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The Danube Region

Danube_RegionDiplomats and politicians are rarely interested in rivers. In the case of this pivotal stretch of water, the Ambassador of Austria, His Excellency Emil Brix, says this is a mistake.

The Danube, Europe’s second-longest river at almost 3,000 kilometres, flows through four capitals (Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade) and through, or along the borders of, 10  countries (Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine). Of the 130 bridges spanning the international Danube waterway (ie, between Kelheim, Germany, and the Romanian Black Sea coast), ten connect different states. There are numerous islands: one, the Great War Island in Belgrade – with its history of battles between Austrians, Serbs and the Ottoman Empire – is today a nature reserve; while another, the Danube Island in Vienna, has become the home of Europe’s biggest annual open air festival (with up to three million visitors).

More impressive still, the Danube river basin covers an area of over 800,000 square kilometers, shared by some 19 different countries – more than any other river basin – and 83 million people. Thus the Danube links a region comprising old and new members of the European Union as well as potential EU-member states in South-Eastern Europe. This has always been a pivotal stretch of water – indeed, among German-speakers the historic empire of the Habsburgs is commonly referred to as the Donaumonarchie (Danube Monarchy). And today, more than 20 years since the collapse of Europe’s ideological East-West divide, the Danube is once again centre-stage in an integrating, enlarging Europe, as an example of the dynamics of cross-border co-operation.


Elias Canetti was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981. During his acceptance speech, he alluded to the change he was hoping for in Europe. To the ‘real Europe’ in the life of Canetti belonged Franz Kafka, ‘who had the gift of transforming himself into something small, thus evading power.’ It was this ‘something small’ – crucial for building and maintaining hope – that Canetti also sought to put at the centre of his memoirs describing a childhood in Ruse, a Bulgarian river port where many languages were spoken (his parents spoke German when they didn’t want him to understand them), different religions practised, and where the Danube was a powerful symbol of potential change: ‘If someone sailed up the Danube to Vienna, people said he was going to “Europe”.’

Nowadays, for the Danube region ‘going to Europe’ means investing in a regional identity based on common interests and laying traditional conflicts and resentments, whether real or imagined, to rest – in other words, achieving something great through becoming ‘something small’. And indeed, the people of the Danube region have a history of successful, economically competitive co-operation; for instance, the European Commission of the Danube, founded in 1856, was the first — and for a long time the only — international body for waterway management. This is good news for an EU that now insists on a ‘Europe of results’.


The European Commission, at the initiative of Austria and Romania, is currently preparing a strategy for the Danube region based on the pursuit of ‘Sustainable development…through an integrated approach to the specific challenges facing particular regions.’ These challenges include economic and social disparities, infrastructure deficiencies, environmental degradation and security risks.

Following the EU accessions of 2004 and 2007, there is a need – and therefore an opportunity – to overcome the legacy of former divisions, and for the potential of the Danube region as an integral part of the EU to be more fully realised and built upon. The EU’s strategy for the Danube region is within its 2020 framework; it is also in line with the adopted Lisbon Treaty which states that the EU shall promote economic, social and territorial cohesion and solidarity among its member states. These macro-regional strategies are prime test cases of what territorial cohesion means in practical terms.

Collaboration is vital: even simple, important steps such as improving water quality can only be achieved if all countries along the Danube work together. The Danube strategy, which is expected to be adopted in the first half of 2011 during Hungary’s EU presidency, represents a chance for European integration to realise tangible goals in a region that craves co-operation above all historical, ethnic and socio-economic divides.
These goals are:

• to improve networks for transport and energy;

• to protect the environment, preserve water resources and manage natural risks;

• to build robust economies and create better opportunities for young people; and

• to improve governance systems.

But the future of the Danube region cannot rest on bureaucratic wording alone, however worthy. Beyond national policies and European directives, what is required is an understanding and appreciation of the songs sung in its ports, the monuments built on its riverbanks and the desire of its people that their river remain the Blue Danube of Johan Strauss’s imagination. For this thing we call ‘Europe’ is composed of more than just politics and economics. I recommend you read Danube, a cultural travelogue by the Trieste-based writer Claudio Magris, which describes a river ‘along which different peoples meet and mingle and cross-breed, rather than being, as the Rhine is, a mythical custodian of the purity of race.’


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