There are times when many of us want to get away from overweening, domineering and intrusive nation-states. But where could we go? My thoughts have recently started to turn towards Belgium and to its great gift to the world.
Before I get to Belgium, which is not a thing I usually like to do, what other possibilities could there be? There is always the dream of a sustainable, organic small-holding in some God-forsaken Welsh valley – a place where I could wear sandals, knit my own yogurt or even open yet another home-made candle shop. Yet that’s still not remote enough to avoid the reach of petty-fogging British bureaucrats and, what’s more, it never stops raining in Wales.
A beach in Thailand or in the Indian province of Kerala perhaps? Hanging out with some old, failed, rock musicians, or more successful Cockney criminals, I could watch the daily arrival of hoards of privileged Western youth trying to be hippies but really just living off daddy’s money. Better not.
So what about an enclave, a place lost in a type of no-man’s land that through some quirk of history has evaded the grasping attentions of power-hungry states? For the sake of the more linguistically challenged, an enclave is ‘an enclosed territory that is culturally distinct from the foreign territory that surrounds it’. Even today there are dozens of such enclaves around.
The Vatican City isn’t at all the type of enclave I’m looking for; after all it’s a state in its own right with its own pretty-boy Swiss army. With my political and religious views it’s also highly unlikely that the Pope would ever ask me over for a couple of beers and to listen to his extensive collection of 1970s British blues-rock. Though that’s a shame as I’m led to understand that Pope Benedict does a passable karaoke version of Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water – John the Baptist’s water no doubt.
Well then there’s always Llivia, a miniscule parcel of Spanish territory in the Pyrenees, completely surrounded by France. Llivia was created because the French and Spanish couldn’t agree on its status when they negotiated their frontiers in 1659 – in the Treaty of the Pyrenees. But I’ve also rejected Llivia. It is indeed a true enclave but it’s still part of Spain and the Spanish are surely the noisiest people on the planet, as anyone who has had to sit next to a Spanish family on a beach or in a plane can testify.
After considering several other options I found myself, rather unexpectedly, in Belgium. There are three possibilities here. The first, and the one I think I would find most congenial, unfortunately no longer exists. Yet I can still dream.
Once Napoleon had been defeated, at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 the victorious powers established a united Netherlands. They couldn’t, however, agree on who should get a tiny 350 hectare sliver of territory lying south west of Aachen. The main issue was that this land, centred on Kelmis (La Calamine), was the site of one of Europe’s richest zinc deposits. So it was designated neutral – ‘Neutral Moresnet’ – a true enclave lying between Germany and Holland. The other bits of Moresnet were divided between Prussia and Holland.
But following the Belgian Revolution, the artificial state of Belgium came into existence. A creation ratified by the London Conference of 1830. I like to imagine the scene in London during the negotiations between Prussia, Holland and the ‘Belgians’, all overseen by the victorious British.
First there were the Prussians, no doubt making it clear in their usual gentle and understated way, and with good reason, that it was their Marshal Blücher and his army of Germans who had saved the Duke of Wellington’s bacon at the Battle of Waterloo, enabling Napoleon to be defeated. The Dutch delegation – somewhat peeved that a large chunk of their country was being removed and given over to the tender mercies of the French-speaking Walloon aristocracy, and remembering the days when they had fought so valiantly for their liberty and had become a great maritime and colonial power – well maybe they snuck off at the end of a hard day’s talking and drowned their sorrows with a few good Dutch beers (remember the superior ‘Belgian’ beer didn’t yet exist). And then there were the French-speaking Walloons. Even though France’s one and only big attempt at European domination had failed, I like to imagine them, like all French at all times, colourfully dressed like pompous peacocks. I’m also sure they also did an admirable imitation, avant la lettre, of Dr. Strangelove’s instinctive Nazi salute and ‘Sieg Heil’. At every opportunity they would have mentioned ‘L’honneur de la France’ – not yet knowing that they were becoming Belgian now and hence in for two hundred years of French ridicule and condescension. In their pride these Frenchmen probably felt that discussing the future of a few rustic Frankish oiks was below them; and in their national collective historical amnesia I guess they didn’t even remember that it was precisely from these German/Ripuarian Frankish areas that the ‘Franks’, who created and gave their name to France, originated. Did they even know, and do the French today know, that Charlemagne himself was a German-speaking German?
