When I lived in Vienna, in 2001-2002, I lived in the 11th District, Simmering, a roughish working-class suburb struck through with railway lines and motorway spurs. Specifically, I lived in one of the four huge brick gasometers of the former city gasworks, once Europe’s biggest, now redeveloped as a mixture of shops, flats and a concert hall.
One thing that cheered me, looking at the dire OVP-FPO government with its mixture of dishonest hacks and barely-contained racist scum, was that surely this provincialism was on the way out. With the enlargement of the EU, not only did Austria stand to make huge economic gains, but surely it would liven up a bit?
There was at least some evidence of change. Around the 11. Bezirk, huge infrastructure projects were going on. The railyards were being enlarged, all kinds of commercial property being built, new terminal buildings at the airport..everyone was looking forward to a good old fashioned concrete binge.
There are excellent reasons for this. Among the curiosities of the district was the vast, closed cattle market, built to serve the entire Austro-Hungarian empire and still linked to the railways by tracks I walked along to visit it and was rather surprised to see were still operational (no trains, thank God, but the signals were, I realised, still lit). The structure, a masterpiece of Victorian cast-iron modular construction, was to be maintained in among huge projects like Deutsche Telekom’s HQ for southeastern Europe and a biotech research centre.
The gesamteindruck was bizarre – bits of semi-farmland stuck among the remains of late imperial industry and the beginnings of new European commerce. My running route took in a smallholding that looked like something out of Chagall, the hyper-postmodern Gasometer development, and various Victorian/Edwardian railway embankments and factories.
Depressingly, though, when I was back there recently, although the construction boom between the Schwechat airport and town is even more obvious, the politics haven’t got any better. Peter Westenthaler, a Simmering local boy who as FPO chief whip was given, back in 2001, to accusing Green MPs of being Nazis, is back on the scene in JÃ¶rg Haider’s new party. He spent the intervening period as an executive with the car parts firm Magna, which no-one seriously thought was a real job, and is now living on…well, no-one knows. He denies having been paid off from Magna, nor drawing a salary, and the party denies paying him, but JÃ¶rg claims he’s sending “food transports of Carinthian delicacies” for him.
More seriously, Westenthaler is campaigning on a ticket of reducing the number of foreigners in Austria by 30 per cent. His old party, the bit of the FPO that Haider’s fanclub left with the election campaign debts, is trying to counter that by promising a total end to immigration if their man, Hans-Christian Strache, gets elected. Both might be right. I can’t see why anyone would want to emigrate to Austria with one of those two in power.
Back on the theme of infrastructure, meanwhile, a hydrofoil service has been launched between Vienna and Bratislava. This sounds cool, and probably is, but it points up several things. Vienna and Bratislava (or Pressburg as the link puts it) are less than 30 miles apart. Back in the day, the two cities’ tram systems were interconnected, not to mention the railways.
These days, though, 16 years since the borders opened, it’s still stupid difficult to travel between the two. Drive, and there is no reasonable road – there is a motorway from Vienna to Budapest, but for Bratislava you swing off just after Vienna airport and spend the next hour following country lanes along the Hungarian border. Go by train, and it varies dramatically depending on the route. The shortest route is north of the Danube, and that was the old route, but the section over the border is unelectrified and single tracked! But that one, at least sometimes, goes to the central station in Bratislava.
Leave from the South Station, though, and you either spend an age working through the same route as the road route, or race down to Bruck an der Leitha and then slow down..and end up in the bridgehead suburb of Petrzalka, famous for its hundreds of identical white tower blocks and on the wrong side of the river.
The point? It’s not just that the Austrians are being snotty (again), but there’s a serious difference between the situation towards Hungary – good rail link, due to be upgraded, and direct motorway – and Slovakia, with cart tracks and weedy sidings. Slovakia swung badly off the path to EU membership in the 90s under Vladimir Meciar, and it’s only recently caught up. And, with 10 year lead times, that counts for a lot.