The Danube Strategy: increasing inclusivity and innovation

‘A Cascading Identity’

The EU’s Strategy for the Danube Region (EUSDR), founded in 2011 with the support of European Commissioner Johannes Hahn, is the most intriguing and heterogenous of all the macro-regional strategies. A middle-child, sandwiched between the births of the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region (EUSBSR, 2009) and the EU Strategy for the Alpine Region (EUSALP, 2015), the EUSDR brings together fourteen countries in radically different stages of economic development and membership status – nine are EU Member States, four are candidate or potential candidate countries and one is a country of the European Neighbourhood: Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Germany (represented by the Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria regions), Hungary, Moldova, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Ukraine (represented by the four south-western regions, Chernivetska, Ivano-Frankiviska, Odessa, Zakarpatska).

There are vast economic divergences across the region. The Danube flows from some of the wealthiest nations in the world (Germany and Austria) to some of the continent’s more impoverished peoples (80% of Europe’s Roma live in the Danube basin, a total of 5.2 million). The river – so often a symbol of the boundaries between Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine – is now like a belt trying to wrap some of the widest and thinnest waists. “It’s an interesting geometry”, says Georgios Zisimos, Head of the ETF’s Policy Advice and EU Programming Unit.

By almost every statistical criterion, the differences between the participating countries are stark: many western countries have witnessed a clear trend towards immigration whereas Moldova saw a net migration rate of -9.3% in 2018. The relevance of the manufacturing sector as an economic driver varies vastly between countries: industry in the Czech economy accounts for 36% of economic added value; in Baden-Württemberg 40%; in Montenegro, it’s less than 20%. ‘There’s a cascading identity that changes along the river,’ says Erja Kaikkonen, Head of the ETF's Policy and Public Outreach Department. One third of the EU population at risk of poverty lives in the Danube Region, and yet it’s also an area which represents undeniable opportunity: between 2010 and 2018 the increase in GDP in the area was 32% compared to an EU-28 average of 24%.

Softness and Skills

Roland Hanak, working out of Austria’s Federal Ministry of Labour and Economy, has been a priority area coordinator since the very outset. His understanding of ‘strategy’ is deliberately counter-intuitive.

“When you think about that word, ‘strategy’, you might think about the origin of the word in a military context. A good strategy is when you have certain means and you use them in a clever way. But when we started this Danube Strategy, we were faced with ‘three no’s’: no new money, no new legislation and no new institutions. And that would proclaim a strategy without means.”

So the strategy was forced to be ‘soft’. When you talk to people about the EUSDR, the words which recur repeatedly are ‘reciprocal’, ‘cooperation’ and ‘collaboration’. The Strategy is not an ideological imposition but a creation of relationships. Relationships are hard, rarely reducible to concrete targets, investment returns and outright victories. But the freedom afforded by no funds and no institutions meant that, according to Roland Hanak and Jörg Mirtl,

the Strategy’s ‘“soft” character… in reality often proves to be a considerable advantage, as this very openness can make things happen without the constraints that are often to be found in more formalised contexts and formats.’

The stated aim of the Strategy is

to provide ‘people with jobs in an ever-changing world of work, to cope with the challenges and opportunities of digitalisation in the labour market and in education, and to work towards an inclusive Danube Region, where the basic needs of everyone, including marginalised communities, are met and high standards and core values of living together and social justice are upheld.’

Given that definition, it’s clear that skills have always been central to the vision. As João Santos, from the Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion at the European Commission, has said this month:

‘We cannot have ambitious regional strategies if we don’t have the skills.’

2023 is the European Year of Skills and 43 Centres of Vocational Excellence have already been founded in the Danube Region. Pioneered, advised and mentored by the ETF, these clusters of industrial centres, vocational schools, training colleges, engineering hubs and logistics pinch-points are transmission vehicles for excellence. Requiring the cooperation of many moving parts – ministries, municipalities, companies, chambers of commerce, third sector partners, development agencies, public employment services and research institutions – the creation of such spaces hasn’t been simple. As Hanak wearily wrote in the document celebrating the first ten years of the EUSDR, ‘macro-regional strategies have created a lot of bureaucratic exercises, red tape and navel gazing.’ But construction academies were established in Serbia, Croatia and Moldova; in Moldova, a financial-sector certification centre was set up on the same principles. School curricula have been modernised and digitalised. Qualifications have been compared and standardised.

