Visiting a museum in Budapest last month my wife and I were surprised and mildly irritated when the cashier refused, rather grumpily, to allow us to benefit from the reduced “Seniors” entrance fee. Had this been because my youthful good looks made it difficult for her to believe that I was above the age threshold I might not have minded so much. However, it transpired that the refusal was because the concession was only available to EEA citizens and we were undeniably British. Another unwelcome and frustrating, albeit trivial, side effect of Brexit to go with the regular humiliation of having to queue with “other passengers” for passport control at borders and airports.
Budapest was the mid-point on our river journey from Amsterdam to Bucharest, a journey that has only been possible since 1992 when the 160 km Main-Donau Canal was opened enabling ships to navigate from the North Sea to the Black Sea. Although disagreeable, the incident at the museum gave me cause to reflect on the fact that, along its length, the Danube represents much of the recent history of the EU. We had passed through the Netherlands and Germany, two of the original six member states of the Coal and Steel Community in 1951, then successively through states which joined in the 1995, 2004, 2007 and 2013 enlargements. In January of this year Croatia became the latest state to adopt the euro as its currency, and even in the non-member states, the euro was widely accepted.
There were also of course many reminders of much darker times. Most of the region had fallen under brutal Nazi occupation and had suffered genocide, slavery and repression. One of the most poignant of all Holocaust memorials is this sculpture in Budapest of life-sized casts of shoes which dozens of Jews were ordered to discard before being shot and their bodies dumped into the adjacent river.
The Liberation in 1945 brought only temporary relief as a series of authoritarian communist governments was installed, mostly under Soviet patronage. The exception was the former Yugoslavia where the president, Marshal Tito, although a committed communist, resisted Soviet hegemony and developed a more decentralised form of government which kept the underlying ethnic tensions of the region under control and contributed to a significant improvement in the economy and living standards. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia too dissolved into its constituent nations which (with the exception of Slovenia) in the early 1990s, engaged in a bloody civil war with war crimes and other atrocities including genocide (again). As we passed through Croatia and Serbia many towns, although outwardly returning to peace and prosperity, bore the scars of burned-out homes and destroyed infrastructure. That civil war was in the uncomfortably recent past and we were reminded of its origins by the narratives of respectively Croatian and Serbian guides. Currently rising tensions between Serbia and Kosovo are a further reminder of the fragility and volatility of the region.
The Danube Commission
Finally, in this context, I should mention the Danube Commission, an early prototype of the supra national institutions we are familiar with in the EU. First established by the Paris Peace treaty of 1856 it has gone through various iterations, notably to take account of changes in national borders following the First and Second World Wars. It is now governed by the convention on navigation on the Danube signed in Belgrade in August 1948 and has its seat in Budapest.
The eleven member states (including Russia) meet there to legislate for safe and consistent navigation rules on the river as well as the monitoring and control of environmental and economic issues in the riparian States. Most recently the Danube Commission, in cooperation with the EU, has contributed to the creation of “Solidarity Lanes” on the Danube to ensure continuity of trade in the region and importantly, the export of agricultural products from Ukraine. Indeed, we saw several Ukrainian flagged barges laden with grain bound for the safer ports of Romania and Bulgaria further inland.
- At 2857 km from its source in the Black Forest to the Black Sea, the Danube is Europe’s second longest river, after the Volga.
- It flows through Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary and Serbia. It forms all, or a substantial part of the borders between Hungary and Slovakia, Croatia and Serbia, Romania and both Bulgaria and Ukraine. Even Moldova has a princely 345 metres of Danube river frontage.
- The name of the river changes according to the language of the country that it is flowing through: in Germany and Austria it is the Donau, in Slovakia it is called the Duna, in Hungary it becomes the Duna while in Croatia, Serbia and Bulgaria it is the Dunav (spelled in Cyrillic script in the latter two countries). Finally, in Romania, it is known as the Dunārea.
- It flows through four national capitals, Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade.
- Its catchment basin covers about one fifth of the EU land area
- Around 83 million people live in its catchment basin.
- There are 18 locks on the Danube.
- At Passau the river is 200 metres wide, by Vienna it is 300m wide, at Budapest it reaches 560m and at the apex of its delta it is just over one kilometre wide.