Celebrations as Romania and Bulgaria join EU

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Blue-and-gold EU flags fluttered and fireworks thundered in Romania and Bulgaria at the stroke of midnight, as the two Balkan nations became the latest countries to join the European Union.

"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, prompting cheers from a crowd of tens of thousands of New Year revellers packed into University Square.

"We arrived in Europe. Welcome to Europe," Basescu said from a stage, where he was joined by EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn and government ministers.

Foreign ministers of Germany, Denmark, Austria and Hungary, also attending, wished Romanian citizens a happy New Year before flying to Bulgaria later today for celebrations there.

Romania and Bulgaria bring 30 million new members to the union and expand the number of member nations in the bloc to 27.

"Entering the European Union, we are assured peace and prosperity. This is an enormous chance for new generations," Basescu said as the clock ticked down to midnight. He later waved a huge Romanian flag and said he hoped Romanians would retain their national identity.

In the Bulgarian capital Sofia, thousands of revellers crammed in Battenberg Square cheered and embraced each other as the clock struck midnight.

Fireworks lit the sky over the building where the Communist Party once held its headquarters, and the European Union's anthem sounded out over loudspeakers.

In an emotional address to the nation minutes before midnight, Bulgarian president Georgi Parvanov called the country's EU entry a "heavenly moment".

"The day we are welcoming - January 1 2007 - will undoubtedly find its place among the most important dates in our national history," Parvanov said. "But let's make it clear - our future success as a nation depends not on European funds and resources, but on our own work."

The festivities in Bucharest ended a day of celebrations. Earlier the union's flag was hoisted 66 feet at a ceremony attended by Basescu, prime minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu, Rehn and European Parliament President Josep Borrell.

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.

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

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 increasing food safety, cleaning up the environment and repairing roads.

But some Romanians were cautious about what EU membership would mean for them. And some say the achievement was marred by the decision in Britain and Ireland to impose labour 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 protested at the restrictions, fearing the decision could influence other EU countries debating whether to open up their labour markets.

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

Still, salaries remain low by western European standards. In Bulgaria, the average monthly wage is £123; in Romania, about £410.