April 12, 2007 / 10:49 AM / in 11 years

Habsburg reloaded? Immigrants set to swell Vienna

VIENNA (Reuters) - Rising immigration from its eastern neighbours is putting Vienna on track to become one of Europe’s fastest-growing regions and transform its population over the next 25 years to resemble its imperial past.

Nestled in the Alpine country’s eastern corner, the Austrian capital is forecast to grow by 20 percent to nearly two million people by 2031, compared with just under 2 percent population growth predicted by Eurostat for the European Union as a whole.

And similar to the eve of World War One, when Emperor Franz Joseph I ruled Austria-Hungary, half the population will be first- or second-generation immigrants, said Gustav Lebhart, a researcher at Austria’s statistics office and co-author of a new study.

“History is sort of repeating itself,” Lebhart told Reuters. “Around the turn of the 20th century, in the imperial age, Vienna also had some 2 million inhabitants, and half of them had an immigration background as well.”

Caravans of buses carry commuters daily in and out of Vienna — the city is just an hour’s drive from the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, and closer as the crow flies to Ukraine than to Austria’s western border with Switzerland.

The coming wave will change the face of Vienna’s immigrant population, currently dominated by Turks — many of whom came for work in the 1960s — and people from the former Yugoslavia, both seeking work and fleeing the 1990s civil wars.

However, while the Turkish community is visible in parts of Vienna like the Ottakring district where Turkish fruit stalls dominate the market, eastern Europeans tend more to blend in — much as they did in the past.

The new forecast puts Vienna among the 10 fastest-growing European regions, in a league with flourishing areas in Ireland and parts of the Netherlands and Spain, ahead of the shrinking countries from which many of the new Viennese originate.

The expected shift in immigration comes after Austrian companies, especially banks, acquired a series of firms in eastern Europe and have transformed Vienna into a regional commercial hub over the past 15 years.

Austria shielded itself against a glut of cheap labour with transient quotas for workers and bans on self-employed craftsmen when eight eastern European countries joined the EU in 2004, followed by Romania and Bulgaria this year.

But those restrictions are due to expire by 2011, and have not stopped Austrians from stealthily hiring Czech nurses for their elderly relatives, Slovak cleaners and Polish builders.

“Future immigration will to a large extent come from EU member countries, and therefore be hard to contain, even if you wanted to,” says Thomas Madreiter, head of urban planning at the city of Vienna, which commissioned the as-yet unpublished study.

HABSBURG RELOADED

To cope with the growth, Vienna will double spending on new housing — 535 million euros (364 million pounds)last year — over the next years, Madreiter said.

That may help counter a backlash from right-wing parties, which have already made inroads among the ruling Social Democrats’ voters on an anti-immigration ticket.

The 19th-century Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich famously said the Balkans began at Vienna’s Rennweg, a street starting close to the city centre.

The Vienna Congress which he orchestrated reorganised Europe and sparked a flood of people from the empire’s provinces to the Habsburg capital, helping build Vienna into one of the biggest cities on earth at the time.

Slavic names like Prohaska, Nowotny or Redak still abound, bearing witness to this heritage. Restaurant menus in Vienna, Prague or Budapest share dozens of identical traditional dishes.

The tide turned after Austria’s losing part in two world wars, when the population shrank as nearly 200,000 Viennese Jews fled or were killed by the Nazis.

The bustling commercial and political centre suddenly became a backwater on the edge of the Iron Curtain.

“We had decades of stagnating and even falling population,” says Madreiter. “Now Vienna is a city of immigration again.”

Additional reporting by Alexandra Zawadil, Paul Hoskins in Dublin and Foo Yun Chee in Amsterdam

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