If communism represented the starting block from which the Czech and Slovak peoples broke free in 1989, membership of the European Union was the finishing line to which their leaders said they would take them. The consolation prize of NATO membership was bestowed on a not altogether grateful Czech Republic in early 1999 while Vladimír Mečiar saw to it that Slovakia was left on the sidelines. But the EU was the rich man's club everyone wanted to join. The prospect of membership represented the closest thing to an objective reference point by which progress in eliminating the baggage of four decades of communism could be judged. For the average citizen it meant elevation from the status of second class European, required to prove his honourable intentions at every border crossing to the West. For the businessman it offered up the hope of free access to some of the richest markets in the world. And for the politicians it loomed as both a carrot and a stick, promising a place among equals inside an emerging power block with real clout, and conversely the threat from the EU of public criticism if they failed to live up to the standards expected of them.
Asked to judge the preparedness of both countries for EU membership just after the middle of the last decade, most observers, including the author, would have put the Czech Republic somewhere near the top of the list and Slovakia inside the no hope zone at the bottom. By the end of the decade, the gap between the two countries appears to have narrowed drastically. Slovakia continues to rise from the ashes of Mečiarism while a growing realisation of the full extent of Václav Klaus's mismanagement of the reform process in his country has