May 1, 2024: 20 years of EU enlargement

The largest enlargement in the history of the European Union to date – 10 countries joined the EU on May 1, 2004 – the EU grew from 15 to 25 member states.

Many places in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia, Cyprus and Malta had reason to celebrate on the night of April 30 to May 1, 2004. The enlargement of the European Union, often referred to as “Eastern enlargement”, was a symbolic act of integration: it was a decisive step towards a united Europe based on economic growth, political stability and democratic values. With the accession of 10 countries, the EU gained 74 million additional EU citizens.

Despite economic crises and the Covid-19 pandemic, 10 countries have managed to achieve economic growth above the average since 2004 – compared to other EU countries. The 10 countries' GDP per capita rose from 59 percent of the EU-27 average in 2004 to 81 percent in 2022. Trade relations between the rest of the EU and the 10 new member states have increased fivefold since 2000. . Since 2004, more than 2.7 million young people from 10 countries have participated in the EU Erasmus+ programme.

Austria has benefited greatly from EU enlargement in 2004

Austria has particularly benefited from the EU enlargement to include 10 states: Austria's exports to the 5 member states Hungary, Slovenia, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland tripled from 2003 to 30 billion euros in 2023. Austria is also a top investor in the region and enjoys many advantages for trade from its central location between Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe.

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On May 1, 2024, the crowd joins celebrations in Dromeja on the border of Austria, Italy and Slovenia ("Triangular boundary region")

May 1, 2004: Accession celebrations in Dromeja on the border of Austria, Italy and Slovenia (the “Triangle”).

Photo by FA BOBO doo, 2004

Integration of the Western Balkan states as a priority of the Austrian federal government

In 2004 the “Grand Round” reached Bulgaria and Romania in 2007 and expanded to include Croatia in 2013. Following the withdrawal of the United Kingdom (“Brexit”), the European Union now consists of 27 member states.

Developments in recent years have revealed the EU's geopolitical importance. The integration of the 6 Western Balkan states of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Albania into the European Union is a particular focus of Austria's foreign and European policy. Kosovo is currently a potential candidate country, with 5 other Western Balkan states and Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Turkey holding candidate country status.

Background: EU accession process

Any European country can apply for membership as long as it respects and commits to uphold the EU's democratic values. The road to the EU is complex. In addition to the various stages an admission candidate passes through, the “Copenhagen Criteria” must be met.

Once the negotiations and necessary reforms are completed and both parties agree, the country can join the EU. All EU member states must give their consent in 3 stages of an accession process.

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