Romanians and Bulgarians celebrated the most historic moment for their countries since they overthrew communism in 1989, marking their entry into the European Union with festivities that added doses of pride and hope to the usual New Year’s revelry.
In Bucharest, Romania’s capital, in the square where an angry crowd shouted down Nicolae Ceausescu, the communist dictator, just before his overthrow in December 1989, tens of thousands counted down the seconds to midnight. Fireworks then lit the night sky and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy played while small groups formed circles and danced the Hora, a traditional Romania folk dance.
Several people in the crowd talked of their hope for a better life within the EU. Conscious of Romania’s poor international image, many also said they believed Romania now had a chance to make a better name for itself.
“This is an opportunity to show the people of Europe what is good in Romania,” said Pamela Craciun, 23.
Marian Gheorghescu, 33, who carried his 4 year-old son, Bogdan, on his shoulders, said he believed EU membership would secure a bright future for his children. “I hope in this country he will have a life a thousand times better than mine,” he said.
Earlier in the evening, Traian Basescu, the president, and Calin Tariceanu, the prime minister, were joined by Joseph Borrell, president of the European Parliament, and Olli Rehn, the EU’s enlargement commissioner, for a ceremonial raising of the EU flag.
Mr Basescu touched on the widespread feeling among Romanians that the country was excluded from its rightful place in Europe since the Soviet Union consolidated its hold on eastern Europe following the second world war. “This represents the will of the Romanian people to come back to Europe,” he said.
In Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, an equally large crowd inundated Batenberg Square for a similar celebration featuring fireworks, rock music and flag waving.
Georgi Parvanov, Bulgaria’s president, called the night “among the most important dates in Bulgaria’s history”.
In a recorded video message, Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, delivered a congratulatory message to the crowd in Sofia. “Welcoming two new members in the family, we know that our culture and heritage will be richer and our economy will be boosted,” he said.
This latest enlargement of the EU adds 29m, mostly poor, new citizens to the union and stretches its borders to the Black Sea. Romania and Bulgaria each has a per capita GDP equal to about one-third the EU average.
When they awake on Monday, little will have changed for the average Bulgarian or Romanian. Corruption, incompetence and a lack of infrastructure will remain as obstacles to alleviating widespread poverty, especially in the countryside. Nor will they enjoy all the rights of EU citizens. Fearing an influx of cheap labour, most EU members have restricted the ability of Romanians and Bulgarians to find legal work in their countries.
Other new tests will emerge, as well. Both countries have so far fallen behind in preparations for handling the huge increase in EU funds available to them.
Romania and Bulgaria will also be under intense scrutiny by EU officials in the coming months watching over whether Sofia and Bucharest fulfil their promises to continue key reforms. Brussels has established a much tougher monitoring system than for the eight central European countries that joined the EU in 2004.
Particular attention will be paid in both countries to the fight against corruption and the continuation of reforms in the judiciary.
Romania and Bulgaria have made significant progress in recent years in these areas, motivated largely by the desire to join the EU. However, many worry that accession will remove the pressure that led to reforms.
Said Ionel Dancu, editor of the Romanian magazine Eurolider: “Our politicians are doing their jobs only under pressure from the EU.”
With core EU countries tiring of enlargement demands, how well Romania and Bulgarian proceed with reforms could have important consequences for other countries in southeast Europe, like Croatia and Macedonia, still knocking on the EU’s door.
Not all the pressure, however, will be on the new members. Bulgarians have voiced an immediate demand for help from the EU in securing the freedom of five Bulgarian nurses who, along with a Palestinian doctor, were sentenced to death by a Libyan court last week for allegedly infecting more than 400 children with HIV.
The verdict and sentencing outraged Bulgarians, who have long called for a more active diplomatic effort from the EU on the nurses’ behalf. Last night, the vast majority of those celebrating Bulgaria’s EU entry wore red, white and green ribbon – the country’s national colours – showing their support for the five nurses.
In a recent commentary, Milena Hristova, editor of the Sofia News Agency wrote that “the trial in Libya will be Sofia’s first test for Brussels”.