Leading article: Union of unequals

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The Independent Online

If all goes well, on 1 January Romania and Bulgaria will become the twenty fifth and twenty sixth members of the European Union, sooner than expected. There'll be a little ceremony on the bridge over the Danube, which marks the border between the two countries. There will be some euphoria too, as the these two former Soviet satellites take another step in their journey to rejoin the European family and look forward to the economic boost that EU membership will undoubtedly bring. In its first half century the European Union has rendered another war in western Europe unimaginable: bringing the Balkans into that zone of interdependence will also bring stability. There are qualms about Romania's and Bulgaria's fitness to join. No one claims that their standards of governance and levels of corruption will soon be comparable to, say, the Nordics. However a few months' delay is not going to make much difference to that. Romania and Bulgaria may well find it easier to deal with those problems inside the Union.

So there is much to celebrate in this expansion of the EU, but there should be a twinge of guilt too. As with the previous wave of accessions to the east, and especially Poland, the Romanians and Bulgarians could be forgiven for thinking themselves second-class European citizens. As with Poland, Romanian and Bulgarian agricultural produce is to be given only limited access to EU markets. This is ostensibly on health and safety grounds, but the suspicion is that it is a protectionist measure by existing members, who, besides, know that the Common Agricultural Policy would collapse under the weight of Polish pigs and Romanian milk.

Even less forgivably, citizens of these two countries will enjoy even less freedom of movement in the rest of the EU than the Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians and other new entrants, who in turn still enjoy fewer employment rights than those in the older member states.

At the moment only Britain, Ireland and Sweden honour the EU's principle of free movement of people as well as capital, and it looks increasingly as though the British government will impose short term quotas on Romanians and Bulgarians who wish to work in the UK. Thus will they become third-class EU citizens.

This is singularly harsh. Professionals, tradespeople and labourers alike will be denied entry to the UK in a way that, say, a Pole or a Portuguese could not, just because they were further back in the queue to join. Our economy is denied another source of labour to sustain economic growth, while there is no limit on British and others buying up property and companies in the Balkans. It may be the best deal that can be done, but after the champagne has been consumed it will leave a nasty aftertaste.