'Super region' plan to revive empire

John Hooper in Rome
Tuesday September 23, 2003
The Guardian

Political leaders from three countries, including Austria's controversial far-rightwinger, Jorg Haider, are pushing for creation of a new European "super-region" that would slice through national boundaries and take in a large part of the old Austro-Hungarian empire.

The plan is likely to meet a frosty response from Tony Blair and other European leaders who are keen to ensure that power in the European Union stays with nation states.

Riccardo Illy, recently elected president of the north-eastern Italian region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, told the newspaper La Stampa the projected "super-region" was planned to extend from Austria to Rijeka on the Croatian coast. It would also include his own region and parts of Slovenia.

He said Mr Haider, governor of the Austrian state of Carinthia, had been "very positive". The scheme had won the backing of the mayor of a key Croatian local authority and was under discussion with the Slovenian government.

Cooperation agreements have been signed between adjoining regions in Germany and the Netherlands, as well as in Poland and the Czech republic. But, said Mr Illy, they had mostly covered a single area such as the environment.

"We want to give birth to a broader coordination of infrastructure, economic development, energy, culture, health and tourism [policies]."

Mr Illy noted the peoples of north-eastern Italy, southern Austria, Slovenia and Croatia had been subjects of the same states for more than five centuries. "They are used to economic and cultural exchanges, and close social relations."

His plan would reunite territories that all formed part of the Austro-Hungarian empire that ended in 1918.

Mr Illy's proposal reflected growing concern over the impact of Balkan rivalries on the opportunities for trade and development in the area.

Since being elected regional president for the centre-left in June he has criticised Slovenia for blocking a road link to Croatia, and Croatia for plans to extend its territorial waters in the Adriatic.

Not the least surprising aspect of the scheme is his readiness for links with Mr Haider, founder of Austria's arch-conservative Freedom party. Mr Illy said: "It is years since he used xenophobic rhetoric, [and] he is no longer leader of the party."