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    Bulgaria, Romania Join European Union

    Romania and Bulgaria welcomed the New Year as the newest members of the European Union, expanding the bloc to 27 members. Stefan Bos reports for VOA from Budapest that celebrations lasted well into the night.

    Fireworks thundered through the sky at midnight in Romania and Bulgaria, as the two former Eastern bloc nations embraced their new status as members of the European Union.

    In the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, hundreds of balloons with "Welcome Europe" written on them rose to the sky.

    Bulgarian President Georgi Purvanov said in a speech in Sofia that January 1, 2007, was the most important date in his country's history.

    Some spectators said they realized that Bulgaria and neighboring Romania will now have to prove they are reliable EU partners.

    "I hope that they will have success in the European Union," said one woman. "And have a happy New Year."

    In the Romanian capital, Bucharest, President Traian Basescu shouted to a cheering crowd packing University Square that Romania has finally arrived in Europe.

    One young man could not believe his ears.

    "I am very happy that, this moment, integration finally came, and my expectation for Europe is that we come all together and that all people, all persons, will be like one," he said. "Here in Bucharest, in Berlin, in Paris, all over Europe."

    The road toward EU membership was not easy, as tough economic reforms also meant social tensions. And the two countries still have work to do. Average monthly salaries are low compared with wages in western Europe. And several EU states have put restrictions on the number of Romanian and Bulgarian workers, fearing a huge influx.

    In addition, both countries will be subjected to tough monitoring by Brussels, amid concerns over crime and rampant corruption.

    Despite these worries, EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the entry of Romania and Bulgaria will boost the Union's economic and cultural heritage.

    "With Romania and Bulgaria, 30 million people are joining us, creating a Union of almost half a billion citizens. The European Union is already the biggest trade partner in the world, and is providing plenty of opportunities for its people and businesses," he said. "'United in diversity' is the motto of the enlarged European Union. In welcoming two new members in the family, we know our culture and heritage will be richer."

    But it is expected to take years for these countries to join the more exclusive club of countries using the euro currency. Of the 10 countries that joined the European Union in 2004, only Slovenia has achieved the economic stability required to join the euro club. The country celebrated the introduction of the euro with a lavish New Year party.

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