Romania, Bulgaria Revel in E.U. Status

Publish date: 02-01-2007
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Millions of Romanians and Bulgarians reveled in their first day as citizens of the European Union on Monday, after a night of fireworks and street parties celebrating their countries' entry into the bloc.

Deemed too politically and economically backward for membership during the E.U.'s first eastward expansion in 2004, the Black Sea neighbors were relieved to join in what political analysts say is likely to be the last enlargement this decade.

Their entry raises the E.U.'s membership to 27 states, almost half of them former communist countries that were largely cut off from Western Europe until 1989.

"Bulgaria's and Romania's accession to the E.U. completes our historic fifth round of enlargement, which peacefully reunified Western and Eastern Europe," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in a statement of congratulations. The commission is the E.U.'s executive arm.

Romania, the larger of the two countries, and Bulgaria will together boost the E.U.'s population by 30 million, to 490 million, but will add just 1 percent to its economic output.

Once ruled by two of the Cold War's most hard-line governments, the pair stretch the E.U.'s borders from the Atlantic and Baltic in the west and north to the Black Sea in the southeast.

Their entry was marred by slowness in fighting graft and organized crime, exacerbating worry in some E.U. states that the bloc may have spread itself too far.

Fearing that new waves of immigration -- one followed the 2004 expansion -- and crime could drive citizens out of jobs and undermine society, some E.U. governments want membership hopefuls Turkey and western Balkan states to wait much longer to enter.

Braving freezing temperatures, groups of Romanians and Bulgarians passed easily across the border shortly after midnight to visit neighboring towns in Hungary and Greece, and across the Danube. Until now, crossing required lengthy passport controls.

In the Romanian port of Sulina, nicknamed "Europolis" in the 19th century, ships sounded sirens for half an hour and people danced along the Danube where it empties into the Black Sea.

"It was a difficult road. . . . Now we are taking a new path, a path to victory and happiness," Romanian President Traian Basescu told a crowd of 40,000 in Bucharest.

In Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, E.U. Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said membership meant Bulgaria could depend on E.U. solidarity as it tries to free five Bulgarian nurses sentenced to death in Libya on charges of infecting hundreds of children with HIV. Bulgaria and its allies say the verdicts are a miscarriage of justice.

"You have our full support," Rehn told a packed concert hall. "You are not alone. You are with the European Union."

The newcomers are eager to tap $53 billion in E.U. funds to overhaul dilapidated infrastructure and boost industry, in hopes of closing a wealth gap with the Western countries. But problems remain. Their economies are growing fast, but per capita income is a third of the E.U. average and many observers fear incompetence will curb benefits of membership.

Despite efforts to tackle corrupt "big fish" politicians, Romania faces major problems with corruption. In Bulgaria, powerful organized crime gangs that emerged from Soviet-era secret services control large parts of the economy, diplomats say, and authorities have failed to convict a single suspect in more than 150 gangland murders since 2001.

Some diplomats fear that having achieved admission, politicians may relax on reforms. E.U. headquarters in Brussels has vowed to penalize the new members if they fall behind.

Bulgarians and Romanians hoped their new status would end the prejudice they felt as E.U. outsiders. "Until today when I have gone to other countries, every waitress, every salesman turned up his nose when hearing I come from Romania," said salesman Sergiu Radu, 27. "I hope this means an end to that shame and frustration."


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