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Regional Outlook : Move Over London, Paris, Rome: New Cities Want the Spotlight : Central European capitals believe that they are more attuned to the changes taking place on the Continent and that location, history and culture give them an edge.

July 10, 1990|WILLIAM TUOHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VIENNA — Traditionally, the European capitals recognized as the major centers of political, economic and cultural power were automatically taken to be London, Paris and Rome.

Big Ben still tolls over the Mother of Parliaments, the Eiffel Tower overlooks the City of Light and the Colosseum has not crumbled in the Eternal City.

But nowadays other cities aspire to super-capital status in the new Europe.

Yesterday it was Brussels mushrooming as the center of the European Economic Community; today it is Vienna that wants to be the Gateway to Eastern Europe; and tomorrow, perhaps, it will be a united Berlin demanding recognition as Europe's powerhouse capital.

But cities like Budapest and Prague, too, are attempting to upgrade their status as something more than national capitals.

Their aspirations are fueled by a changing Europe that is becoming more interdependent--leading to the rise of regional capitals--while at the same time shifting its center of gravity eastward.

Central European capitals believe themselves to be more closely attuned to the rapid and remarkable changes taking place on the Continent--both political and economic--with vast potential markets opening in Eastern Europe from the Baltic to the Adriatic and Black Seas.

These cities plan to take advantage of their geographical and cultural relationships with a Europe that is increasingly coming closer, attracting the former Communist countries into its orbit.

These emerging capitals believe that London, Paris and Rome have been slow to realize the potential of the new political architecture of Europe--an architecture that, whatever final shape it takes, will surely be more canted to the East.

At the same time, the British, French and Italians are belatedly waking up to the fact that they could be somewhat eclipsed in the new Europe.

London, for instance, is making a major pitch for the site of the new International Bank for Eastern Europe. Paris offers itself as the venue for pan-European conferences and is playing political hardball on behalf of Strasbourg to ensure that the European Parliament does not shift to Brussels. Rome and Milan, relying on Italy's former close ties with Yugoslavia and Austria-Hungary, are sending their salespeople east with their order books.

In short, everyone wants a piece of the new European action.

Unquestionably, the potential of new opportunities among the hundreds of millions of potential customers in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union is staggering.

And the eventual adhesion of more European countries to the 12-member European Community could make it the most powerful economic force in the world.

Currently, Vienna is perhaps the European city most involved in capitalizing on the shift of balance to the East--and may serve as a prototype for others.

Vienna proudly points to its history as the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a vast domain that once stretched from the North Sea almost to the Black Sea, its bloodstream the mighty Danube, Western Europe's longest river.

As the Hapsburg monarchy's capital, Vienna ruled many peoples, East and West: Germans, Belgians, Dutch, Spaniards, Italians, Hungarians, Croats, Serbs, Poles, Romanians, Slovaks, Slovenes.

The defeat of the Austro-Hungarians in World War II turned Vienna into a provincial Middle European capital. But after decades of slumbering, the city of Mozart, Metternich, the Strausses and Freud has reawakened.

In recent years, Vienna has become an international center with a U.N. complex, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the long-running meeting of the 35-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). Today its handsome streets are crowded, its stores a cornucopia of fancy goods, its turn-of-the-century coffee houses restored to operetta elegance and its focus on the East.

According to one estimate, 700 Western firms now cover Eastern Europe from regional offices in Vienna.

The list of new arrivals includes Coca-Cola (Pepsico was already there), Hewlett-Packard, American Express, Bosch, Daimler-Benz, Honeywell and Miele. Dozens of East European firms, too, are locating in Vienna.

"Austria has the advantage of intimacy, mutual affinity and personal contacts developed over decades," explains William Hedricks, president of an Austrian trade association in Vienna. "East Europeans often prefer to do business with the Austrian branches of foreign firms."

The new World Trade Center at Vienna Airport will serve as a meeting place for business people from East and West; the city is beefing up flights to Eastern Europe, and high-speed rail lines are planned to bring Budapest in Hungary and Bratislava in Czechoslovakia within commuting distance.

The Austrian capital intends to attract millions of visitors to the six-month-long World's Fair in 1995, fittingly called "Bridges to the Future," jointly sponsored by Vienna and Budapest--the first twin-city, world-class exposition ever held.

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