Cities celebrate 20 years in EU

1 May 2024

“We must never forget that from war we have created peace, from hatred we have created respect, from division we have created union, from dictatorship and oppression we have created vibrant and sturdy democracies; from poverty we have created prosperity.” So said Ireland’s then leader, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, welcoming the leaders of ten new member states to the European Union at a ceremony in Dublin on 1 May 2004.

Newspaper reports from this day 20 years ago carry remnants of a distant time – the eager participation of the UK, a couple of misguided lines on the outfit chosen by Ireland’s female president for the occasion, and enthusiasm about strong returns continuing in the Irish housing market. It was little remarked upon that along with those ten states, hundreds of cities were simultaneously being welcomed into the European fold.

Since then, local leaders have played an active role in the European Union, both bringing European values and initiatives to local people, and the voices and needs of local people to the European level. Thanks to this, and in no small part to cities’ advocacy work through Eurocities, the significance of local leaders within the enlarged EU can no longer be passed over in silence.

“Regardless of the sector we examine, we can find exemplary cases of how EU membership has contributed to qualitative changes,” says Arvydas Vaitkus, Mayor of Klaipėda, “We are proud to have chosen to walk this path with Europe and are grateful that twenty years ago, Europe believed in our potential and gave us the opportunity to become part of this family.”

Speaking to Eurocities today, already with an eye to future enlargement, MEP Jan Olbrycht, Chair of the European Parliament’s Intergroup on Urban Matters, insists that “the cooperation between cities and especially between EU cities and future candidate countries is extremely important and useful.”

As we celebrate this 20-year anniversary of the EU’s largest enlargement, and look forward to the upcoming European elections that will shape the next five years of the bloc, the examples of Bratislava, Klaipedia, Prague and Riga serve to remind us of the mutually enriching connection between local leaders in 2004 enlargement countries and all levels of government within the wider European Union.

Urban development and sustainability

Over the last two decades, Europe’s commitment to sustainable development has strengthened, lending support the ambitions of local leaders, who in turn are responsible for implementing these policies on the ground. The Slovakian capital’s major strategic plan, Bratislava 2030, and its implementing action plan for 2024-2026 demonstrate a maturing expertise in urban planning, assisted by the opportunities and frameworks provided by the EU.

Comprehensive planning enhances the city’s infrastructure with a focus on sustainable city transport, digitisation of city services, and enhancing climate resilience. Bratislava’s role as a central European hub is further accentuated by its adoption of innovative solutions for city sustainability, ensuring a high-quality life for its residents and positioning it as a model of urban development within the EU.

As with the other cities described in this article, Bratislava is far from being a passive implanter of European policy – rather, the city has teamed up with others and shared its insights to advocate for stronger and more effective European policy.

This bi-directional reinforcement is evident in Riga too. “By celebrating this milestone, Riga is set to honour both the last two decades of EU membership and Latvia’s ongoing commitment to the future of Europe,” says Chairman of the Riga City Council, Vilnis Ķirsis. The city has even made the cut for inclusion in the EU Mission for 100 Climate Neutral and Smart Cities, an initiative supported by Eurocities through NetZeroCities that will drastically reduce the Latvian capital’s carbon footprint, fostering a healthier environment for its residents.

Riga’s dedication is not only to its immediate environmental goals but also to the overarching European values of unity, sustainability, and modernisation. The city leverages EU support to accelerate its transformation into a data-driven, sustainable hub, aligning with broader EU policies on climate and energy independence.

Public space in Klaipeda

In Klaipeda, EU membership has marked a qualitative leap in urban sustainability. Mayor Vaitkus, points to transformations in “public spaces and transportation infrastructure” and the implementation of “climate change mitigation projects” as examples. This transformation is part of a broader strategy to upgrade the physical fabric of the city while introducing the advantages of environmental sustainability directly into the everyday lives of residents.

Projects like the establishment of an eco-friendly regional landfill and the introduction of waste sorting systems exemplify Klaipėda’s commitment to EU environmental standards, which aim for zero municipal waste to landfill. The Polish port city hit this target back in 2023, when for the first time not a single tonne of mixed municipal waste was buried in the regional landfill.

With €681.3 million euros from EU funds, Prague has not only enhanced its infrastructure but also managed to elevate itself to becoming the fourth richest regions in the EU. The city continues to integrate European funds into creating sustainable and vibrant urban spaces, showcasing the tangible benefits of EU membership in urban development.

