The government of Poland collapsed first, followed by the Czech government. Then the Hungarian prime minister resigned. The government of Slovakia lost its majority and is unstable. Within months, if not weeks, of realizing the long-sought goal of European Union membership, a wave of political instability surged through Central Europe.
Why should this historic event cause such political upheaval? Some argue that these countries are inherently unstable. Their political cultures are underdeveloped. They were admitted to the EU only fifteen years after the fall of communism, and not all of them had previous experience with democracy. Unlike EU members admitted during earlier rounds of enlargement, the Central Europeans suffer from widespread corruption, political nepotism, fragile political parties with unclear identities, and weak civil societies.
All of these problems were to some extent hidden due to the external pressure of EU accession, and have now erupted into full view. But there are more obvious causes for Central Europe's current problems. Above all, every government that successfully led its country into the EU had to adopt-often under pressure and hastily-a range of unpopular steps. Although most citizens in these countries supported EU membership, many thought that their governments paid too high a price.
This was partly because the EU was not as generous toward its newest members as it had been toward new members in the past. Moreover, only fifteen years ago, eight of the ten new members had state-controlled economies, which meant that a period of painful transition toward a market economy was followed by, or overlapped with, sometimes painful reforms necessary for EU membership.