There is a small corner in southern Netherland that will be forever Belgium – actually 22 small corners, to be precise. Welcome to Baarle, where folk say ‘the world’s most complicated border’ divides their small town. By a glitch of history, the nationality of the plots of land on this stretch near the Belgian-Dutch frontier has remained almost unchanged since medieval times - when the land was parcelled up and traded between rival landowners.
As a result, there is a Belgian town, named Baarle-Hertog, consisting of 22 enclaves, within a Dutch municipality, which is called Baarle-Nassau. There are even little pockets of Dutch territory inside the Belgian enclaves. Around 2,250 people live in the Belgian parts of Baarle, far fewer than the 6,500 inhabitants in the Dutch part. Everyone can move freely throughout town - a process that can easily involve crossing a frontier five times in as many minutes.
The borders, marked out by crosses on the pavement and studs in the road, don’t run along streets or rivers, but zigzag across fields and cut through buildings. For many houses, the position of the front door determines which country its inhabitants are assumed to live in! In 1995, when the borders were marked, one 85-year-old woman was distressed to discover that she had been living in the Netherlands all her life, says a former Belgian mayor, Fons Cornelissen. She was not happy until her door was shifted by a few metres - back into Belgium.
Running a mixed town like this requires a lot of creativity. “You have to be born and raised here to really understand it,” Cornelissen says. To sell a house straddling the border, two notaries - one from each country - must be involved. The notaries - legal officers who certify transfers - meet the parties in the Belgian town hall, a part of which lies on Dutch soil. There, the officials can sit across from one another, each in their own country, for the signing. Dialling 112 for the emergency services in Baarle may lead to the arrival of either a Dutch or a Belgian ambulance, often causing arguments over which hospital to transport the accident victims to. In a rare murder case, the first question was, “Which country is the body in?”
Even rubbish collections are a logistical challenge, as the country can change several times on one street - sometimes from one side to another. Still, things have improved from the days when the rubbish was not allowed to cross national borders. The mayors of the two interlocked towns spend a lot of time explaining this unique situation to their capitals. “I don’t think that in Brussels or The Hague they understand exactly what is happening here,” says the Dutch mayor, Vincent Braam. Things came to a head one year during an outbreak of mad cow disease, Cornelissen remembers. Neither cattle nor animal feed were allowed to cross the border - an impossible situation for farmers with land on both sides. He summoned Dutch and Belgian officials to crisis talks in the town centre. Late at night he offered to buy sausages for the hungry negotiators. When they had eaten, he told them that their food had crossed the border from the snack bar, in breach of quarantine rules. Only then did they fully understand the situation, Cornelissen says. Willem van Gool, the head of the local tourist office, remembers the days (in 2002) before the euro replaced the Belgian franc and the Dutch guilder. Until then everybody in Baarle carried two purses and paid for items in whichever currency was cheaper.
However, living on a crisscross of border lines also brings advantages - as well as tourists. There is now little appetite to change the situation, and the two municipalities plan to seek recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Official delegations from around the world have visited to learn from the unique set-up – including countries with border tensions (like Moldova, Poland, China, Japan and Korea). Earlier this year the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly tasked his advisors to look into Baarle’s enclaves as a possible blueprint for Israeli settlements in the West Bank. But the local mayors are dismissive of the idea. ”You cannot compare it,” says Frans De Bont, the acting Belgian mayor. This is just like a marriage, he says: the arrangement only works if both sides are equal. “In Israel and Palestine it’s not equal,” he adds. ”In the Middle East we’re talking about a war, we’re talking about illegal occupation,” says his Dutch counterpart, Braam. “Here, we’ve been working for centuries in a very friendly way.”
The townsfolk speak one language: Dutch, or Flemish (as the Belgian dialect is known). Nowadays, any sparring between the two sides focuses largely on national stereotypes. Dutch people are supposed to be more orderly and more likely to speak their minds, while Belgians are seen as more creative and pragmatic - if a little chaotic. The two communities share a tourist office and even a police station. But the shared border also divides them. “In this village you have to emphasise your borders,” Braam believes. ”That’s what makes us different.
But the region has not always been spared the ravages of conflict. In the First World War the Germans erected a deadly electrified fence between occupied Belgium and the Netherlands (which was neutral). Hundreds died trying to cross the ‘Wire of Death’, at a time when many did not understand the danger of electric shocks. The Belgian enclaves developed into a hub for letters smuggled out from Belgian families to their sons, who were abroad in France fighting the Germans. The mail in both directions moved via England and France. As many as 100,000 letters passed through the village each month,
transported by couriers who used special contraptions - such as rubber-lined wooden frames - to sneak through the electrified fence, according to local historian Frans van Gils.