As the European Union (EU) completes its fifth round of enlargement by taking in Romania and Bulgaria on Jan. 1, 2007, the relative calm with which the bloc welcomes the new members is notable.
EU officials hailed it a "historic day to celebrate" as the bloc grows to 27 nations with population of 493 million.
But the subdued atmosphere is in stark contrast with 2004, when 10 central and eastern European countries joined the then 15-nation bloc with much fanfare and enormous expectations from both old and new members.
As enthusiasm among EU citizens toward continuous expansion ebbs and institutional reform crucial to the future enlargement of the giant organization is put on hold by French and Dutch vetoes, the two newcomers are widely seen as having caught "the last train" before the EU shuts its door to future aspirants, at least for a while.
Romania and Bulgaria will be the poorest countries in the EU, with their per capita income only equaling a third of the average in the current 25 members, and their combined GDP representing less than 1 percent of the new 27-nation body.
The advantages of being in the club are obvious: up to €35 billion (US$45.5 billion) of EU funds could flow to the two countries by 2013, shoring up their economy and generating jobs.
Romania will receive almost €10.5 billion (US$13.65 billion) in the next three years, mainly for structural operations, rural development, agriculture market measures and direct payments to farmers. This equates to €480 (US$624) for every Romanian.
The benefits are mutual. Bulgaria and Romania, with their economy growing at five to six percent in 2006, more than double the EU-25 average growth rate, offer ample investment opportunities for other EU members,
Several sectors in the two countries -- computers and data processing, tourism, the automobile industry and retail -- have been increasingly attractive to foreign investors in recent years.
However, the entry into the EU, after decade-long membership talks and painful domestic reforms to integrated with the EU systems, has been far less sweet than anticipated due to older members' reluctance to admit them and the numerous conditions attached to their new identity.
The two Balkan countries, seen by the EU as still lagging on standards in quite a few areas, will be put under continued tutelage from Brussels in areas from justice and home affairs to agriculture and food safety.
As if accession never really happened, Sofia and Bucharest will abide by roughly the same monitoring procedures as past years, such as submitting regular progress reports and receiving "peer review" visits by EU officials.
Both states have to meet certain "benchmarks" -- particularly in judicial reforms and the fight against corruption -- to avoid the triggering of safeguard clauses and possibly the non-recognition of Romanian or Bulgarian court verdicts in the EU.
The EU will also carefully watch how the two countries spend the development aid they will receive. Serious shortcomings may lead to the suspension of EU funds.
Should they fail to fulfill obligations, the safeguard measures may limit the application of the internal market in some sectors of the two countries.
The conditions imposed on the two newcomers is notably stricter than that faced by the 10 entrants in the last wave of enlargement, which only saw some export restrictions on agricultural products similar to those faced by Romania and Bulgaria.
Despite some planned festivities to celebrate their entry into the EU in the capitals, Romanians and Bulgarians remained relatively cool to their newly acquired identity.
A recent EU poll found that 65 percent of the Romanians have a "very positive or fairly positive image" of membership, down from 76 percent in 2004.
In a recent interview with French daily Le Monde, Romanian President Traian Basescu said the Romanians are fully aware of potential difficulties in the first few years after the accession, when his country's economy and society will face competition from the other member states.
A lot of work needs to be done. The first is to make the public understand what it means to be inside the EU.
Romania has started a national publicity campaign, with officials emphasizing that Romanians can expect more investment, better law enforcement and stronger economic growth, echoing what happened in the other former Soviet bloc countries that joined the EU in 2004.
To counter the wrong conceptions about the consequences of EU membership, the Romanian government listed 22 common myths on its website. These range from the belief that rich foreigners will buy Romanian property on a large scale after enlargement, to the fear that Romanians will no longer be allowed to slaughter pigs or produce home-made brandy.
"I got alarmed when an old woman asked me whether it's true she would no longer be allowed to use the parsley she's been growing in her yard in her soup," said Anca Boagiu, the Romanian minister in charge of EU integration, Bloomberg reported.
The truth still hasn't reached many Romanians, particularly the40 percent who live in rural areas, the minister said.
As the EU prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2007, its enlargement looks set to pause for a while as EU citizens feel threatened by expansion and politicians are increasingly skeptical about the bloc's capacity to absorb new members.
Compared with two and a half years ago, EU nationals are now much less convinced about the merits of admitting new member countries. Turkey's application has met tremendous opposition, particularly in France, Germany and Austria.
The latest Euro barometer opinion poll shows that while 72 percent of the population in the 10 countries that joined the EU in 2004 favor further expansion, only an average 41 percent in the other 15 hold the same opinion.
At their December summit, EU leaders reached consensus on enlargement which was based on 3Cs -- consolidation, conditionality and communication.
While reiterating that the EU's door is not closed, they underscored the importance of acceding countries meeting strict conditions, and the need to convince the EU citizens of the benefits of enlargement.
There are no provisions for further enlargement in the current EU treaties.
Croatia, which has the best chance of the current candidates to join the club, will have to wait until 2009 or 2010 before joining the EU. The time of admission for other Balkan countries are much less certain.
Turkey, the Eurasian country with 72 million of mostly Muslim population, has no prospective entry date, despite talks having been officially opened on its candidacy.
(Xinhua News Agency December 30, 2006)