The journalist and author Neal Ascherson is one of Britain's leading experts on central and eastern Europe. He first visited Poland in 1957, and has spent a great deal of time in the region in the decades since then. Mr Ascherson recently paid a visit to Prague, where I spoke to him at an outdoor café. Before getting on to the recent eastwards enlargement of the European Union, I asked Neal Ascherson if that other alliance, NATO, was still relevant, so many years after the end of the Cold War:
"NATO is relevant but we don't yet know how. Let's be unpleasantly frank about this: what is NATO about? It is about Russian power. At the moment, Russia is extremely weak. But it's not always going to be weak.
"In ten years from now, Russia will be once again a military and industrial great power in the world. And do we know what it's going to do with that great power? No, I don't know...I still feel that NATO has its elementary primitive role somewhere. So, I think that the Czechs need NATO; it's good that they are inside."
It seems to me that Czechs have mixed feelings about joining the European Union. Do you think they will gain or lose as members of the EU?
"First of all, I think you'll lose in the next five years. There will be a lot of disillusion, a lot of people will become poorer and their lives will become less secure, and there will be many disillusions and many disappointments.
"In the longer term, the Czech nation will gain. It will gain security but also it will get its way right into the central fabric. It's moving fast and, after the first difficult adjustment years, I think the Czech Republic will become like Ireland, it will have a boom. I suppose one is not allowed to call the Czech Republic a Slav Tiger anymore...another Celtic Tiger, maybe, now that Celtic identity is so popular."
(Mr Ascherson was in Prague for Bookworld, which focused on Irish, Scottish and Welsh literature.)
Speaking of identity, do you think that Czech, Poles, or Slovaks will lose some identity in the European Union?
"Starting with Poland, there is no way that it will lose its identity in the EU. First of all, it's a big country and secondly, it has started on the traditional Polish kind of foreign policy within the EU and that traditional policy is 'being difficult'.
"You can never tell what the Polish are going to do. Everybody is just about to say 'yes' and suddenly the Poles say 'no'. That is going to go on. There is absolutely no question about it, Polish independence is going to be an enormous difficulty for the EU. It will be a thoroughly healthy challenge.
"I hope the Czechs will be difficult as well, but I think the Czechs particularly are destined for the core of Europe. My own view is that the Union will actually divide in effect, and possibly formally one day, into a core and a periphery and the Czech Republic is going to be right at the core."
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