Romania, Bulgaria join EU

2007-01-01 19:17

Bucharest - Blue-and-gold EU flags fluttered and fireworks thundered in Romania and Bulgaria at midnight, as the two Balkan nations became the latest countries to join the European Union.

"It was hard, but we arrived at the end of the road. It is the road of our future. It is the road of our joy," Romanian President Traian Basescu said, prompting cheers from a crowd of tens of thousands of revellers packed into University Square.

"We arrived in Europe. Welcome to Europe," Basescu said from a stage, where he was joined by EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn and government ministers. Foreign ministers of Germany, Denmark, Austria and Hungary, also attending, wished Romanian citizens a Happy New Year. Officials were flying later on Monday to Bulgaria for celebrations there.

Romania and Bulgaria bring 30 million new members to the union, and expand the number of member nations in the bloc to 27.

Most important dates

"Entering the European Union, we are assured peace and prosperity. This is an enormous chance for new generations," Basescu said as the clock ticked down to midnight. He later waved a huge Romanian flag and said he hoped Romanians would retain their national identity.

In the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, thousands of revelers crammed in Battenberg Square cheered and embraced each other as the clock struck midnight.

Fireworks lit the sky over the building where the Communist Party once held its headquarters, and the EU's anthem sounded out over loudspeakers.

In an emotional address to the nation minutes before midnight, Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov called the country's EU entry a "heavenly moment".

"The day we are welcoming - January 1 2007 - will undoubtedly find its place among the most important dates in our national history," said Parvanov. "But let's make it clear - our future success as a nation depends not on European funds and resources, but on our own work."

Joining under strict conditions

The festivities in Bucharest ended a day of celebrations. Earlier the union's flag was hoisted 20m at a ceremony attended by Basescu, Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu, Rehn and EU Parliament President Josep Borrell.

But the two ex-communist Balkan nations - hailing from one of the poorest corners of Europe - are joining under strict conditions and at a time when EU leaders are putting the brakes on further enlargement.

"Europe is adopting us like poor relatives or orphans, but I hope they will become fond of us because we are hardworking and inventive," said Ana Maria Zarnescu, 64, a retiree from the city of Cluj.

Both countries must report to the EU every six months to show progress in reforms - or risk losing a chunk of economic aid.

Rehn praised Romania and Bulgaria for "impressive reforms in strengthening democracy, modernising their countries, making their justice systems more efficient and independent."

He said EU membership would "bring concrete improvements to the everyday life of citizens" by increasing food safety, cleaning up the environment and repairing roads.