Margaret Beckett has hailed yesterday's entry of Bulgaria and Romania into the European Union as good for Britain and Europe.
As the two countries dropped customs controls on their first full day as part of the 27-nation EU, the Foreign Secretary said the process of accession had "transformed" both nations in the 17 years since the collapse of communism.
But Mrs Beckett also acknowledged that progress would be needed on tackling corruption and international crime.
She said: "Joining the European Union is a great achievement for the people of Romania and Bulgaria. Both countries deserve to take their place.
"Since 1989, democracy and freedom of speech have become entrenched and are now taken for granted. In the last few years economic growth in both countries has been rapid and UK trade has boomed alongside it. These two countries will bring their own particular contributions to the EU."
Speaking as Germany took over the EU's presidency, the country's Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said the two states still needed to do more to integrate into the EU, but insisted they would benefit the union's other members. Sergei Stanishev, the Bulgarian Prime Minister, said: "A dream came true today - a dream for generations of Bulgarians who wished to live together with the free and democratic peoples of Europe in peace and prosperity."
Romanian President Traian Basescu also hailed the end of the road to EU membership that began in 1995.
The two countries officially joined the EU at midnight on Sunday amid fireworks celebrations in Sofia and Bucharest that drew tens of thousands of New Year's Eve revellers.
Together, Romania and Bulgaria will increase the EU's population by 30 million, to 490 million, but will add only one per cent to its economic output. Although the Romanian and Bulgarian economies are growing fast - 8.3 and 6.7 per cent respectively, in the third quarter - income per capita is just a third of the EU average.
Membership gives Romanians and Bulgarians rights to free movement across the EU, although Britain and other states have imposed stringent restrictions on their citizens seeking work. The Home Office has spent nearly £280,000 on a campaign to persuade them not to come to Britain unless they are skilled and have been offered a job.
The only Bulgarians and Romanians allowed will be skilled workers with jobs waiting for them, the self- employed and about 20,000 agricultural workers.
Predictions of how many will come vary between 56,000 and 180,000.
But Keith Best, chief executive of the Immigration Advisory Service, said: "The impact will be nothing compared to the eight countries which joined in May 2004.
"The combined population of both countries is less than Poland, just one of the previous tranche. And the traditional migration pattern for these two countries is to the Mediterranean, not to the north."
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, German foreign minister: 'Europe's nations can no longer go it alone'
"Europe is currently going through a difficult phase and people's confidence in the EU has weakened. That is why we must not slacken our efforts to explain why a common European policy is necessary.
We are currently experiencing radical upheaval in the political arena.
The central tasks we face today include economic, social and environmental modernisation in the age of globalisation, security of energy supply in the light of dwindling resources, the fight against terrorism and international organised crime, the promotion of peace and democracy in the world and commitment to the future of our planet.
Only by joining forces can we Europeans accomplish the majority of these tasks. Left to their own devices, the EU member states would be hopelessly out of their depth.
The German EU presidency in 2007 intends to help make the EU more future-oriented.
Our priorities include providing impetus for more growth and employment, making progress on a common energy policy and on climate protection and improving co-operation in the fight against terrorism and crime. With regard to the constitution we aim to restart the EU reform process after a two-year period of reflection.
I believe it is especially important for our presidency to convey a message of optimism. We need the support of people throughout Europe if we are to achieve our common goals."Reuse content