In all this, the river itself isn’t only symbolic.

‘It’s important’, says the ETF’s Ulrike Damyanovic Senior Human Capital Development Expert, who has supported the Danube Strategy since 2011, ‘because in all macro-economic strategies you need natural resources. The Danube means life, energy, horticulture, agriculture. Everyone talks about energy and water-supply, and the Danube as a source of both can become vital.’

Since green skills and social inclusion are the current focus of the Strategy, the waterway gains relevance by fashioning itself as a means of green transport and tourism, sustainable irrigation and as a guarantor of biodiversity. One of the Strategy’s many ground-level projects is organised by the Danube Sturgeon Task Force, attempting to protect one of the river’s most regal fish which is now endangered by our human greed for caviar.

The eTwinning project – offering exchanges between school staff in 43 countries – has been very active in the EUSDR, with 419 teachers having taken part in Danube Region conferences between 2013 and 2021. As well as high-end industrial strategies, there have also been dozens of school-based projects to forge a sense of shared destiny: the creation of a compendium of old recipes, satellite mappings of favourite places in the Danube basin, comparisons of healthy and unhealthy lifestyles and so on.


The EUSDR has certainly been stress-tested this year. The Russian invasion of Ukraine represented a humanitarian and economic hit to the country which is currently President of the Strategy (the baton passes to Slovenia in 2023). Nadija Afanasieva, Director of the Ukrainian Institute for International Politics, says that the Danube family has been an important forum in which to communicate the country’s needs: ‘We could present our needs to an international audience, issues connected to emigration, education, psychological support, adaptation…’

Suddenly the EUSDR finds itself on the globe’s hottest geopolitical fault line as issues of energy resilience, inflation and supply-chain chaos are reverberating throughout the continent. There are labour supply problems in many western European countries, and mass-unemployment in eastern ones. Whilst brain- and muscle-drain is a serious challenge within the macro-region, it’s recognised that there are reciprocal and complimentary needs within the participating countries.

‘Companies everywhere can’t find people’, says Ulrike Damyanovic, ‘and that is problematic. If you cannot do your harvest, if you don’t have workers, it’s a complex issue. But we try to sit around a table and see how we can do this better: exchange staff, perform forecast exercises, ensure better education and skills development…’

‘It’s not purely idealistic,’ says Jürgen Schick, from the Austria’s Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research and another coordinator of the EUSDR since its inception. ‘The region has a big geo-political focus for Austria, for instance in in economic terms. A democratic and stable region is of course important to Austria as it is to other countries in the region.’ The EUSDR has, he wrote last year, ‘an important integrative and cohesive function’.

So is the real strategy the bringing of new countries under the broad, inclusive EU umbrella?

‘Of course,’ smiles Hanak, ‘the European idea of cohesion should help everybody. Here there are such big differences in a relatively small area and you can see the consequences when there is no trade…’

According to Afanasieva, over the past decade, the EUSDR has inevitably led to a convergence of practice.

She points to the creation, ‘from zero, of Ukraine’s internal audit structure. We understood that Ukraine didn’t have a European level of financial-control bodies. It was an opportunity to understand how the financial resources of the European fund are controlled and it’s a step towards, hopefully, European funds being made available to a candidate country.’


Jose Manuel Galvin Arribas, ETF’s Senior Human Capital Development Expert & thematic coordinator of vocational excellence, recognises that the area faces strong headwinds:

‘There is an energy crisis, there are economic and ecological crises, there are geopolitical tensions. But when you get a region together and you manage to coordinate voices and reconcile interests, you really can make progress at learning. The challenge is whether there’s progress on policy learning, if the Danube region can reconcile national leaders.’

In the first decade of its existence, the EUSDR has attempted to forge a Danubian identity, creating a sense of cohesion and shared destiny along the iconic river. The ambition has been to create a skills reservoir that could flow where needed, increasing inclusivity and innovation. Like water itself, the strategy is both soft but also strangely powerful.


This article was originally published in the ETF's Learning Connects No.8 newsletter. Sign up here to receive newsletter Mailing list | ETF (


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