challenges. This is wrong and dangerous. At this week’s summit, it is imperative that leaders do not shy away from alarmist language and tough decisions. They need to recognise that EU unity is not a goal in itself and overcome Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban’s obstructionism by setting up the Ukraine facility – if needed, in a coalition of the willing, excluding Hungary.

They should open negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova, commit to necessary military support in 2024 and declare that the EU will prepare the next budget for enlargement. They should also agree that bilateral disputes between EU member states and candidate countries will be dealt with outside the enlargement policy framework. This would help ensure that, by 2028, candidate countries that have fulfilled the EU’s requisite criteria and accepted a strong rule of law conditionality will, at the very least, enjoy the financial and economic benefits of integration.

There is no other way to underline the EU’s commitment to enlargement as a crucial geopolitical choice than to give clear commitments to Ukraine and other candidate countries

There is no other way to underline the EU’s commitment to enlargement as a crucial geopolitical choice than to give clear commitments to Ukraine and other candidate countries. A clear message is also needed for citizens of the existing EU27, and the many who are still to be persuaded of the need for enlargement. They need to realise that their security and stability are at risk. Political elites will not win the battle for hearts and minds with sermons. They need to walk the walk.

This article was first published in The Guardian on 12 December. It was also published in Publico, L’Obs, Tagesspiegel, El Espagnol, Berlingske, Huffingtonpost Italia, and Hospodarske noviny.

Key findings from ECFR’s multi-country survey on enlargement and survey-related graphics can be found here.

This paper was first published in European Council on Foreign Relations on 14 December 2023.

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