Vincent Braam, the Mayor of Baarle-Nassau, was not amused. It was the first time in the Mayor’s memory that the name of his small rural town featured in the international news bulletins, so on the surface of it, he should have been happy: Baarle-Nassau/Baarle-Hertog – a cluster of Belgian and Dutch enclaves to the South of Breda, despite being one of the world’s most peculiar places, was all but unknown outside Belgium and Holland.
The reason for the Mayor’s irritation on that fine morning in March 2014 was the report by an Israel’s TV channel, picked up by a number of other news gatherers, that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had launched an investigation into the highly complicated Dutch-Belgian border arrangements within Baarle to see whether they could offer a solution to the perennial problems of Jewish settlers within the Palestinian territories.
In a subsequent interview to a local newspaper, Mr Braam categorically declared that he didn’t think Baarle’s situation was comparable to that of Israel and Palestine. ‘We are just a peaceful, quiet village in the south of the Netherlands,’ he said.
It didn’t take long for Leo van Tilburg, his Belgian counterpart – the Mayor of Baarle-Hertog – to react in kind: ‘We are flattered that they have heard about Baarle-Nassau/Baarle-Hertog in the Middle East, but we don’t walk around here with hand grenades and we do not throw stones!’ he stated.
So how could the Israeli prime minister seriously draw parallels between the ongoing conflict in the Middle East and some enclaves (or exclaves) tucked away deep in the Dutch and Belgian countryside?
The key word here is ‘enclaves’. To fully comprehend the motives behind Netanyahu’s decision, we need to remind ourselves of what it actually means. There’s no consensus about its meaning among the scholars. Whereas some believe that an enclave constitutes a part of one sovereign country, totally surrounded by another sovereign country, others insist that not only has an enclave to be ‘totally surrounded’ by another nation, but also landlocked by it – the definition which automatically excludes such territories as Russia’s Kaliningrad region, or Spanish towns Ceuta and Melilla, often incorrectly described as enclaves for all of them have access to the sea.
Having studied the enclaves/exclaves issue for many years, I tend to accept the definition of Dr Honore Marc Catudal from his monograph The Exclave Problem of Western Europe (University of Alabama Press, 1979): ‘An exclave [he tends to use the terms ‘exclave’ and ‘enclave’ interchangeably] is a part of one state completely surrounded by the territory of another. It cannot be situated on an international river or sea coast, share a frontier with another exclave, or border two or more countries... Finally, an exclave may never be totally self-governing, but somehow subordinate to the home state or motherland.’
With the word ‘sovereignty’ on everyone’s lips in connection with Brexit, the issue of enclaves, particularly of those within Europe, has gained special significance. There is a lot to be learned from those small settlements and patches of land which have been managing to survive (and often to thrive) in the conditions of ‘dual sovereignty’. Of the 255 proper enclaves currently existing in the world, almost 90 per cent are located in one small corner of Asia: between Cooch Behar, a district of the Indian state of West Bengal, and Bangladesh. Only a small handful are in Europe.
Most of the European enclaves appeared in the Middle Ages – after the treaties of Madrid (1526) and Westphalia (1648), the latter ending the Thirty Years War and creating diverse and independent principalities which made the map of Europe resemble a sloppily manufactured patchwork quilt. Others resulted from land ownership disputes, or plain mistakes. With the advent of capitalism, the Napoleonic wars, the creation of the German and Italian states and the Swiss Confederation, many enclaves were re-attached to their mother countries, or swallowed up by host-states. Verenahof, a small patch of German farmland inside Switzerland, not far from the town of Schaffhausen, was the last European enclave to lose its status, as recently as 1964, when it was happily reabsorbed by the Swiss.
Apart from Vennbahn, a now-decommissioned Belgian railway cutting into German territory south of Aachen to form five Belgian ‘pockets’ inside Germany, and several Alpine villages that can only be accessed from neighbouring countries – Samnaun, Jungholz and Kleinwalsertal Valley, the so-called ‘pene enclaves’ – the only full-scale ‘outliers’ (to use Dr Catudal’s term) to be found in Western Europe are: Campione d’Italia – an Italian town in Switzerland; Llivia – a Spanish (or rather Catalan) town in the French Pyrenees; Busingen – a German village in Switzerland; and Baarle-Nassau/Baarle-Hertog – the above-mentioned Dutch/Belgian municipality comprising 22 pieces of Belgium and eight of Holland.
Like children of mixed marriages, torn between two different cultures and ways of life, the enclaves combine the traits of their mother countries with those of their host states – which makes them all wonderfully uncertain, idiosyncratic and ambivalent. By their very nature, not only do they defy chauvinism in all its ugly forms, but also constitute a living challenge (if not to say a threat) to the mighty pan-European bureaucracy. Having been stuck for ages between two different cultures, economies, tax systems and at times (as in the case of Llivia) languages, they have learnt to regulate themselves very well without any ‘help’ from the over-bloated bureaucratic bodies claiming to ‘promote’ cross-border co-operation and multiculturalism, for both have been happening naturally inside the enclaves since the days of yore.
Despite being very different from each other, many European enclaves share similar problems, mostly due to the persisting discrepancies in the technological and legal standards of their host countries and their mother states. There was even an attempt in the 1980s to initiate an international NGO – an Assembly of European Enclave Dwellers. Sadly, it came to nothing.
With very little or no help from the EU (several Brussels officials with whom I spoke were firmly in denial of the very existence of the enclaves), the enclave dwellers at times have to take the initiative in their own hands. Here’s an example from Baarle: With hoses of differing thickness, Belgian and Dutch fire brigades had long-standing problems connecting them to fire hydrants depending on whose territory the source of a conflagration was located. Numerous appeals to the EU to help them standardise the hoses remained unnoticed. That went on for many years until the members of both fire units, having put their thinking helmets on, designed and produced a bespoke fire hose adaptor with one end fitting the Belgian fire hoses and the other the Dutch ones. All fire engines in town – Belgian and Dutch – carry it now. The head of the Belgian fire brigade proudly showed me one – a round stainless-steel object, the size and the shape of a telescopic lens. Hollow inside, it had two differently shaped ends.
I handled the weighty, gleaming adaptor – a vivid practical symbol of the inventiveness and mutual adjustability of enclave dwellers. It was a perfect metaphor for Baarle, this small bi-national municipality of Belgian and Dutch enclaves fitting each other nicely, despite their different ways and standards – a place where adjustment was the main rule of life.
To quote Catudal again: ‘The possession of an uninterrupted territory is one of the principal requisites for the smooth functioning of a political entity. Enclaves, though, disturb this tranquillity by creating numerous administrative problems for both home and host states, increasing the variety of social groups and physical environments, adding to the difficulties of travel and communication and, more important, lengthening the political and economic boundaries to be guarded’.
Perhaps Netanyahu was indeed wrong in thinking that the enclaves of Baarle could serve as a model for the long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Another, largely Utopian model which the enclaves could serve much better would probably be that of a non-federalist Europe, with each country or other entity free, cosmopolitan and happily self-governing.
This was published in the April 2019 edition of Geographical magazine
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