Leading article: An expansion that will benefit all Europeans

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The Independent Online

This is a moment for celebration. Yesterday two more countries from the former communist bloc - Romania and Bulgaria - joined the European Union. Every Warsaw Pact country outside the former Soviet Union is now an EU member. The reunification of western and eastern Europe after decades of division is complete. The revolution that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall has run its course.

Two more nations have embraced the EU ideals of democracy, respect for human rights, the rule of law and free market economics. The EU now comprises 27 nations, 480 million people, and stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea. Our axis of stability and prosperity has more legitimacy on the world stage than ever.

Bulgaria and Romania are small but fast-growing economies. The whole of Europe will benefit materially from their inclusion and the extension of the single market. We will also ultimately benefit from a cleaner environment across the continent. The last round of EU expansion in May 2004 was very good for Britain. An influx of hardworking Poles, in particular, boosted our economy. We will reap benefits this time round too.

Not everything is ideal. Both nations failed to meet some of the EU qualifying conditions on tackling corruption, organised crime, reforming their criminal justice systems and guaranteeing food safety standards. Bulgaria has been warned that 55 of its aircraft could be grounded unless they meet EU safety standards. There may need to be sanctions from Brussels if improvements in these areas cannot be demonstrated in the coming years, or EU development funds are misappropriated. But there is no reason to believe this accession will be any less successful in the long term than the incorporation of Ireland, Spain, Greece or the Baltic states, all countries with significant social and economic problems at the time. And we should not lose sight of the fact that Bulgaria and Romania have already made great strides in recent decades in order to secure membership.

There has been jubilation in Sofia and Bucharest. The Bulgarian President has described this as a "heavenly moment". The Romanian Prime Minister has called EU membership "the road of our joy". But the mood here in Britain could not be more different. Instead we have been drenched in xenophobia by the reactionary press. Hysterical predictions abound of a tidal wave of immigration and organised crime about to break over us. This coverage has been given a repellent twist by some semi-racist abuse of the oppressed Roma people of eastern Europe.

The Government is sitting on the fence. The Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, said yesterday that the two new states would bring opportunities for the UK. Yet we also know that the Home Office has been funding an advertising campaign to discourage Romanian and Bulgarians from travelling to Britain. And the Government has, rather insultingly, imposed restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarians working here - restrictions we have not placed on any other European nation.

It is hard to see the point of this. Unlike the Poles, Romanians and Bulgarians do not have a strong historic link with the UK. Romanians are traditionally more likely to go to Italy and Spain. Moreover, officials both here and in the two accession countries believe most of those citizens who want to come to Britain will have already done so under the work permit agreements already in operation.

Today the European Union is stronger and the people of our continent are freer than ever. It is a pity that so many here in Britain seem either unaware of the good news, or determined to ignore it.

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