Truly part of Europe

Bratislava’s experience with EU membership exemplifies how cooperation can foster cultural integration and enhance city advocacy on a global scale. The city has used its position within the EU to build substantial engagement with other European cities. Bratislava is a proud signatory of the Pact of Free Cities, illustrating its commitment to the rule of law and the values of an open society.

This year Bratislava hosts the Pact’s major annual event, concluding with the signing of a joint declaration that will reinforce its advocacy for these core values. Its status as a border city enhances its interaction with neighbouring EU countries, fostering a multicultural atmosphere that contributes to the city’s dynamic development. This has been especially evident in the city’s embrace of Ukrainian refugees.

Riga, similarly, has demonstrated the concordance with its historical values and those of the EU in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine. “Supporting Ukraine and its path to Euro-Atlantic integration is essential for the protection of European values,” Ķirsis asserts, underlining Riga’s role in broader European geopolitics and its commitment to supporting new initiatives that align with the democratic values and human rights that are fundemental the EU’s identity.

In Klaipėda, Mayor Vaitkus notes how EU membership has opened the city’s opened doors to extensive partnerships and economic and cultural exchange: “These include new opportunities for collaboration, acquiring new experiences and knowledge, participation in international projects, and investments for implementing significant changes.”

Such cooperation has resulted in renewed agreements and partnerships with cities across Europe, including Zasnitz, Szczecin, and Gdynia. These collaborations enhance Klaipėda’s cultural integration within the EU, spanning across the realms of culture, health, and education.

EU enlargement anniversary celebrations in Prague
EU enlargement anniversary celebrations in Prague © City of Prague

In Prague, “cultural and historical tradition is firmly linked to Europe,” says Mayor of Prague, Bohuslav Svoboda. “The Czech Republic’s membership of the European Union is therefore only a logical confirmation of these ties. In this context, the anniversary of Prague’s accession to the EU is a welcome opportunity to remind ourselves of all that this bond really consists of.”

In recent years, the city has played host to major events for pan-EU local leaders, such as the Eurocities Annual Conference and the Prague Summit of Cities. These gatherings not only foster dialogue on pressing municipal issues but also showcase Prague’s capacity as a hub for international diplomacy and cultural exchange.

Democracy in action

These four cities’ approach to EU membership, emblematic of the work of cities across the countries now celebrating 20 years in the EU, include emphasis on local democracy, both through community engagement and the active involvement of their residents in shaping the EU’s future.

Bratislava prioritises participative decision-making processes, involving diverse community groups, businesses, and non-profit organisations in urban policies. This model of governance enhances the democratic fabric of the city and ensures diverse voices are heard, fostering a sense of responsibility and belonging.

In Riga, Ķirsis emphasises that central to EU membership is “our collective respect for democracy, rights, and freedoms.” Riga demonstrates this through initiatives like the Neighborhood Centre, a platform for residents to share ideas and engage directly with city planning processes, enhancing civic participation and ensuring the city’s policies are reflective of its community’s needs and aspirations.

Klaipeda’s has placed community engagement and democratic participation at the core of its development strategy. Mayor Vaitkus highlights that “youth and communities have been mobilised, and increased attention has been given to socially vulnerable members of society.”

The city’s efforts are particularly visible in projects like the ‘Mobilising Europe – Engaging Together’ initiative, which encourages residents to participate in discussions about EU policies and democratic processes. Such initiatives promote a deeper understanding and involvement in political processes while preparing local people for active participation in the upcoming European elections and other civic activities.

A future in Europe

As they mark 20 years in the European Union, Bratislava, Klaipėda, Prague and Riga are celebrating the anniversary with both celebration and reflection. Bratislava lights up the historic Primate’s Palace with the EU flag, hosting discussions and enhancing citizen engagement. Klaipėda’s Ethnocultural Centre is inviting residents to an event celebrating EU and NATO that highlights the role of EU funds in revitalising local landmarks and promoting cultural heritage. In Prague, a panel exhibition and a parade featuring flag bearers and music will be accompanied by the bathing of landmarks like the New Town Hall and the Petřín Lookout Tower in blue light.

For Olbrycht, this is also a moment for cities to look to potential further enlargement of the EU. “All debates, either about Cohesion Policy or other policies and also about the results of the EU elections should be analysed or discussed in light of possible future enlargement,” says Olbrycht, while warning that “The enlarged EU will be different than today and will have to face unexpected challenges.”


Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer