Fading Austrian towns look east for revival

Wolfsthal, about 50km from Vienna, is the end of the line. When the train from the Austrian capital pulls into this silent village on Austria’s eastern border with Slovakia, only a trickle of people alight and head home past a closed cafe and empty football pitch.

Many of its young people have been drawn to Vienna in search of work, leaving a dwindling, predominantly older population.

But some small towns like this have seen a glimmer of new life since the European Union’s Schengen zone expanded a year ago, allowing passport-free travel to and from Eastern Europe. By offering cheap land and easy development, they have been tempting young Slovakians to move in.

Most Austrians were hostile towards the Schengen expansion last December: 60% opposed the move on security grounds at the time, said market research group OGM. Now some towns hope to become quasi-suburbs of the Slovakian capital, Bratislava, which is just a 20-minute drive away.

”We started to clear spaces for building because it was very important for the village that we could change the make-up of our population,” Wolfsthal Mayor Gerhard Schoedinger told Reuters.

”When the people came, land was bought, and the price of land started to rise, there was an uncomfortable feeling among some people. But … when people could put a face to them, most of the reluctance went away.”

Schoedinger, who is married to a Slovakian whom he met while he was working as a border guard, said those who move in are educated to university level and an asset.

Dennis Span has bought some land in Hainburg, a pretty Austrian town down the road from Wolfsthal, after finding it hard to get planning permission in Slovakia.

The 31-year-old Dutch systems engineer currently lives in Bratislava with his wife, who works for an information technology company.

”The main reason is the price in relation to the quality,” he said. ”We couldn’t wait any more and there are lots of good reasons to move to Austria. The services are much better, the infrastructure is very different than in Slovakia and a small town is much more comfortable.”

Hainburg has sold 53 so far in December, with three-quarters going to buyers from across the border.

”The main reason for this is that property in Austria is cheaper than around Bratislava, but better legal protection as well as schools and kindergartens also play a big role,” said Erich Rieder, the town’s administrator.

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Some town authorities have been working hard on cross-border ties. Wolfsthal’s school gives Slovak lessons and holds joint cultural events, Hainburg welcomes Slovakian health workers into its clinics and care homes.

More Slovakians are also shopping across the border in Austrian discount stores, where they find a better, cheaper range of goods than at home, Hainburg’s Rieder said.

The Austrian government says it does not have figures to show the economic impact, but in terms of population growth, the Schengen expansion could already be having an effect.

From January to October the number of Slovaks living in Austria rose by 11%, faster than previously, while the Hungarian and Czech populations rose 7% each according to preliminary data. The number of all foreigners moving to Austria grew by 2% over the same period.

Some welcome the influx to the Alpine republic, which like many countries in Western Europe must contend with an ageing population and a shortage of skilled workers.

Economic bodies last month called for increased migration of workers, especially in the face of the economic crisis.

”In such times the economy needs highly skilled forces to trigger incentives for growth,” Martin Gleitsmann of the Austrian chambers of commerce was quoted as saying by Austrian media at a presentation on the issue.

Some have called for a points system to fast-track work permits for skilled migrants.

”We must finally wake up and realise that Austria is a country of immigration,” said industrialist Georg Kapsch at the presentation, estimating Austria needs 20 000 to 40 000 foreign workers each year.

Warm welcome?
But in a country where anti-immigration far-right parties won nearly a third of the vote in September’s national elections, such talk is controversial.

Freedom, the main far-right party, has called for a halt to immigration and a ministry for repatriating foreigners, although it reserves its sharpest language for those of Turkish origin.

The mainstream conservatives have also tried to appeal to the right, insisting that German and a good understanding of Austrian ”values” be preconditions to immigration.

In Wolfsthal, some are guarded about efforts to attract foreigners.

”Things have definitely changed here,” said Mario Leskovits, a 27-year-old Austrian bartender who hopes more young Slovakians will boost the numbers on his football team. ”I now have Slovakian neighbours and we get on fine.”

But he notes that not everyone is as enthusiastic.

”Some families integrate well, others don’t. They keep to themselves or don’t always speak German. Some people don’t like it because they are buying land in the village and it is expensive for young people to do the same.”

Other border towns are not encouraging immigration from the east.

In Deutschkreutz, a market town near the Hungarian border that deployed a private frontier patrol a year ago, the number of foreign children entering local schools has been a problem, according to the far-right mayor.

But the interior minister expects about 1 500 temporary Austrian troops guarding the Hungarian and Slovakian borders will step down by the end of 2009, as they’re no longer needed.

”It has only taken a year to prove that neither Austria nor other countries need worry about new dangers from the expansion,” Hungarian Ambassador Istvan Horvath said last month. — Reuters

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