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Romania, Bulgaria party on EU entry with fireworks

Romanians and Bulgarians celebrated with fireworks, pop music concerts, dances and laser-light shows as the two former communist countries joined the European Union at midnight, expanding the bloc to the Black Sea.

Tens of thousands of Romanians and Bulgarians gathered in the main squares of their capital cities Bucharest and Sofia to party as authorities in the two countries promised unmatched shows on New Year's Eve. Political leaders and officials from several EU countries joined to mark accession of the two nations to the world's largest trading bloc. „I know it wasn't always easy to carry out the reforms needed to comply with the very strict rules of the European Union, but it was worth the effort,” European Commission President Jose Barroso said in a video message to Romanians and Bulgarians broadcast in both countries on December 31. Romania and southern neighbor Bulgaria, with a combined population of 30 million people, expand the block to 27 nations and its population to almost half a billion people, the largest of any trading union. The two nations have per capita gross domestic product at a third of the EU average and count on membership to improve their living standards and travel freely within the EU. The EU will „express its solidarity” with Romanians and Bulgarians „through structural funds,” aimed at „helping you catch up with living standards in the EU,” Barroso said. The two countries stand to receive EU subsidies worth €32 billion ($42 billion) for Romania and €11 billion for Bulgaria through 2013.

„This is a giant chance for the new generation to depend solely on itself and on nobody else,” Romanian President Traian Basescu told celebrating Romanians. „Entry in the European Union guarantees you the freedom of deciding for yourselves. Happy New Year Romania and welcome to the European Union!” Official ceremonies started at 7:30 p.m. Bucharest time at the government's headquarters in Victory Square, with speeches by Prime Minister Calin Tariceanu, European Parliament President Josep Borrell and Basescu.
The building, entirely draped with the EU's blue flags with yellow stars on its sides, was lit in light blue as fireworks gushed from its top. EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, representing Germany's current presidency of the EU, as well as Bulgarian, Danish, Hungarian and Austrian foreign ministers Ivailo Kalfin, Per Stig Moller, Kinga Göncz and Ursula Plassnik were also present to mark EU celebrations in Romania and later yesterday in Bulgaria.

Earlier in Sofia thousands of Bulgarians gathered on the Alexander Battenberg square, as five rays of light stemming from Sofia's biggest Christian orthodox cathedral, Alexander Nevski, the Catholic church, the city's mosque, synagogue and the Armenian church formed a pyramid 3,000 meters high as a symbol of Bulgaria's multi-ethnic culture and faiths mixed throughout its 1,300-year history. With its 12% Muslim population of 7.8 million, Bulgaria becomes the first EU member with an indigenous Muslim population, which has lived there for six centuries, given the country's history as part of the Ottoman Empire until 1878.
„Happy accession to the European Union Bulgaria!,” Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev told the celebrating people on the square in central Sofia. „A dream came true yesterday, a dream of generations of Bulgarians, who always wanted to live in peace as free Europeans.” The party continued in all Bulgarian big city-squares amid lavish fireworks, pop and folk music and dances, free champagne and mulled wine.

Lights from the Bulgarian city of Silistra and Romanian city of Calarasi formed an arc at midnight, linking the opposite banks of the Danube River, which divides the two nations. „It will probably be quite chaotic in the beginning while we find our way around with the EU's rules,” Mariana Tasheva, a 38-year old nurse, said in an interview during the celebrations in Sofia. „But it will get better. I hope the EU will bring a much-needed order. We'll travel freely, our children will get a better education, better jobs.” Membership prospects spurred investment in both nations to record levels, reaching 8 billion euros in Romania and €4 billion in Bulgaria this year, the highest since the fall of communism 17 years ago. Bulgaria's economy grew 6.7% in the Q3, while Romania's expanded by 7.8%, the highest since 1990, as foreigners invested in real estate and factories.

Romania's government and local authorities at midnight staged the biggest fireworks and light shows in the country ever, including blue and yellow laser displays to symbolize the EU's flag colors, as well as concerts by dozens of local and foreign music bands, at an estimated cost of almost $4 million. Bucharest's city hall earmarked as much as €1 million ($1.32 million) to stage the EU and New Year anniversary party in the University Square, having President Basescu and visiting EU officials as guests, Mayor Adriean Videanu said. Separately, Romanian Prime Minister Tariceanu and EU officials celebrated in the nearby Revolution Square.
The two Bucharest squares symbolize Romania's break from its communist past 17 years ago, the most violent in any former communist country in eastern Europe including Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, which joined the EU in May 2004 in an earlier wave of the bloc's expansion. Late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena on December 22, 1989, took off in a helicopter under pressure from millions of angry Romanians from the roof of the former Communist Party headquarters in what is yesterday the Revolution Square. The Ceausescus were caught, summarily tried and executed three days later during an anti-communist revolt that left more than 1,100 Romanians dead, most of them in the nearby University Square.

„Twenty years ago I didn't dare to even dream of a night like this,” Claudiu Marin, a 50-year-old electrician, said from Bucharest's Revolution Square, where he took his young son December 31 for the festivities. „EU entry won't mean milk and honey right away, but it definitely restores our right to genuine hope for a normal life in a truly European and democratic country.” In the Romanian central city of Sibiu, which the EU picked as European Cultural Capital of the Year 2007, local authorities organized the biggest fireworks ever seen in the city, as well as live concerts with UK pop music band East 17 and former Smokie soloist Chris Norman.

Bulgaria closed 15 checkpoints yesterday on its borders with EU neighbors Greece to the south and Romania to the north, Assen Assenov, head of the Customs Directorate at the Finance Ministry, said in an interview with state radio Horizont. Greeks, Bulgarians and Romanians will now be able to travel across the three countries freely with personal identity cards, and goods will be shipped through the three nations without waiting at long border queues, he said. „Bulgaria will be a stable, predictable and consistent member of the EU,” Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov said in a speech as EU dignitaries arrived in Sofia and flags of the EU and Bulgaria were hoisted near the monument of the unknown soldier. „We must remember that EU membership did not come as a gift under the Christmas tree. It came with hard work and a lot of work lies ahead of us.” (Bloomberg)