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EU Commission hails enlargement

The European Commission says the 27-nation EU must not let the current economic crisis jeopardise the gains of eastward enlargement.

A commission report says the accession of 12 states since 2004 – mostly ex-Soviet bloc countries – boosted living standards and business opportunities.

It said enlargement served as an anchor for stability and driver of democracy.

But there are concerns that EU states may be tempted to prop up weak domestic firms at their neighbours’ expense.

The BBC’s Chris Mason in Brussels says the impact of the economic crisis threatens to undermine the single market, a founding tenet of European integration.

‘Peace and prosperity’

The European Union took in 10 mostly ex-communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe in 2004 and two more, Romania and Bulgaria, in 2007.

It is now the world’s biggest integrated economic area, with half a billion people producing 30% of global economic output and 17% of world trade.

In the report on published on Friday, the commission said enlargement had brought about huge economic and political benefits for both sides.

Income per capita in new member states rose from 40% of the old member states’ average in 1999 to 52% in 2008. Economic growth averaged 5.5% per year in 2004-2008, compared to 3.5% in 1999-2003.

The old member states averaged annual growth of around 2.2% in the last four years.

Enlargement also increased trade opportunities. In 2007, almost 80% of exports of the new member states went to the rest of the EU. Old member states also saw their sales to the new members increase to around 7.5% of their total exports in 2007, from 4.75% a decade ago.

Unemployment in new member states declined to levels similar to those across the rest of the EU – around 7% in 2007.

“Enlargement has served as an anchor of stability, and driver of democracy and the rule of law in Europe,” Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said.

“Economically it has benefited both new and old member states, as well as the EU as a whole. It has extended the area of peace and prosperity to almost 500 million people and increased our weight in the world,” he added.

Protectionism fears

But some of the poorer member states fear protectionism is on the rise in richer countries, our correspondent says.

The old member states can afford to spend billions of dollars to shield their banks and industries from the crisis, he adds.

“We should not let the crisis overshadow this uncontested success. United, we can shape the solution to global issues such as climate change or a new international financial governance,” Economic Affairs Commissioner Joaquin Almunia said. “Divided we will achieve nothing.”

An emergency summit will take place in Brussels on 1 March partly to discuss protectionism.

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Greek drivers block Bulgaria’s border

Bulgaria’s embassy in Athens has been asked to convey its dissatisfaction that Greece’s  internal problems have damaged Bulgaria for the second time in less than a month, Bulgarian Foreign Ministry press service said on February 20 2009.

Bulgaria’s reaction comes after hundreds of long-haul truck Greek drivers staged blockades all around Greece preventing freight traffic entering and leaving the country on February 19 2009. This happened a few weeks after Greek farmers had staged a week-long blockade at the Greek-Bulgarian border to demand more subsidies and higher pensions.

On February 19 Greek drivers asked the authorities to launch frequent checks on foreign trucks entering the country and to stop illegal immigrants sneaking onto their vehicles.

According to Greek Katimerini newspaper, more than 2000 trucks joined the action, blocking the ports of Patras and Corinth, in central Greece, the northwestern port of Igoumenitsa and the crossings of Evzones and Promachon, at the borders with Macedonia and Bulgaria respectively.

On February 20 2009 the Promachon-Koulata checkpoint on the border with Bulgaria was opened for buses and light vehicles but not for heavy vehicles. It is not known how long the protests will continue.

“Greek trucks always get pulled over for inspections but foreign ones cross the border without any checks,” Kathimerini quoted Apostolos Kenanidis, head of the union representing the truckers. Another gripe of drivers is that they often face legal action when would-be migrants are found hidden in their vehicles.

Greek drivers’ demands, however, did not correspond with earlier statements by the Bulgarian embassy in Athens that in the last four months there have been about 30 cases of Bulgarian drivers being detained, tried and sentenced for harbouring illegal immigrants from Greece.

Last year, thе embassy warned that Bulgarian drivers passing the border should be very careful and inspect their vehicles for refugees. The best possibility for that occurs in the coastal Greek town of Igoumenitsa.