On the 20th anniversary of their accession to the European Union, the Eastern European states celebrated their EU membership. On May 1, 2004, ten countries joined the EU: Czechia, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Cyprus and Malta.

Poland found its place on May 1, 2004, said Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski on Wednesday at a meeting with his German colleague Annalena Baerbock in the German-Polish sister cities Frankfurt (Oder) and Slubice: “Among friends, among allies, in Europe, at home. This is what generations of Poles have fought for.” Baerbock emphasised that the entire European Union had benefited from the enlargement to include the former Eastern Bloc countries.

Baerbock added that European integration “does not fall from the sky”, but rather needs strong and courageous responsibility. According to her, because of the ongoing war in Ukraine the continent “cannot afford grey areas in Europe”. “The EU must be reformed to be stronger in security policy, to speak with one voice, and at the same time accept those countries that also want to become part of this union of freedom and security,” she said. 

Annalena Baerbock (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen), Bundesaußenministerin, und Radoslaw Sikorski, Außenminister von Polen, nehmen an einer Pressekonferenz zum 20. Jahrestag des EU-Beitritts von Polen teil.
Annalena Baerbock (Alliance 90/The Greens), Federal Foreign Minister, and Radoslaw Sikorski, Foreign Minister of Poland, take part in a press conference on the 20th anniversary of Poland’s accession to the EU. Photo: Patrick Pleul/dpa

A joint statement by the presidents of the Baltic states on Wednesday read: “We have experienced tremendous economic growth, stability and security, while at the same time representing a remarkable success story of European integration and transformation.” The heads of state Alar Karis (Estonia), Edgars Rinkēvičs (Latvia) and Gitanas Nausėda (Lithuania) went on to write: “The inscription ‘European Union’ appeared on the passports of our citizens, marking a triumphant return to our rightful historical place as members of the European family.”

On Tuesday, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier celebrated the historic anniversary together with Czech President Petr Pavel in Prague. Both heads of state spoke out in favour of admitting further candidate countries to the European Union. “If we leave the Western Balkan states, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia at the door for too long, we will hand them over to players like Russia, who do not mean well by Europeans and Europe at all,” warned Pavel. Steinmeier also said: “The states of the Western Balkans, Ukraine and Moldova belong to a free Europe and to our Union.”

Charles Michel: Enlargement a geopolitical imperative

The European Union and the candidate countries must be ready for enlargement by 2030, said the President of the European Council, Charles Michel on Monday at the ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of EU enlargement in 2004. He added that the next wave of EU enlargement represents a geopolitical imperative and “a date with history”. He emphasised that enlargement is the cornerstone of the EU’s strategic sovereignty. 

“Candidate countries and EU Institutions have a lot of work to do. I repeat my firm belief that we must be ready to enlarge, on both sides, by 2030,” Michel said. He explained that for the candidates this means implementing the necessary reforms and resolving all bilateral disputes, and for the EU reforming the program and budget and the decision-making process. “We are working hard with the 27 member states to prepare the strategic agenda. It will serve as a foundation for the next five years.”

Necessary reforms

In this sense, the Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib and the European Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency, Věra Jourová, advocated promoting decisions by qualified majority instead of unanimity in the areas of Defense and Foreign Affairs. They were “absolutely existential”, in the words of Jourová, who anticipated that the right of veto will be one of the central topics of the discussions on enlargement. 

Others, she said, will be the future of Article 7 – the procedure that allows a member country’s rights of membership to be suspended due to problems with the rule of law, open until now to Hungary and Poland – as well as the budget, given that it will be necessary for countries have the capacity to absorb European funds.  

“The EU is above all a union of values, not an ATM,” Lahbib said, adding that the EU must energise its single market and reform its decision-making processes to react more agilely and “solve the problem of sometimes abusive vetoes”.

At a meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels on Tuesday, the representatives of all the ten candidate countries for accession were included for the first time –- Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Georgia, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo, Turkey and Ukraine. Jourová also highlighted at that conference that this was “a good rehearsal” of what it would be like to debate with 37 members.

Turkey became an EU candidate in 1999 – and has probably never been further away from membership than it is today. Theoretically, a candidate country can never become a member.

Member states currently have differing priorities regarding the accession – with the war in Ukraine being one significant factor: 

A number of Danish MEPs for example, from the Greens in SF to ruling party Venstre expressed support for EU expansion to 30 countries or more. Morten Løkkegaard, the leading candidate for the governing party Venstre said he would like Ukraine, Moldova and North Macedonia to be the first to join the EU. He warned of a potential Russian influence post-Ukraine conflict and said he was opposed to Turkey’s membership.

