Page last updated at 09:44 GMT, Thursday, 23 October 2008 10:44 UK

Slovaks buying up parts of Austria

When the EU's Schengen passport- and border-free zone expanded last year to include former Communist Eastern Europe, one of the least enthusiastic countries was Austria, where fear of foreigners has long been a feature of the national debate.

But in the very eastern tip of the country, along the River Danube that forms the border with Slovakia, the reality of Schengen is changing both attitudes and lives, the BBC's Rob Cameron reports.

Wolfsthal Mayor Gerhard Schodinger and his wife
Mayor Gerhard Schodinger is now married to a Slovak policewoman

"I'm not a friend of borders," says Gerhard Schodinger, former border guard and mayor of Wolfsthal, a small Austrian town just two kilometres from the Slovak border.

It is an odd statement for a man who spent years guarding that border against unwanted intruders.

Then again, Mr Schodinger is not your average mayor.

"The last man who died on the border died in my hands," he says.

"It was April 1989. They were two young guys from East Germany. They tried to smash through the barrier with their car. One guy didn't duck in time.

"The roof of the car stayed on the Slovak side, the rest of the car ended up on our side. The guy who ducked made it to Austria. The other guy, well..."

Mayor's welcome

The incident, six months before the collapse of communism, has clearly helped shape Mr Schodinger's world view.


Wolfsthal, a town of 1,050 inhabitants, now has 50 Slovak families, with more arriving all the time.

Mayor Schodinger personally welcomes each and every one of them.

"If you say - we don't want you here, well, they will still come. And then what?

"They have the right to live here. It's better to welcome them," he says.

When the Slovak-Austrian border disappeared with the enlargement of Schengen, Mr Schodinger's job disappeared with it. He became a regular policeman in the neighbouring town of Berg.

He is now heading a joint Slovak-Austrian police contact group, so he still sees his former Slovak colleagues on a regular basis.

One of them he sees every morning - he married her. They have two sons, and their timbered house resounds with a mixture of Slovak and German.

Professor's story

Slovaks were living in Austria before Schengen, of course; like any other EU citizens, they have had the right to live anywhere they want in the EU since Slovakia joined in 2004.

Prof Podhoransky and his family in Wolfsthal
Prof Podhoransky moved to Wolfsthal with his family three months ago

But they cannot work here, or at least not without a work permit from the authorities. Austria was one of a number of EU countries that negotiated restrictions to protect their labour markets from cheap workers from the east.

However, there is nothing to stop Slovaks living in Austria and working in Slovakia. Schengen has made "cross-border commuting" highly attractive to Slovaks looking for a better standard of life, and the pleasant, picturesque Austrian towns dotted along the Danube are their first stop.

A few metres down the road, the strains of a cello resonate through a large, comfortable villa.

Jozef Podhoransky - a cellist and professor of music from Bratislava - is showing off his favourite instrument, made in Vienna in 1779.

Three months ago Prof Podhoransky moved to Wolfsthal with his wife and their 11-year-old son. Borders, he tells me, never meant much to the Podhoransky family, a Central European mixture of Slovaks, Germans and Hungarians.

"My grandmother was born in 1917, in Austro-Hungary. For 89 years she lived in one city - Bratislava - but the country changed six or seven times," Prof Podhoransky says with a twinkle in his eye.

He reaches forward for a slice of apple strudel - that most Central European of cakes - before continuing.

"My great-grandfather, once a month he would get on his horse and ride from Bratislava to the opera in Vienna. That was his opera. That was his home.

"For us it's the same. We've only been waiting for this moment, for the borders to disappear."

Economic migrants

Like hundreds of Slovaks now living in Austria, Prof Podhoransky still commutes to work.

Monika Haklova
Monika Haklova says nearly all of her clients in Austria are Slovaks

On a good day the 10km (six miles) drive from Wolfsthal to Bratislava's Academy of Performing Arts takes just 12 minutes.

Before Schengen, Slovak-registered cars and buses were sometimes held up for hours by Austrian border guards. Now the guards - and the barriers - are gone.

Wolfsthal recently became the first town in Austria to be linked to Bratislava's public transport system, reviving an old Austro-Hungarian tradition: a tram once ran between Bratislava (or Pressburg as it was known then) and Vienna.

Prof Podhoransky and his family moved to Wolfsthal primarily for the peace and quiet - his cello no longer bothers the neighbours.

But for many of his compatriots, the chief reason is economic.

"We're currently selling land in a town called Nickelsdorf for 32 euros (25) per square metre," says estate agent Monika Haklova, whose Bratislava-based property firm has just opened an office in Austria.

"In Cunovo, a similar-sized town just outside Bratislava, land costs between 200 and 250 euros (155-194) per square metre," Ms Haklova explains.

She says 99% of her clients are Slovaks, and 60% of those are Bratislavans fleeing noise, pollution and sky-high property prices. She herself moved to Austria earlier this year.

I ask about the credit crunch and its affect on the local housing market. She shakes her head and laughs. No financial crisis here.


Not everywhere, however, welcomes Slovaks with open arms, says Ms Haklova.

Bus stop in Wolfsthal
Wolfsthal is now linked to Bratislava's public transport system

"They don't want their towns and villages to become dormitories for Slovaks," she says.

Even in Slovak-friendly Wolfsthal, there is some resistance to the influx. A glance at the recent election results posted on the town notice board reveals that more than 25% of the votes cast went to the anti-immigration far-right.

Mayor Schodinger, a member of the conservative People's Party, dismisses those results with a wave of his hand.

But surely there is some hostility in Wolfsthal towards the Slovaks?

"Yes, there is some," he concedes, "but nobody will change my policy of welcoming them. They can say what they want. But nobody will change my mind."

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