25th Feb 2021


'Iron Curtain river' still divides the EU

A floating conference on the Danube has highlighted the limits of cross-border co-operation in a region where the river used to represent the "Iron Curtain."

Sailing through the spectacular gorge called the "Iron Gates", the around 70 participants at the "Danube Floating Conference" on Saturday (25 June) were amazed at the lack of traffic on the huge river. For several kilometres there was no other ship in sight.

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"This part is quite empty, both on the Romanian and the Serbian side. There are not so many people and they are also pretty poor parts of our countries, therefore the intensity of contacts is simply not there," said Bozidar Djelic, Serbia's EU affairs minister and vice-premier.

Speaking to the EUobserver on the "Elegant Lady" cruise ship, the Serbian official said that there are historical reasons for the lack of traffic.

"From 1945 until 1989, the Danube was also the Iron Curtain. Then unfortunately Yugoslavia disappeared, Romania had its own issues and problems - it's only really in the last few years that we're turning more towards each other and I see it in the cross-border co-operation with Romania that there are a lot of projects and those contacts will increase in the years to come," he said.

This lack of exchange over the Danube - which forms a natural border between Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria for hundreds of kilometers - is also visible in Drobeta Turnu-Severin, a Romanian port across the river from Serbia. There, despite the proximity, nobody would exchange Serbian dinars into Romanian lei.

"We never cross to the other side," says a Romanian teenager. "And you can't use dinars here - only euros and dollars." Before 1989, Drobeta used to be one of the escape points for people wanting to flee the misery and repression under the Communist dictatorship. Hundreds got shot or drowned while trying to swim to the Yugoslav shore.

One way to overcome these scars and lift the standard of living of those along these shores is to sell "regional tourism destinations," says Daniela Schily, organiser of the boat trip.

An EU strategy for the Danube, freshly endorsed by all 27 member states on Friday (24 June), is set to give extra political impetus to local authorities, NGOs and tourism operators in tapping EU funds for cross-border projects - still a largely under-used opportunity for most of these towns.

Schily, who works for the German organisation GIZ, implementing the grants of the German ministry of economic co-operation and development, said the boat conference is a way of showing "ministries [and] the political stakeholders how the Danube looks like here in the region".

Admitting that it was "not easy" to get everybody onboard, Schily said the ministries in Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania were very supportive, but noted that "mayors often don't have a very long lasting position, so it always takes time to communicate and build the connection to them."

Danube Strategy is a paper only

In order for the EU Danube Strategy to be successful, the German activist said that people should be "pragmatic".

"The Danube Strategy is a good paper, but paper cannot work in itself, people have to work. And for that, you have to show them examples, as we did in the very beginning of the European Union, which was an agreement for workers to co-operate on metal and steel - then they could forget the war because they got a business and got something to do together."

"It's the same here. If I tell a tour operator you can raise your business if you go together with the Croatians and the Serbian part - this makes sense and will make a better product. People to people contacts are very important for the strategy," Schily said.

Another conference participant, Erhard Busek, an Austrian politician who spent decades in the region on various co-operation platforms aimed at reconciling the troubled Balkans, such as the Stability Pact for South-Eastern Europe, said that the Danube strategy is no less than "a second step of European integration."

"Danube-based countries are not yet connected with each other and the rest of Europe. The river is a possibility to bring them together and have a better mutual understanding - on economic, cultural, but also political issues."

Building more bridges

What he would like to see accomplished by this strategy - which adds no extra EU funds, but just tries to make better use of the structural and pre-accession funds available for EU and candidate countries along the river, is to build more bridges.

"The Danube forms a border of 470 kilometres between Bulgaria and Romania and there is only one bridge. Common Europe means not only more physical bridges, but also mental ones. I want to see that the Danube Strategy is used to build all these badly needed bridges, in every sense, so that we manage to complete Europe."

From an environmental point of view, the strategy is also aimed at cleaning up the waters, largely polluted by sewage and hazardous substances which threaten the Danube Delta - a UN protected natural reservation of pelicans and other rare species.

An international commission for the protection of the Danube river already exists, but the EU strategy is now "a mechanism to get political attention to many of the issues that we've been dealing with," says the commission's secretary general, Philip Weller.

Serbia's capital Belgrade, from where the floating conference departed, has no waste water treatment plant. All the sewage water of its over one million inhabitants goes directly into the Danube. Budapest, which also lies on the Danube, only got a waste water treatment plant a few years ago, while Romania's Bucharest is in the process of constructing one with EU funds.


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