Romania and Bulgaria celebrate joining EU

The blue-and-gold EU flag fluttered across Bucharest and strobe lights flashed through the sky today as Romania prepared to celebrate the country's induction into the European Union.

The blue-and-gold EU flag fluttered across Bucharest and strobe lights flashed through the sky today as Romania prepared to celebrate the country's induction into the European Union.

In Sofia, organisers set up stages for a light-and-fireworks show and outdoor party on Battenberg Square that was expected to draw 40,000 revellers celebrating Bulgaria's New Year's Day entry to the EU.

Romania and Bulgaria bring 30 million people into the European Union on Monday, expanding the bloc's membership to 27 nations.

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. "Not all of us trick and steal."

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

Enlargement Commissioner Olli 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 improving food safety, cleaning up the environment and repairing the roads.

But some Romanians were cautious about what EU membership would mean for them.

Ionut Budi, 38, a club owner in the Black Sea port of Constanta, said the EU would bring Romania much-needed discipline but was concerned there would be too much uniformity.

"The EU comes in nice packaging but it is like a bank loan forced upon us," he said. "Why should a farmer be told he has to grow potatoes when he wants to grow something else?"

Some say the achievement of gaining EU membership was marred by the decision in Britain and Ireland to impose work restrictions on the bloc's newest members - a move they did not make when 10 mostly ex-communist nations joined in 2004.

Sofia and Bucharest strongly protested the restrictions, fearing the decision could influence other EU countries debating whether open up their job markets.

Bulgaria and Romania threw off communism in 1989, applied for EU membership in 1995 and began accession talks in 2000. The negotiations successfully concluded two years ago, and in September, the European Commission concluded that both were ready to join the bloc.

"This is for you and for us a historic moment," French president Jacques Chirac said in a televised address today. "Tomorrow, we will again share the same history and the same destiny."

"It is only natural that you join our family, Europe," he said. "By welcoming you, the old divisions that have hurt our continent have finally disappeared. Sofia and Bucharest are, again, European capitals."

Despite lingering problems with corruption, reforms in justice and agriculture, both countries have had strong economic growth following years of deep recession. Growth is estimated at 5.5% for Bulgaria for 2006, and 7% in Romania.

Still, salaries remain low by western European standards. In Bulgaria, the average monthly wage is €180; in Romania, about €304.

In Bucharest, President Traian Basescu and Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu were to join Rehn and German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier for a ceremony today at government headquarters to raise the EU flag. Germany takes over the rotating EU presidency at midnight.

Foreign ministers Ivailo Kalfin of Bulgaria, Per Stig Moeller of Denmark and Ursula Plassnik of Austria, as well as European Parliament president Josep Borrell, also were to attend the ceremony and then will travel to Sofia on Monday.

Rehn and Steinmeier today visited the medieval city of Sibiu, which becomes the European city of culture in 2007.

"I want to wish you welcome to the EU. It is a new happy era. Happy New Year in the EU," Rehn told residents.

Later today, Basescu and the prime minister were to attend an outdoor extravaganza in the capital - one of the parties around the country expected draw hundreds of thousands of Romanians.

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