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Last Updated: Saturday, 1 May, 2004, 02:16 GMT 03:16 UK
EU celebrates historic moment
A Polish girl waves EU flags during an EU enlargement party in Zittau
Celebrations are taking place across Europe
Parties have taken place across Europe as the European Union celebrated its biggest expansion in history.

Ten new nations have become members, turning the EU into the world's biggest trading bloc with a population of 455 million in 25 states.

A host of countries in Europe marked enlargement at midnight in Brussels (2200 GMT).

The time difference in Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania means celebrations have got under way an hour earlier.

Ireland, which holds the EU's revolving presidency, will host a Day of Welcomes including official ceremonies on Saturday.
Poland's entrance into the European Union fulfils my dreams and lifetime work
Lech Walesa
Former Polish president and Solidarity leader

The 10 leaders will join Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern for a flag-raising ceremony on Saturday.

The sense of history is being most keenly felt in the eight former communist states - the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

They are joining the Western club only 15 years after most of them emerged from years of Soviet domination. Some were not even separate countries until just over a decade ago.

Now all their governments have satisfied Brussels that their economies, legal systems and democracies are ready for EU membership.

ENLARGEMENT NUMBERS
10 new countries (up to 25)
74 million people (up to 455m)
444bn euro of extra GDP
(up to 9,613bn)
738,573 sq km of territory
(up to 4m sq km)

"Poland's entrance into the European Union fulfils my dreams and lifetime work," said Lech Walesa, whose Solidarity movement toppled communism in Poland in 1989.

In ex-communist Slovakia, parliament speaker Pavol Hrusovsky echoed this sentiment.

"In 1989, we cut up the barbed wire. Pieces of this wire have for us become a symbol of the end of the totalitarian regime," he said.

"For the generation which lived in the captivity of barbed wire, the EU means the fulfilment of a dream."

Tight security

The other two new members are Mediterranean islands - Malta and Cyprus - although Cypriot membership is being overshadowed by the row over Greek Cypriot rejection of a UN peace plan.

The rejection means EU membership will apply only in the Greek Cypriot part of the island, even though Greek Cypriots voted "no" in the UN referendum, while Turkish Cypriots voted to accept the plan.

Security preparations in Dublin
Security is tight in Dublin
Aid for Turkish Cyprus is being fast-tracked by EU ministers in recognition of their vote to accept the plan, even though EU laws will technically remain suspended there.

In Dublin, security for the formal ceremonies is expected to be particularly tight.

Irish media report that police leave has been cancelled and 4,000 officers will be patrolling the streets.

Some 2,500 soldiers are also said to be on stand-by.

Reports that a "hardcore" group of up to 300 international troublemakers is planning to target Dublin have been dismissed by other protesters as scaremongering, and an attempt to deter peaceful anti-globalist, anti-capitalist protesters.

Emotional time

Enlargement has created enthusiasm in so-called "old" and "new" Europe alike.
I am part of a generation that believes in Europe. Europe is the force that prevents hate from being eternal
French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin

"It's a new era for Europe," Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verheugen told a crowd at a ceremony close to Brussels' EU district.

Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder hailed enlargement in a speech to the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag.

"With the entry of 10 members on 1 May, the dream of many generations of Europeans will become a reality," he said.

In France, President Jacques Chirac hailed enlargement as a giant leap forward for Europe.

Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin spoke of his emotion about the occasion.

"I get tears in my eyes," he said while meeting with students from the 10 new countries.

"I am part of a generation that believes in Europe. Europe is the force that prevents hate from being eternal. We must open our hearts to this new Europe."

Apart from fireworks, street parties and speeches there some more unusual celebrations were planned:

  • The first babies born in Lithuania after it joined were set to become stars in an 85-year-long TV documentary charting their lives

  • Lithuanians were also being called on to switch on all their lights and start fires across the country in a bid to become the brightest country to join the EU

  • Hungarian Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy was due to turn over an eight-metre hourglass at midnight to mark Hungary's accession

  • Hungarians dumped unwanted belongings in a pile at a square in central Budapest

  • In Estonia, 20,000 volunteers were to begin planting a million trees.



WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Stephen Sackur
"Poland has laid the foundations for a vibrant future in the EU"



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