Fireworks fail to fizz as expansion fatigue takes a heavy toll

Street festivals, open-air concerts and firework displays greeted the "New Europe" from Vilnius to Valletta late last night but the celebrations were, on the whole, muted.

Street festivals, open-air concerts and firework displays greeted the "New Europe" from Vilnius to Valletta late last night but the celebrations were, on the whole, muted.

There was none of the popular outpourings of joy which welcomed the collapse of the Iron Curtain 15 years ago but pro-EU politicians said this should not be seen as a symptom of emerging Euro-scepticism or Euro-hostility.

They said it should be seen as a sign of the progress made by central Europe towards a more "normal" relationship with politics. Attitudes to the EU in the new member states had already harmonised with typical attitudes in the "old" member states: a mixture of vague approval, boredom and suspicion.

The sense of anti-climax had been deepened by the refusal of Western European countries to open their borders fully to workers from the east.

There was also anxiety among older people that EU membership might raise prices steeply. Most of all, there was a sense that the important choices had already been made.

Jiri Pehe, an adviser to the former Czech president, Vaclav Havel, and now a professor at the New York university in Prague, said: "It is a pity there is not more popular enthusiasm for such a moment of great historical symbolism. But what Winston Churchill said of the Balkans is true of the whole region. We have had more history than we can consume.

"There have been so many changes in such a short time. There is a kind of popular exhaustion with change. Most people have the impression, rightly, that we are as good as in the EU already, because so many of the painful political and economic adjustments needed have already been put in place."

Wenceslas Square in Prague, the scene of the mass demonstration that ended Communism in the then Czechoslovakia in 1989, staged a series of Euro-pop and Euro-folk concerts yesterday but the mood was restrained.

Eastern Europe, and the Czech Republic in particular, has been more fixated this week by the world ice hockey championships, in Prague than the symbolic importance of the final destruction of the physical and ideological barriers that have divided Western from central Europe for half a century.

More than 17,000 fans packed the Sazka arena last night for the Czech Republic's match against Austria - far more than turned out for the EU enlargement concerts in the Wenceslas and old town squares.

Even the Czech Prime Minister, Vladimir Spidla, suggested that ice hockey was a more interesting spectator sport than the enlargement of the EU. "When it comes to hockey, it really is fun and an interesting game," he said.

Nonetheless, scores of events were scheduled in the 10 new central and southern European states, culminating in giant fireworks displays in many cities after 10pm last night, the official moment of Europe's "Big Bang".

Lithuanians were asked to switch on as many lights as possible when darkness fell to make their country glow on satellite photographs.

Hungarians were dumping unwanted belongings in a heap in a Budapest square, as a symbol of the country's final throwing off of its Communist past.

Three bridges over the Danube were closed to traffic and opened to all-night parties.

In Estonia, 20,000 volunteers began the planting of a million trees. Czech and German border towns and villages were generating vast rainbows to link the two countries by shining floodlights on jets of water thrown up by water cannons.

In Cyprus, there will be two days of celebrations including fireworks, dancing and bands. The island of Malta planned to outdo its larger partners with the biggest firework display.

The former Slovak foreign minister, Pavol Denes, told The Independent: "I am not indifferent to the importance of the moment. From my flat here in Bratislava, I can look across the Danube and see Austria.

"Fifteen years ago, I was not allowed to cross the river.

"We have made so much progress in the past 15 years that we forget how much has changed. EU membership is the culmination of that process. For a small country like Slovakia, a country that people said could not survive on its own, it is doubly important. We are an EU member, on the same basis as France or Germany or Britain. It means we have crossed the river."

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