Romania and Bulgaria signed an accession treaty with the European Union Monday, paving the way to join the bloc in January 2007 in what they hailed as an "historic" step for their ex-communist nations.
Bulgarians celebrated on the streets of the capital Monday
Flanked by a huge blue screen trumpeting "welcome," the two countries' leaders signed the accord at a ceremony on the sidelines of a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg, which holds the bloc's rotating presidency.
Both of the Balkan states, which were slow in starting reforms after the 1989 collapse of communism in the region, were left out of last year's EU enlargement from 15 to 25 countries, including eight ex-communist states. With a combined population of some 30 million, they would be the poorest countries in the bloc if they were to join tomorrow, with a pro capita GDP of less than 30 percent of the EU average.
Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, whose country currently holds the EU presidency, lauded the Bulgarian and Romanian people's qualities.
"Let us welcome the people of Bulgaria and Romania, these courageous people, these noble people, into the heart of our family," said Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker. "Their courage and their ability to get things done have never failed to impress us," he added.
Reforms still necessary
EU commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso underlined the need for continued efforts even as he welcomed Romania and Bulgaria into "the European family" at Monday's ceremony.
"But rest assured that we will also be working with you to overcome any difficulties as you make your final push between now and January 2007," he said.
The two Balkan states joining the EU is contingent upon them carrying out reforms to fight corruption, strengthen border controls, beef up their justice and administration, and improve rules on state aid to industry. If they fail to fulfill the EU's requirements for entry, their membership could be delayed until 2008, according to the 860-page treaty signed Monday.