THOUSANDS of Bulgarians and Romanians jammed the downtown cores of Sophia and Bucharest on December 31 to do more than just ring in the New Year - they were there to celebrate their entry to the European Union as the bloc's 26th and 27th members, more than 17 years after the end of communism.
Lasers, fireworks, and emotional speeches punctuated the ceremonies.
"This is a day of historical justice, because Bulgarians have always been Europeans in spirit and identity," said Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov.
"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 in Bucharest.
According to local press reports, crowds of Romanians and Bulgarians began streaming across borders to Greece and Hungary as well as over the Danube River after midnight, when lengthy passport controls were finally lifted.
"Bulgaria's and Romania's accession to the EU completes our historic fifth round of enlargement, which peacefully reunified Western and Eastern Europe," said European Commission President José Manuel Barosso in a prepared statement.
EU Commissioner for Enlargement Olli Rehn, who was on hand in Sophia, promised that the Union would stand by the five Bulgarian nurses who have been sentenced to death in Libya for allegedly infecting 400 patients with AIDS. "You are not alone," he said. "You are with the European Union."
But behind the festivities and the avowals of unity, the EU was considerably less elated at the addition of the two new members than it had been in 2004, when 10 new members joined, including Slovakia (see chart).
In the summer of 2006, the two countries risked having their membership delayed by a year due to concerns over their ability to meet the conditions for entry. The EU called for both to improve their record on corruption and on fighting organized crime, especially in Bulgaria. The Union also called for more progress in judicial reform and improving food quality.
As members, the two countries will not enjoy all of the privileges of other EU states, and Brussels will be regularly checking up to make sure that they are not slacking off on reforms. If they do ease up, they risk having their subsidies from EU funds stopped, which in the next seven years could come to 30 billion euros in the case of Romania, and 11 billion for Bulgaria.
The two countries are also the poorest in the 27-member EU, with an average standard of living that is about one-third of the EU norm, and average monthly wages of about 200 euros. While they added 30 million people to the EU's total population, bringing it to 490 million, they brought only one percent to its economic output.
Of the original EU15 members, only the Scandinavian countries opened their labour markets to Romanian and Bulgarian nationals, with the rest imposing 12 to 24-month "transition periods", after which they will review the matter. Of the 10 states that joined in 2004, five opened their labour markets to the newcomers, including Slovakia.
Amid fears that organized crime from Bulgaria in particular could spread West, Britain announced recently that it would be sending five Scotland Yard detectives to Sophia to train local police. The Bulgarian capital has seen 100 suspected organized crime killings in the past five years, while not one of the killers has been convicted.
Meanwhile, Brussels has dropped Bulgaria from the EU's "single sky" convention over safety concerns, meaning the country will have to negotiate individual air transport arrangements with each EU member state.
And on top of fears in the older EU countries of mass migration from the new member states, many also worry that Bulgaria and Romania will encourage factories to pull up stakes and move east, as happened last year in Slovakia, when German car parts maker Draxlmeier at the last moment backed out of a planned investment in Rimavská Sobota and moved to Romania.
ČSOB bank analyst Marek Gábriš said that the addition of the two countries "creates a challenge for Slovakia [to improve its investment environment], as investors may be tempted to move their operations further east".
However, Bulgarian Ambassador to Slovakia Ognian Garkov said that the older EU members had nothing to fear.
"It's possible that Bulgaria will draw investments from existing members, but Bulgaria is not a very big country," he told The Slovak Spectator on December 29. "I think our state investment agency is looking more to Western Europe, the US, Canada and Japan than to New Europe for new investments.
"Besides, Bulgarians are correct people, and I think there are enough investments in the world to go around."
8. Jan 2007 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson