“I could have never imagined that this border would ever vanish” – new dynamics in European mobilities

September 13, 2018

By Bernhard Perchinig

How old you are plays a critical role in your experience of borders at the edges of Austria, Slovakia and Hungary.

As part of our research into the changing dynamics of mobility in this region, one civil servant, who works for the government of the federal province of Lower Austria, remembered his childhood:

“As a child, I could see the barbed wire and the machine-gun towers of the iron curtain from my window, and we heard shootings from time to time.”

“I could have never imagined that this border would ever vanish, and (I) have left the village (where) I grew up because I did not want to raise my children close to barbed wire and machine guns.”

Today, these borders no longer exist.

Another of our subjects, a teacher, explained how this seems strange to current students: “Most of my pupils cannot imagine that some thirty years ago this was the border between communism and the West, this is history for them.”

Our analysis on cross-border mobilities in the Austrian-Hungarian and Austrian-Slovak border regions – which has been undertaken as part of the EU-funded REMINDER project – asks how cross-border mobility has developed there after the demise of the “Iron Curtain”, the accession of the “new” EU Member States, and the abolition of border controls.

It examines what effects experts see on these border regions, and considers the future of cross-border mobility in this area.

While we see that mobility still is mainly unidirectional from Slovakia and Hungary to Austria, the report identifies that the processes have been complex and that a multitude of mobilities have developed in the border regions. In general, persistent differences in employment opportunities and income levels and specific regional economic and spatial opportunity structures shape cross-border mobility.[1]

There are important differences in the development of the border region between Slovakia and Austria and the border region between Hungary and Austria: The Austrian-Slovak border region is characterised not only by labour mobility, but also by increasing residential mobility towards Austria, and a slight growth in the mobility of managers who commute from Vienna to Bratislava. However the experts we interviewed agreed that current labour market conditions meant that labour mobility between Hungary and Austria would stay unidirectional (from Hungary to Austria). However, due to demographic changes (i.e. ageing of the population), experts expect that commuting from Slovakia will stagnate as the younger generation is re-orientating its mobility towards English speaking countries. On the other hand, the younger generation in Hungary is expected to continue to be interested in commuting to Austria.

The key driver of this divergence between the two regions is that the Austrian-Slovak border region is moulded by the proximity of two large cities – Vienna and Bratislava. Bratislava is a regional economic centre with a large automotive industry and a growing financial sector, and – with the improved road and fast train connections between Vienna and Bratislava – there are numerous opportunities for cross-border labour mobility in both directions.

At the Austrian-Hungarian border there have been sizeable investments into retail and tourism on the Austrian side leading to cross-border commuting from Hungary. This is, for example, the case in the northern part of the Burgenland. The southern part of the border region still is mainly agrarian, and no economic centres comparable with Bratislava exist in Hungary close enough to the Austrian border to generate cross-border mobility.

As well as cross–border labour commuting, residential mobility and educational mobility have developed, as our interviews show. These types of mobility would benefit from increased attention from migration scholars – who might do well to refocus on the role of mobility for the social relations of the individual migrant – particularly in areas such as the Austrian borders with Slovakia and Hungary.

Residential mobility mainly involves Slovak citizens building a house in Austria and commuting back to Bratislava. This choice is facilitated by cheaper real estate prices in Austria and financial support by the state for young families to build a home there. This has led to regional integration beyond labour mobility.

As with labour mobility, educational mobility is primarily geared towards movements into Austria and was mainly reported as something undertaken by Hungarian citizens who chose to place their children in Austrian schools. However, Austrian regulations demanding that pupils of compulsory school age have their main residence registration in the municipality of the school have created limitations on this practice and hampered freedom of movement of commuters, who prefer to enrol their children close to their place of work, according to interviewees.

Overall, our analysis shows that cross-border mobility is shaped by the specific spatial, economic and cultural conditions of a given border region. The abolition of the borders between the EU Member States is, therefore, only one factor in shaping stronger regional integration, which still mainly depends on the politics of Member States and regional and municipal administrations.


You can read the working paper here.

About the author

Bernhard Perchinig is a Senior Research Officer at ICMPD with more than 30 years of research and consultancy experience in the field of migration, integration and citizenship studies.


[1] According to Galster & Sharke (2017, 7), the “spatial opportunity structure” is conceptualised as “panoply of markets, institutions, services, and other natural and human-made systems that have a geographic connection and play important roles in people’s socioeconomic status achievements.”

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