European Parliament ceremony celebrates 20th anniversary of EU’s largest-ever expansion

A ceremony in the European Parliament on April 24 celebrated the 20th anniversary of the largest-ever expansion of the European Union, though references to the accomplishments of the past two decades were accompanied by several to the war in Ukraine, and Russia as an existential threat to Europe.

Cyprus, Czechia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia became members on May 1 2004.

The April 18 ceremony at the European Parliament was held in the week of its final plenary sitting ahead of bloc-wide European Parliament elections from June 6 to 9.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, addressing the ceremony, said that the 2004 expansion “was not just the birth of a larger Union; it was the birth of a new era.

“It was a night of promise, because Europe is a promise: the promise that all Europeans can be masters of their own destiny. The promise of freedom and stability, peace and prosperity. And in the 20 years that followed, this promise has been fulfilled,” Von der Leyen said.

Noting how the EU 2004 member states’ economies had been bolstered by membership, she said: “In so many different ways, Europe has made you stronger. But you have made Europe so much stronger, too”.

People and companies across Europe have enjoyed new opportunities to study and work, export and invest in a wider Union, Von der Leyen said.

“You have empowered our response to the geopolitical challenges we all face, from our Eastern Members’ resolute support to Ukraine, to Cyprus’ leadership in opening a maritime corridor for aid to Gaza.”

Von der Leyen noted that since 2004, three more countries had joined the EU – Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia – and added that the “the Western Balkans is moving ever closer to us”.

“We took the historic decision to launch negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova, while the people of Georgia make no secret of their European dreams too.”

Von der Leyen said that what happens in Ukraine will shape the future of the EU forever.

“We cannot overlook and we cannot overstate that Russia poses an existential threat not only to Ukraine, but also to Europe,” she said.

“A Putin win would not only change the map, it would not only mask the face of the Ukrainian nation, but it would change the course of European history. Our Union would never be the same.

“Ukraine is carrying that heavy burden on its shoulders for all of us and it is paying the ultimate price every day for that. For Europe to win the future – just as it did 20 years ago – Ukraine must win.”

The ceremony, also addressed by European Parliament President Roberto Metsola, former European Parliament President Pat Cox and former European Commission President Romano Prodi, saw invited guests – people born in May 2004 – given the opportunity to answer questions of their countries’ leaders from that time.

All spoke of their highly positive emotions and the benefits that EU membership had brought, while Estonia’s former foreign minister, Christina Ojuland, said: “Had Estonia not joined, we would now be in the same position as Georgia and Ukraine”.

There were messages from representatives of the political groups, with the European People’s Party’s Jerzy Buzek, of Poland, saying that the 2004 enlargement really had been a reunification of Europe.

“Never for one second stop thinking about Ukraine,” Buzek said.

The Socialists and Democrats group’s Leszek Miller, who was Prime Minister of Poland at the time of the enlargement, said that it was a time that Europe became Europe again.

Renew Europe’s Dita Charanzova, an MEP from Czechia, said that while there had been divides after the enlargement – for example, west and east – in the intervening time it was “no longer us and them” but had become “we”.

“We still have national interests but we are equal members of the same club,” Charanzova said, adding “we must refuse to go back to nationalism and the divided Europe of our parents”.

Jaak Madison, speaking for the Identity and Democracy group, said that for Estonia, security was the most important question. This could be seen in the case of Ukraine and Russia should be prevented from achieving the aims of is imperialism.

He said that at the time of enlargement, most people had wanted to join a union of nations, but now there was talk of common migration policy and common taxes.

According to Madison, in Estonia, while 75 per cent supported EU membership, two-thirds were against common taxes, a common migration policy and more power for the European Parliament and European Commission.

The ceremony concluded with MEPs and guest rising for a rendition of the EU anthem by the Les Voix de Stras’ musical ensemble.

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