Old boy network - Central European-style

What skeletons do the former Eastern Bloc countries have in their cupboards? That's a question to which the European Union wants to know the answers. The Union's Commissioner for enlargement, Guenter Verheugen, has announced that the Commission wants to take a closer look at the former communist applicant countries, to find out to what extent former prominent communists have control over their economies. As one of the frontrunners to join the Union, this has also given the Czech Republic some food for thought. David Vaughan reports.

In recent months the Czech Republic has had good reason to be pleased with itself. Progress in bringing laws in line with the European Union has speeded up considerably, and the EU itself has indicated that the country's next end-of-term report, to be published later this year, will be a good deal more upbeat than last year's: 'could do better'.

But on Monday, Commissioner Verheugen fired a shot across the bows of all the applicant countries, saying that in all the former Eastern Bloc countries members of the former communist elite still wielded considerable power over the economy, hinting at old-boy networks or even mafia-type organizations. The Commission's concern isn't that these shady figures might try to bring back old-style communism; what concerns Mr Verheugen is that they feed corruption and nepotism, creating complex and opaque relations between politics and the economy.

The main force of Mr Verheugen's concern is probably aimed at Bulgaria and Romania, where the process of cleaning up the political and economic scene never really began. By comparison, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary have all made significant progress. But the Czech Republic certainly has no reason to be smug. A series of recent economic scandals - for example in the banking sector or with party financing - have given plenty of cause for concern. There is little evidence to suggest that former communist elites are the main culprits, but there is plenty of evidence for a less than healthy and far from transparent overlap between party politics and the world of business.

It is not yet clear how much space will be devoted to the issue in the forthcoming series of EU reports, but given the Union's current reluctance to name a date for taking on new members, there are some fears that the question of corruption could act as a further brake on expansion. The Czech Republic may have got its act together over the pace of bringing its laws in line with the EU, but as Mr Verheugen said on Monday, the main issue isn't the pace at which laws are passed. What matters more is the way they are applied.