The Times – New friends, old problems<br/> The tortuous evolution of the EU’s latest converts

Two years after joining the EU, and 17 years after allowing the exodus of East Germans that precipitated the Soviet collapse, Hungary is in the throes of political crisis. Its Prime Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, has admitted serial deceit about his management of the economy, but refuses to resign. In Slovakia, a successful reformist government has been replaced by crude populists, who threaten to scrap a flat-tax regime that proved a magnet to investors. Poland’s leaders, the neo-nationalist Kaczinski twins, are mired in fresh scandal after a senior adviser was filmed offering an MP inducements to join their fragile coalition. And the Czech Republic, whose reincarnated Skoda became a symbol of New European dynamism, is politically adrift and economically on probation; its membership of the euro has been postponed to 2010 at the earliest.

The region’s four largest economies have lost some of the momentum that brought them to EU accession. Their fringe politics, meanwhile, are poisoning the mainstream. In the past month, a campaign of gratuitous hate-mongering orchestrated by the former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar has forced Slovakia’s treatment of its large Hungarian minority on to the international agenda. In Warsaw, the Kaczinskis’ coalition partners trade on naked chauvinism. In Budapest, the far-right Hungarian Truth and Life Party parades a similar narrow nationalism outside parliament. Throughout the region, appeals to the interests of “true” Poles, Slovaks and Hungarians mirror the growing anxieties of those not “true” enough. …

The EU’s founding purpose was to render old enmities irrelevant with open borders and stable prosperity. Too many of its newest citizens now face unemployment at home and new obstacles to employment abroad, as the Old Europe delays extending the Schengen accords until 2009. Among these frustrated would-be workers, nationalists are recruiting fast, and they are scaring off investors in the process. There is reason for concern but not despair. These were psychologically flawed societies, stifled by communism, and their recovery will be both protracted and painful.