When we think about Austrian-Slovak relations, the concept of symmetry/asymmetry is a productive approach. Austria and Slovakia, small neighboring states in central Europe, have many things in common, starting with important aspects of history, culture, and geography. On the other hand, the turbulences of the 20th century led to the situation that at the beginning of the 1990s in which the political, economic, and ideological differences between Austria and Slovakia were much greater than what appears to be natural.
Austria as a mentor
Political analyst Vladimír Bilčík has correctly stated that Austrian-Slovak relations since Slovakia’s independence in 1993 have been characterized by the successive overcoming of an asymmetrical relationship in the context of European integration. In other words, today, Slovakia, as well as Austria, are members of the European Union, the Schengen Area, and even of the eurozone. In the past, Austria occasionally assumed the role of a mentor for Slovakia’s European aspirations. It sometimes played the role of a critical referee judging the fulfillment of the conditions for membership of the EU and the Schengen Area.
This asymmetrical relationship also put Austria in a position to use pressure, for example, regarding the closing down of two blocks of the nuclear power plant in Jaslovské Bohunice. These times have gone. Today, both countries communicate on a level playing field. The close and friendly political relations among equals facilitate cooperation in many fields. Thanks to its membership in the Visegrad Group, Slovakia even has an additional platform to make its voice heard internationally, whereas Austria’s initiative for a “regional partnership” did not enjoy comparable success.
In addition, in the economic sphere, asymmetry has been significantly reduced. The figures of Eurostat, but also everyday experience tell us that the region of Bratislava has become wealthy, probably wealthier than the neighboring Austrian regions. Due to more affordable housing, many Slovaks have moved to Austria in recent years, while continuing to work in Bratislava (for more on this topic see Matteo Tacconi’s article “European Commuters” in Visegrad Insight 5(1)2014). In macroeconomic terms, a convergence of Slovakia and Austria’s economic performance is taking place, although it is slower than expected and will still take decades to eliminate the remaining disparities. Measured in GDP per capita in purchasing power standards, Slovakia jumped from 36% of the EU-15 average in 1992 to 71% in 2014. In the last decade, Slovakia also ranked among the top countries that according to Eurostat were successful in improving quality of life.
Strangers not neighbors
From what has been said so far, it might seem that increasing symmetry is the dominant feature of Austrian-Slovak relations. However, this is not the full picture. In a couple of areas, asymmetry remains the defining characteristic. Austria is the second largest investor in Slovakia, by some accounts the largest. Austrian banks and insurance companies, as well as thousands of medium-size enterprises are active in Slovakia. There is nothing of that kind the other way round.
On the other hand, thousands of young Slovaks study at Austrian universities, and an estimated 40,000 Slovak citizens have found work in Austria, often in the health-care sector. The number of Austrians studying and working in Slovakia is still marginal. In addition, the number of Austrian tourists visiting Slovakia for more than a couple of hours remains modest, whereas the quantity of Slovak tourists going to Austria has impressively grown in recent years.
These observations might simply indicate that a socio-economic gap between the two countries still exists. But there is also a psychological dimension to it. After 1989, the political class and population in Slovakia oriented themselves clearly to the West, and, as a consequence, towards Austria as the geographically closest western country. In Austria, the reorientation that took place after 1989 was much less thorough. While Austrian enterprises quickly understood that the Iron Curtain had disappeared, the same cannot be said about the bulk of the Austrian population.
As surveys show, interest and knowledge about Slovakia remain limited in Austria. According to a survey that was conducted in the Austrian-Slovak border region in 2012, only 38% of Austrians welcomed the abolishment of border controls, while the accession to Schengen was greeted unequivocally on the Slovak side. Additionally, the selective and scarce coverage of Slovakia in Austrian media does not really contribute to bridge the gap. In the words of the Slovak Minister of Foreign Affairs, Miroslav Lajčák: “I cannot be satisfied if two neighboring nations, sharing such a rich common history, are getting to know each other again at such a slow pace at a time of globalization and revolution in communications.”
Schengen border between Austria and Slovakia
The sluggish improvement of cross-border infrastructure can perhaps be attributed to this persistent feeling of strangeness. It took until 2007 to complete the missing 22 km of motorway on the Austrian side connecting the capitals of Vienna and Bratislava. And the number of bridges across the River Morava is still much lower than in the interwar period, thus complicating cross-border contacts north of the Danube. Also, in the sensitive area of nuclear energy, as analyst Alexander Duleba has pointed out, dialogue remains formalized and expert-based, as if strangers talked to each other, not neighbors that know each other well and trust each other.
Based on the observation of symmetry in politics, increasing symmetry in the economy, and persistent asymmetry in the minds, two recommendations can be formulated: Slovakia should intensify its efforts to strengthen its presence and improve its image in Austria, for example, by means of culture and professional PR; and Austria should be aware that in Slovakia it is still seen as a model in many regards. It, therefore, has the responsibility not to neglect its neighbor. All in all, the Austrian-Slovak relationship, despite the generally close and friendly ties, remains full of opportunities for further enhancement.
This article solely reflects the personal views of the author.
Simon Gruber is a lecturer at the Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts.