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Munich Security Report: EU and NATO enlargement back on the agenda, but cannot be taken for granted

Discussion with the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy; Photo: Facebook / Munich Security Conference

MUNICH – The EU now unambiguously views enlargement as a geopolitical necessity, even if unity among EU states on accepting new members cannot be taken for granted, while NATO enlargement is again on the agenda as well. This is one of the conclusions of the Munich Security Report 2024, released ahead of the e 60th annual Munich Security Conference, which takes place from 16 to 18 February.

According to the report, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine forced Europeans to recognize the importance of enlargement as a “geostrategic investment.”

“Moving countries out of the gray zone suddenly became a priority”, the report states.

It points out that the EU granted Ukraine and Moldova candidate status and opened accession negotiations with them in record time, while it also granted Georgia candidate status. Also, at the Vilnius Summit in July 2023, the NATO countries reiterated that Ukraine and Georgia will become members.

An opinion poll commissioned by the Munich Security Conference shows that 79% of Ukrainians support NATO accession, while 84% of them support EU accession. Furthermore, 75% believe that the EU should fast-track Ukraine’s EU membership application even if that means lowering its standards for joining.

However, despite verbal commitments to move Eastern Europe out of the gray zone, it is unclear how quickly this will happen and whether the transatlantic partners are willing to pay the price, the report assesses.

“A Hungarian veto on opening EU accession talks with Ukraine (in December 2023) could only be avoided through last-minute concessions and a well-timed “bathroom break,” but this only overcame one of many more veto points on the path toward membership. Member states diverge on the balance between a geopolitical logic that would imply fast-tracking accession for security reasons and the transformative, merit-based logic that has hitherto guided the process”, the report states.

They also disagree on the need for reforming the EU ahead of enlargement. Public support for enlargement cannot be taken for granted indefinitely with debates on the costs of integrating Ukraine unfolding, the report states.

It adds that, meanwhile, NATO’s membership promise to Ukraine and Georgia remains vague, and Allies disagree on concrete steps and interim security guarantees for Ukraine as long as it is fighting a hot war.

The report also briefly analyses the situation in the Western Balkans.

“Little progress on the path to EU membership has also kept the door open for malign Russian influence in the Western Balkans, particularly in Serbia, as well as in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Serbia not only depends on Russia for its energy supply, but Russia can also leverage its historic ties with the Serb population, links to paramilitary and organized crime groups, and penetration of the information environment. These factors help explain why popular support for EU accession in Serbia is the lowest in the region”, it states.

The EU should concretize the notion of staged accession and reward reform progress with gradual access to its institutions and policies, the report recommends.

It adds that NATO Allies should, where necessary, extend bilateral security guarantees in the interim phase until accession.

“Above all, EU and NATO members should double down on their financial and military support for Ukraine, because a Russian victory would be catastrophic not only for Ukraine – a battle-hardened Russia with an economy on war footing would rearm quickly and look for its next victim”, the report concludes.

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