Bulgaria and Romania joined the European Union at midnight on New Year's Eve, bringing the number of EU nations to 27 and extending the Union's boundaries to the Black Sea, deep into the former Soviet bloc.
"With their accession to the EU, both countries have completed the long-promised 'return to Europe' that started with the fall of the Iron Curtain," said German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was in Romania to help with official celebrations.
The capitals of Bulgaria and Romania lit up with fireworks as revelers in the streets simultaneously celebrated New Year's Eve and the countries' accession. Bulgarian officials removed customs barriers at 15 border crossings with Romania and Greece, opening Bulgarian roads to EU trade.
Bowing to an EU demand over safety, Bulgaria also mothballed two Russian-made nuclear reactors in the final hours of Dec. 31 -- a decision which was not universally popular. "They shut down nuclear plants that brought Bulgaria millions per day," one resident of Bulgaria's capital Sofia, Hristo Hristov, complained to the Associated Press. "I think Bulgaria-EU is not good news for us."
Bulgaria's borders with non-EU nations Turkey, Serbia and Macedonia were also tightened, reflecting pressure on member states to bring their immigration and trade controls up to EU standards.
"We all know that the road to full integration into European structures has not yet come to an end," Steinmeier said. "This requires more efforts from the two countries, but (it) will make sure that Bulgaria and Romania's EU entry will be a success and that the older 25 members will also benefit from it."
Both new members risk losing a sizeable amount of economic help if they fail to streamline their judiciaries or clean up government corruption.
Germans in Transylvania
Meanwhile the medieval Transylvanian city of Sibiu in Romania became an official European "capital of culture" for 2007 -- along with Luxembourg City -- on Jan. 1. Steinmeier paid a visit there to emphasize traditional German ties to Sibiu, which was founded by Saxons almost 1,000 years ago. Most of the German minority left Sibiu in the 1970s, but the city still emphasizes its German heritage, and many of its residents speak German.
"The city has architectural treasures from the Gothic, Romantic, Baroque, Neo-classical and Modern periods," said Virgil Ispas, a local architect who helped start Sibiu's bid to become an EU cultural capital. "The communist period did not have the capacity to properly use this architectural jewel," he said.
In fact, said Constantin Chiriac, director of Sibiu's Radu Stanca Theatre and originator of the campaign to make it a capital of culture, Romania's communist dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu loathed Sibiu.
"Ceaucescu really hated this city because it was German," he said. "And because he hated cities with personality, with lots of houses. He wanted concrete blocks of flats whose electricity he could switch off at a moment's notice so he could control them."
Ceaucescu's son, Nicu, ran Sibiu in the 1980s and proposed demolishing a large part of the old city to build new apartment blocks. Local architects delayed the plans until 1989, when the Iron Curtain fell.