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European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR)
News article24 April 2024Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations3 min read

Speech by President von der Leyen at the European Parliament formal sitting on the 20th anniversary of the 2004 EU Enlargement

Thank you, Madam President, dear Roberta,


Honourable Members,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

When the clock struck midnight, on the 1 May 2004, a whole continent burst into celebration. The flames of bonfires lit up the night in the Baltic states. A thousand fireworks coloured the sea around Malta and Cyprus, and the lakes of Slovenia, and the Ode to Joy resonated in the cities of Central and Eastern Europe, previously on the other side of the Iron Curtain. It 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 twenty years that followed, this promise has been fulfilled.

Our fellow Europeans in the then-new Member States have seen their countries transformed. Your economies have boomed. Your agricultural production has tripled. Your unemployment rates have been cut by half. The power of Europe, together with your ingenuity, has brought a true economic miracle to all your countries. 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. You have empowered our response to the geopolitical challenges we face, from our Eastern Members' resolute support to Ukraine, to Cyprus' leadership in opening a maritime corridor for aid to Gaza. Thanks to you, Europe's voice on the global stage is much more powerful.

Dear friends,

On 1 May 2004 my predecessor, President Prodi, who is here today, pronounced prophetic words. You, President Prodi, said: ‘Today's enlargement is the fifth and the largest in the history of the Union, and it will not be the last.' You were so right. Since then, three more countries have joined our Union. And today, the desire to unite Europe and complete our Union is more important than ever before. 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.

Honourable Members,

It is right that we look forward to future enlargement as we mark the success of the last 20 years. But at the same time, it is my duty today to pass a very stark message about the future of our Union. Because what happens in Ukraine will shape the future of our Union forever. We cannot overlook and we cannot overstate that Russia poses an existential threat not only to Ukraine, but also to Europe. 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. And Ukraine is carrying that heavy burden on its shoulders for all of us and it is paying the ultimate price every day for that. We have seen the devastating attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure and the difficult days on the battlefield. My friends, there is only one way to face up to this. There is only one language Putin understands. And that is: providing Ukraine with means to defend themselves.

Putin believed that we would not stand up for democracy and independence in Ukraine. He was wrong. Putin believed that US military support would not pass the US Congress. He was wrong, again. The military assistance from the United States and our assistance, from the European Union, is an encouragement for us to do even more. And we must be very clear about this. For Europe to win the future – just as it did 20 years ago – Ukraine must win. 

Honourable Members,


Ukraine has made its European choice, and you know what this means. And we have made our Ukrainian choice. Just like we made our choice all those years ago when we welcomed so many countries back home to our Union. The decisions we took together in the 90s and 2000s led to that very special Day of Welcomes in Phoenix Park in Ireland. It led to one of the great European success stories. And the decisions we will take in the next days, weeks and months will decide who wins the future of Europe. So together, let us stay united. Let us stay strong with Ukraine. And let us stay ambitious on enlargement and reform. This is how we will make good on that European promise once again – just as we did 20 years ago. Long live the generation of 2004.

Long live Europe.