RIGA - Sixty-five years after they were torn away from Europe, the Baltics finally rejoined it in a picturesque Dublin ceremony on May 1. Years of legal and technical work bore their fruit as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania became full-fledged members of the European Union.
"To the people of Europe who are joining us today in the European Union, I extend the hand of friendship," Bertie Ahern, Ireland's prime minister and host of the ceremony, said. "It was your democratic choice and your own efforts that made this day happen. Today marks the triumph of your determination and perseverance over the legacy of history."
To his credit, Ahern was cognizant of this EU enlargement round's importance not because of its size, but since eight out of the 10 countries joining were held captive by the oppressive Soviet Union for nearly half a century.
"This is the endgame of the process which was started in 1988-89. Those countries that were behind the Iron Curtain... for them, tomorrow ends all of that terrible period," Ahern said.
Celebratory events - marked by concerts, flag-raising ceremonies and countless blue balloons with 12 yellow stars - were held from Malta to Tallinn. In Zittau, a town on the German-Polish-Czech Republic border, a teary-eyed Helmut Kohl, former German chancellor and one of the leaders of united Europe, told gatherers: "The message is that there will never again be war in Europe."
European Commission Presi-dent Romani Prodi, who marked the event in Trieste, the Italian city mentioned in Winston Churchill's famous Iron Curtain speech in Missouri, said, "To me, the enlargement is the union's political masterpiece. From Tallinn to La Valetta, our new citizens know how to build a market economy and an open and democratic society."
"Enlargement will offer not only economic opportunities to the new countries, but it will also contribute to the growth of the 15 current members," Prodi said, explaining that GDP growth in the new member economies was two times faster than in those of current members.
At the EU headquarters in Europe, ambassadors from the 10 new member countries watched as spotlights picked out their flags - one at a time - hanging from Brussels' Grand Palace.
In the Baltics, festivities stretched into the night - more so in Riga and Vilnius than in Tallinn - with a variety of music, folk choir concerts and in the end, firework displays.
In Latvia, border guard and customs officials handed a certificate signed by Prime Minister Indulis Emsis to Larissa Skorobogatova, 24, just a minute after midnight, as she became the first foreign national to cross into EU member Latvia.
In Lithuania, Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis presented a prize to Lithuania's first "Eurobaby" - the first child born after accession - and pledged to donate 1,000 litas (290 euros) out of his own pocket to the child's benefit. (Lina Skaburskaite, president of the Lithuanian Obstetricians Union, said 13 babies - 4 girls and 9 boys - were born during the first hour of EU membership.)
Indeed, the population effect from enlargement was one of the most cited statistics over the weekend: the latest round of enlargement increased the union's population by 75 million people to 450 million, making it the world's third largest economic zone after China and India.
Still, despite the euphoria and full repertoire of panegyrics, there was a fair amount of concern about the Union behind the scenes. Though larger than ever, the EU now has problems like never before. First and foremost is the constitution, which has been given new impetus after the Madrid bombings but could be torpedoed by Britain. With its 270 pages and obtuse language, critics claim it amounts to stronger centralization and could, if it is passed in its current form, infringe on sovereign tax policy, a crucial sphere for the Baltics (particularly in Estonia, which has no tax on reinvested profits).
"We want tax competition, but tax dumping has to be avoided," German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder told the German newspaper Handelsblatt.
Second, there have been increasing concerns about Europe's ability to fulfill one of its original goals - to create an economic bloc capable of competing with the United States - especially at a time when France and Germany have breached the pact that regulates the 12-member Eurozone.