Dispelling earlier fears, the newcomers to the European Union are proving to be model member states ON MAY 1 last year, the European Union experienced a massive eastward expansion with the addition of eight former communist territories: the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia. The same day, Malta and Cyprus joined the Brussels-based club, raising the number of EU members from 15 to 25. This expansion was foreshadowed by anxieties held by many western Europeans, and vigorously expressed by the continent's more alarmist newspapers. Would the new members drain the EU's coffers? Would decision-making be disrupted or protracted by this large chorus of new voices? Above all, considering that the bloc was inviting in 75 million new citizens, would western Europe reel under the impact of wave after wave of East European economic migrants? Taking in 10 economically less-developed cousins, mostly 'transitional states' with shallow democratic roots and porous borders, was a formidable gamble for traditionally risk-averse Brussels. But the result speaks for itself: today, the EU picture continues to be one of harmonious integration. 'Enlargement raised questions about whether the EU could maintain its capacity to act, whether the Union would go bankrupt, and whether there would be a huge influx of workers,' said Ollie Rehn, European Commissioner for Enlargement. 'It is clear to say that these fears have not materialised.' The more developed western economies may have suffered in some areas in the short term, in part because the EU aid budget has shifted eastwards, but the ill-effects are already subsiding. The biggest of these fears, a flood of eastern migrants stealing jobs in the west and sponging off generous welfare states, never materialised. The three countries that opened their borders to workers from the new member states - Britain, Ireland and Sweden - have seen a sizeable but manageable inflow of workers. Most are making a positive contribution to economies suffering labour shortages in key sectors, such as health care. As for projected fears of welfare dependency, both Britain and Sweden have seen a modest number of newly arrived East Europeans claiming state benefits. The EU negotiating table, now with 10 more chairs, has not suffered from decision-making inertia. Far from it. There was consensus last June on a new EU constitution. In December, membership talks were completed with Bulgaria and Romania and a decision was taken to open negotiations with Turkey and Croatia. Additionally, after years of deadlock, the EU has talked through and enacted liberalising moves concerning the euro. Far from being the continent's laggards, with rusting economies grasping for EU handouts, the newcomers have proved to be model member states. Their pace of economic growth is two to four times faster than in Western Europe, with the three Baltic states registering annual rates of 6 to 8 per cent. The eastward expansion continues apace. Earlier this year, foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg signed accession treaties with Bulgaria and Romania that will see these east European states join the world's largest trading bloc on January 1, 2007. Welcoming in Bulgaria and Romania, the only remaining members of the former Warsaw Pact now outside the EU, will add more than 30 million citizens to the EU's population of 450 million. Moreover, it will push the EU's eastern border to the shores of the Black Sea. The geopolitical ramifications of this, the EU's sixth enlargement, are huge. For the first time the bloc will become a major player in the Black Sea region, sharing closer connections with aspiring members Turkey and Ukraine. And the axis of the bloc, which began with just six Western European members almost 50 years ago, will have shifted even further to the east. Last winter's dramatic but generally peaceful 'orange revolution', which brought democracy to the Ukraine, has led to expectations of the EU eventually admitting the vast Black Sea state. But the European Union's executive arm said in February that it was premature to talk of Ukraine joining the bloc. Nevertheless, soon after the former Soviet republic's landmark presidential election, the European Parliament called for a resolution to offer Ukraine 'a clear European perspective'. Meanwhile, EU lawmakers are calling for stronger relations with Kiev, with a view to Kiev's eventual entry. The 21st century has seen a dizzying pace of change in Europe, but expectations should be realistic. Despite the success of last year's enlargement, the EU is still trying to digest the accession of 10 disparate new members. Most observers foresee long waiting periods for membership aspirants, such as the Ukraine and Turkey. But the language coming from Brussels is inclusive and encouraging for those on the EU's ever-widening borders.