East Moves Left as West Shifts Right

PRAGUE -- Western Europe, uneasy about immigration and crime, is shifting to the political right.

Voters in the young democracies of Central and Eastern Europe, seeking economic reassurance and smooth entry to the European Union, are turning to the center left.

Plans for EU enlargement, the 15-nation bloc's most ambitious project in decades, are to be finalized late this year and invitations to join will be sent to up to 10 candidate states.

But the changing political scenery risks complicating the enlargement endgame.

The rightist trend in the West -- from France and Italy to Denmark and the Netherlands, via Spain,

Portugal and Austria, and maybe even Germany at September elections -- is fueled by fears over immigration, a key theme at the

EU's June 21-22 summit in Seville, Spain.

While most immigrants originate outside Europe, many come from the EU candidate states and more travel through them. Experts argue that in the long term the EU

needs an influx of skilled workers to offset the impact of an aging population, but populist leaders address

anxieties felt in the short term.

On the eastern side of the old Iron Curtain, tough entry terms demanded by Brussels and EU members could erode popular support for joining the EU.

There are fears that the newcomers to the EU will be treated as second-class citizens, starved of Brussels cash payouts and forced to push through harsh economic reforms too quickly.

Central Europeans want to be part of a modern EU but not at any cost, after years of painful reform and large-scale restructuring. Many are not ready to give up their social safety nets.

"We strive to create a modern welfare state and prepare for EU entry," said Czech Social Democrat leader Vladimir Spidla, fresh from his election victory.

For now, voters in candidate nations are shunning charismatic populists who warn of the loss of national identity in the EU and demanding fairer terms for their

farmers, truckers and small businesses.

Three leading candidates -- Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic -- have all recently elected center-left governments that campaigned on smooth and swift integration into the EU.

The center right has generally fared badly, being blamed for bungling reforms, in-fighting, corruption and cronyism.

Hungary's Viktor Orban narrowly lost elections in April after irritating neighboring states, financial markets and Brussels.

Abrasive former Czech conservative Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus was crushed in weekend elections as voters rejected a discredited deal that gave his Civic Democrats a share of power despite election defeat four years ago.

The shift to a moderate EU-friendly left shows Central Europe's desire to join the West, now the region's key trading partner.

However, it also suggests underlying tensions over the pace of economic reforms.

The 12-year transition from central planning to free markets has delivered robust growth across the region and boosted living standards -- for some.

Millions more people have been left on the wrong side of a gaping wealth divide, many of them worse off than they were under communism.