IMPROVE your neighbourhood, and everybody wants to move in. Central Europe has been gentrifying so gracefully since 1989 that every country east of Strasbourg seems to claim ties there now. Austrians are rediscovering Habsburg friendships. Slovenia has turned its back on the Balkans. Ukrainians are saying that eastern Europe starts, if not east of Ukraine, then at least east of Lvov.
For long-standing locals, though, gentrification can strain the old social fabric. Central Europe used to mean the Visegrad group, which started life in 1991 as a declaration of co-operation between Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. It grew from three to four with the division of Czechoslovakia in two in 1993, and then became a mutual assistance group to push its members into NATO and the European Union.
Since those aims were achieved a year ago, Visegrad has been falling, if not quite apart, then at least into insignificance. As outsiders, the four countries had to work together to get into the two clubs. Now, as insiders, they have wider choices of allies and policies. Hungary has collided publicly with its partners by trying to bring Austria and Slovenia, neighbours and once parts of the Habsburgs' Mitteleuropa, into the Visegrad group. "We think four is a good number," retorts Slovakia's foreign minister, Eduard Kukan.
Poland's aspirations to regional leadership also cause tensions. Poland has more people and a bigger economy than the other Visegrad three put together. It led the EU in supporting Ukraine's "Orange revolution". Yet neither the Czechs nor, especially, the Hungarians see themselves as followers. Hungary joined Austria in lobbying for the EU to start entry talks with Croatia last month. Although it failed, Hungary acquired the taste for more active diplomacy. The Czechs are proud of steering EU policy on Cuba earlier in the year.
It is not just a matter of diplomacy. A fault line runs through the economic policies of the four countries. Hungary and the Czech Republic regard themselves, over-optimistically, as relatively rich countries able to support a costly European social model. Slovakia and Poland see themselves, more realistically, as relatively poor countries with much catching up to do. A telling sign that Visegrad has had its day is the absence of any desire among the four countries to join the euro in tandem.
One thing all agree upon is that they should get plenty of money from the EU budget for 2007-13, under discussion in Brussels. All would like transfers at the maximum of 4% of GDP. All want their farmers to get the same subsidies as those in old member states. But even here, interests diverge. The dash by Poland, which has lots of farmers, to cut a separate pre-entry deal on farm subsidies in 2002 rankles.
Visegrad's decline may go unlamented. But there are issues on which the EU's new members need to hang together. They include freedom to set low flat taxes (see page 59); fighting for the free movement of labour; and joining the Schengen passport-free zone in 2007. Central Europe may be a nice neighbourhood, but at times it needs to be a tough neighbourhood too.