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Q: I see that Bulgaria and Romania have joined the European Union as of Jan. 1. I’m no expert, but I always thought of these countries as pretty poor and not possibly ready for the EU. What’s up with that?

A: It wasn’t an easy road for either country, but by the autumn of 2006, the European Commission confirmed that Bulgaria and Romania had successfully tackled a rigid course of measures, and as of Jan. 1, both countries formally became EU Member States.

But even as Union members, specific restrictions still remain in place. For now, due to concerns about swine fever, neither country is allowed to export pigs, pig meat or related products to the EU. The Accession Treaty of the EU also allows for a limited period in which either joining countries or the current Member States are allowed to waive certain EU laws and standards, for example, those allowing for the free movement of workers.

In regard to economic criteria for accession, the Commission calls for candidate countries to exhibit a functioning market economy and ability to cope with competition and market pressures within the Union. While vast economic disparities are witnessed within the Union, the Commission’s cohesion policy aims to reduce the economic, social and territorial inequalities in standards of living and levels of opportunity.

This is, incidentally, the fifth time that the Union has grown, and today, nearly half a billion citizens in 27 countries now live within its framework. Candidate countries presently being considered for Union membership include Croatia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Turkey.

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