“There’s a ‘before’ and an ‘after’ to the war in Ukraine. If we don’t get these countries on board, they will soon fall under Putin’s clammy hand.” 

Western Balkans still waiting

The  Western Balkan region includes Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo. 

In Brussels, Montenegro is considered to be the furthest along in the accession process. EU enlargement is not expected until the end of the decade at the earliest. The EU has been conducting accession negotiations with Montenegro since 2012.

In March, the EU decided to start accession negotiations with Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH). However, the first accession conference is only to be organised once the country has implemented unfulfilled reform requirements, for example in the fight against corruption and organised crime. Despite continuous efforts, promises, and significant progress, due to frequent internal political disagreements, BiH faces challenges on its path to EU membership.

“Our generation is now faced with the task of defending and strengthening the European project of peace and freedom, even if it costs an incredible amount of energy,” Baerbock said. She added that reforms are necessary for this to succeed. This would also include fewer veto options in the EU Council.

North Macedonia has been an EU candidate for 17 years. In line with the EU’s criteria for accession negotiations, the nation must fully embrace the EU acquis and push forward reforms, especially in areas like judicial reform and combating corruption and organised crime. Regional collaboration and positive neighbourly relations are crucial for North Macedonia’s enlargement process. Efforts to engage inclusively in regional cooperation and uphold bilateral agreements, such as the Prespa Agreement with Greece and the Treaty on Good Neighborly Relations with Bulgaria, are pivotal.

North Macedonia has pledged to enact constitutional amendments aimed at bolstering the rights of minorities. The focus is on integrating citizens, like Bulgarians, residing within the state’s borders into the constitutional framework.

The opposition however opposes the necessary constitutional changes, and parliament failed to secure the necessary majority for constitutional changes, stalling North Macedonia’s European aspirations.

Slovenia – still high support for EU

By joining the EU, Slovenia has fulfilled one of the key strategic foreign policy objectives it set after independence. Support for the EU among Slovenians remains high and above average compared to other EU members, and there are no parliamentary parties that are considered eurosceptic. Yet some insiders believe that in recent years there has been too little systematic investment in European policy and the main drivers of economic growth to make Slovenia one of the more successful and visible members of the union.

Among the new member states, Slovenia has also grown economically, but much slower than the other countries that joined the EU at the same time or even later. At the time of EU accession, Slovenia was at 88 percent of the EU average, measured in terms of GDP per capita; now it is at 91 percent. Over the 20 years of membership, Slovenia has received a total of 13.5 billion euros from the EU budget and paid in 8.7 billion euros, leaving a surplus of 4.8 billion euros in EU funds over that period. But it has made good use of the benefits of the internal market, which has boosted trade in goods and services.

Successful European integration – with unresolved issues

On Tuesday, Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová described the integration into the Union and NATO as one of the most important and successful moments of Slovakia in its modern history. “It was a success of the whole country, of all its citizens,” the head of state stressed. She recalled that the importance of membership was reflected in the country’s everyday life. “Through the development of infrastructure, job opportunities, but also a safer Slovakia,” she added. 

Čaputová also stated that although the EU and NATO have undergone changes over two decades, the same rules that applied when Slovakia joined still apply in both groupings. “Each member country must remain a functioning democracy,” she reminded.

Von der Leyen: States like Czechia teach EU lot about Russia’s behaviour 

In an interview end of April with several news agencies, among them the Czech News Agency CTK, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen that “thanks to the bitter experience that countries in Central and Eastern Europe had with the Soviet Union, the EU has learned a lot about the patterns of behaviour of the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin and has become more vigilant”.

Von der Leyen added that the European Union is not perfect, “but the benefits of EU membership are enormous”. The enlargement also changed the status of the EU itself. It gained much more weight and importance. “Of course we are much stronger by 27 than we were with 15 [of us] at that time,” von der Leyen said.

Von der Leyen stressed that the living standards of EU residents increased, people stayed in Poland instead of migrating to the western countries. The enlargement of the EU by ten countries has also had huge economic benefits. The EU market has become one of the largest internal markets in the world and trade within the EU has increased by 40 percent compared to 2004. “In the ten new member states, six million new jobs have been created in those 20 years, and unemployment has halved,” von der Leyen said.

This article is published weekly. The content is based on news by agencies participating in the enr.