Romania and Bulgaria join EU

Posted in Europe | 02-Jan-07 | Author: Dan Bilefsky| Source: International Herald Tribune

A Romanian soldier raises the European Union flag in front of Victoria palace, Romania's government headquarters, in Bucharest.

BRUSSELS: Romania and Bulgaria joined the European Union on New Year's Day, helping to end geographic divisions left over from the Cold War and extending the borders of the now 27-member bloc eastward to the Black Sea.

Thousands of revelers gathered Sunday night in the main squares of their national capitals, Bucharest and Sofia, embracing and cheering when the clock struck midnight. EU flags fluttered overhead and fireworks lit up the sky.

In Bucharest, President Traian Basescu said EU entry marked the end of a long and painful 17-year process. "We arrived in Europe, welcome to Europe," he said to rapturous applause from a crowd in University Square. "This is an enormous chance for new generations."

In the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, revelers gathered in Battenberg Square. Fireworks filled the sky over the building where the Communist Party once had its headquarters. "We are home!" said a headline in the Bulgarian newspaper Trud.

Romania and Bulgaria, now the EU's poorest members, hope that membership will help them raise per capita wealth, which is one-third of the EU average. Their accession, the EU's second wave of enlargement into formerly Communist Eastern Europe, also will give the Union a stable political and economic anchor in a region surrounded by unstable neighbors.

Romania, with a population of about 22 million, becomes the EU's seventh- largest member; it is about half the size of Poland but double the size of Hungary and Czech Republic. Bulgaria, with a population of 7.7 million, is far smaller.

For Romania, which suffered one of Eastern Europe's most brutal Communist dictatorships under Nicolae Ceausescu before he was overthrown in 1989, being moored to the EU marks an important symbolic final break with a difficult past. For Bulgaria, whose history is marked by conflicts with the Ottoman Empire and Soviet occupation, EU membership is also viewed as a source of economic and democratic stability.

The entry of the Balkan countries comes as the EU is experiencing expansion fatigue following the bloc's enlargement in May 2004 from 15 countries to 25.

With the latest additions, the EU has a population of nearly 489 million. It will work in 32 official languages, ranging from Bulgarian to Gaelic, while its Brussels bureaucracy will expand to encompass 27 European commissioners.

The Union also now includes countries where per capita income is less than €4,000, or $5,270, a year. This has prompted some members, like France, to worry that the EU will become economically overburdened, institutionally unwieldy and ultimately unmanageable.

European wariness about the future shape of the Union was reflected in French and Dutch rejections of a proposed EU constitution in referendums in 2005. Since then, there have been calls across the bloc for a slowing of the pace of enlargement.

Such ambivalence, stoked by fears of immigration and Europe's lackluster economic performance, has been most prominently expressed in opposition to admitting Muslim Turkey. But it also has cast a shadow over the admission of Romania and Bulgaria, which have been criticized for corruption that has lingered since Communist times.

European countries led by Britain, with the enthusiastic backing of the United States, have supported further EU expansion because the promise of membership has helped accelerate economic and political change in Europe, ranging from the arrest of war criminals in Croatia to the liberalization of Turkey's banking sector.

The EU's cautious approach to further expansion was reflected in the toughest conditions ever imposed on EU entrants, including the creation of a so-called nuclear option allowing the European Commission to delay the accession of Romania and Bulgaria if they fell behind on changes required for entry.

Even now that they are in the Union, the two countries will be subject to unprecedented safeguards designed to keep them from backtracking. These include the commission's power to suspend some of the rights that come with membership, like generous economic aid. The commission also has threatened to suspend recognition of arrest warrants and decisions made by Bulgarian courts if the country does not improve judicial reforms.

Romania expects to receive as much as €1.7 billion in the first year after entry, while Bulgaria, with a smaller population, would be entitled to €661 million.

The entry of the two countries comes as the EU is grappling with fears that westward migration from its poorer members in the east risks undermining the bloc's social standards. At the time of the EU's last enlargement, in May 2004, the European Commission estimated that the number of migrants throughout the bloc would total 70,000 to 150,000 a year; in practice, Britain alone is estimated to have received up to 600,000 in the past three years.

Consequently, job-seekers from Romania and Bulgaria are likely to face stiff restrictions in the rest of the EU. Britain, Sweden and Ireland, which opened their doors to EU newcomers in 2004, have already signaled that they are less inclined to do so now. Romanians and Bulgarians may also face obstacles in labor markets in Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, which are themselves confronting restrictions by countries further west.

At a recent summit meeting in Brussels, EU leaders toughened their tone on enlargement but

stopped short of setting new hurdles to expansion. They reaffirmed backing for the eventual membership of Turkey and the western Balkan states: Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. But they insisted that expansion could not proceed unless the EU changed its outmoded institutions, including a decision-making system in which national vetoes remain widespread.

Romania and Bulgaria, both economically liberal supporters of the United States as well as members of NATO, are likely to fall into the EU's camp of countries with a bias against state protectionism. Analysts predict they will be less prone to divisiveness than newcomers like Poland because they will be eager to prove their European credentials to their new partners, some of whom were wary of letting them in.