The practice of twinning towns is well established and often seized upon by civic leaders to cement intra-continental or even trans-continental cultural, economic and political partnerships.
The practice in the UK originated in the early part of the 20th century but really took over in the aftermath of the Second World War. Twinning was perceived as a way of reconciling a battered and divided Europe and as a way of cementing alliances between cities and regions. While security and economic organisations such as NATO and the EEC operated at a continental level, European twinning allowed for city-level cultural and political exchanges and encounters.
Sometimes twinning crossed over the so-called Iron Curtain. Coventry, Stalingrad and Dresden (1956) were twinned, and as such drew attention to their common experiences as ‘bombed cities’. Indeed, Coventry is often credited with being the first city to twin with Stalingrad in 1944, and since then has entered into over 20 other twinning relationships including Sarajevo (1957), Warsaw (1957) and Ostrava (1959). Peace and reconciliation were certainly powerful drivers in the post-war period and Coventry’s experience demonstrated that civic leaders were able to reach out to their communist and socialist counterparts in the south and east of Europe.
More recently, European Union officials saw ‘twinning’ as a way to promote pan-European sentiment and were eager to build upon the work of the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR) established in 1951. Twinning became closely linked to EEC and then EU expansion as the emergence of Portugal and Spain from military dictatorships initially, and then most dramatically the ending of the Cold War provided fresh opportunities to build new relationships at a city-on-city level. With EU financial support, twinning expanded in the 1990s and 2000s and the CEMR estimates there are now some 40,000 such arrangements between European cities and elsewhere.
“Political figures in Scotland and the Faroe Islands were reportedly exchanging views about whether the twinning relationship could survive”
Twinning is not always successful, however. In the last five years, there have been reports of British towns ending their relationships with continental European partners. In 2011, Bishop’s Stortford ended its relationship with Villiers-sur-Marne in France and Friedberg in Germany. A formal twinning relationship had existed since 1965, and some commentators at the time blamed euro-scepticism on the part of the Conservative-dominated local government. While this was denied, other examples from around the UK seemed to have pointed at a decisive shift away from the earlier idealism of twinning towns, with other cities and regions dispensing with their post-war relationships and exchanges.
Other civic leaders have blamed austerity for cost-cutting measures relating to twinning exchanges, and a changing media and communication landscape where social media, European integration and budget airlines make it much easier for cross-European encounters. So neglect and indifference might also be playing a role.
Twinning can also just be controversial. The most recent example involved the Scottish town of Wick and Klaksvík in the Faroe Islands, a constituent element of the Kingdom of Denmark. The twinning relationship appeared to make sense given their shared locations in the Northern Atlantic, a ferry link and a fishing industry. And it would have remained a relatively uncontroversial relationship had not unease grown in Wick about the practice of the grindadráp – the annual whale hunt involving the killing of pilot whales. Local political figures in Scotland and the Faroe Islands were reportedly exchanging views about whether the twinning relationship could survive if there was such a visceral dislike for the whaling.
For the Faroese, protests against the grindadráp are not unusual. Animal rights and welfare groups such as Sea Shepherd Global have raised objections to whaling in Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands for some time. In July 2015, activists from Sea Shepherd took direct action against the whaling. What makes the more recent incident noteworthy is not only the involvement of local political figures in Wick, but also that a number of German-managed cruise ships stopped visiting the islands in the summer of 2015 in protest at the whaling. The potential loss of ship-based tourism is troubling for the Faroe Islands government and the German tourist companies suggested that an alternative destination was likely to be Orkney this coming summer.
So in the worst-case scenario the twinning towns can lead eventually to a break-up, rather than a slow descent into amnesia and neglect. Fittingly in this social media era, the break-up involving Wick and Klaksvík was announced on Facebook in the summer of 2015. While the Faroese mayor was reportedly seeking to defer the proposed split, the reality is that the two towns have less and less in common with one another. In Wick, the result of the new Caithness flag design competition was probably more of a talking point than the frayed relationship with a small town some 200-odd miles away.
This was published in the March 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.