And the British, the hosts of the London Conference, what did they make of all this? As always they would likely have been slightly bemused by all the strutting and fretting of ‘Johnny Foreigner’, who didn’t even have the courtesy to speak English properly. They did, however, have the satisfaction of putting one of their own German Royal family on the Belgian throne, King Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, (the uncle of Queen Victoria of England), who was to go on to have such great fun in the Congo.
I’m sure this is all a travesty of history. Or is it?
In any case, the London conference decided to keep ‘Neutral Moresnet’ and it became an enclave in Wallonian Belgium, even though its people spoke German, or more correctly Ripuarian Frankish. Neutral Moresnet’s northern tip met the conjunction of Germany, Holland and Belgium at a veritable four-country point at what is now called the ‘Trois Bornes’ in Vaals (Neutral Moresnet having since disappeared), which lies at the staggering height of 323 metres above sea-level in the endearingly named ‘Dutch Alps’.
Neutral Moresnet existed for a hundred years and what a place it must have been! For most of its history it was run as a kind of ‘social’ company town by Francois Mosselman and his successors, the owners of the zinc mine. Taxes and prices were low, wages high and, for much of the time, its population were able to avoid the rapacious desire of both Belgium and Germany to conscript them as cannon-fodder. Such a haven attracted many immigrants and Neutral Moresnet’s population grew ten-fold from just 256 in 1816 to 2,572 in 1858. And why not? People were allowed to have their own breweries and distilleries, although supposedly only for their own use. Eventually there were 60-70 bars and cafes in the main street alone. Truly I think I’ve ‘found my bliss’. But even they couldn’t drink all the alcohol they produced and much of the population turned to smuggling booze to Holland, a good case we might think of taking coals to Newcastle.
The enclave printed its own stamps and wrote its own national anthem. In the early twentieth century, under the leadership of a local doctor, Wilhelm Molly, it even tried to make Esperanto the official language of what Dr. Molly proposed to call ‘Amikejo’. The fourth Esperantist Congress decided to make Neutral Moresnet the new seat of its global organization instead of The Hague.
Regrettably, this bucolic, and probably inebriated, existence all came tumbling down when the Germans capitulated in 1918. The Treaty of Versailles granted the enclave to Belgium. So I can’t move there. Yet there’s no need for despair, Belgium, in its genius, has another couple of enclaves to offer.
I could go and live on a railway line. Starting in 1885 the Germans built the Vennbahn (‘Fenn Rail’) from Aachen to Trois Ponts in the province of Liège. Over the course of the next decades, and after two German invasions of Belgium, the ownership and property of the Vennbahn was granted to Belgium. The only problem is that this separated five German areas from Germany proper. Strictly speaking it’s these German communes that are the enclaves. The present Belgian territory, often no wider than the railway line itself, is not really cut off from the rest of the country; so it doesn’t really match my criteria. Not only this, but I don’t think I could live there. Stretches of the former railway line have been converted into cycle tracks and the mere thought of waking up every morning to the sight of groups of fat, lycra-clad, German cyclists passing my front window is enough to bring on waves of nausea.
Yet Belgium has one last trick up its sleeve – Baarle.
Believe it or not just north of the Belgium town of Breda but in the present-day Netherlands there are twenty-two tiny Belgian enclaves in and around the town of Baarle. It gets better. Lying within these Belgian enclaves in Dutch territory (called Baarle-Hertog) there are also seven Dutch sub-enclaves (called Baarle-Nassau), plus another one in Belgium proper. The total surface area is only 2.34 square kilometers with a population of roughly 2,200. The history of these enclaves goes back to 1203, but the important thing for me is that despite lots of changes these wonderful enclaves still exist and I could go and live there. What joy it must have been, and hopefully still is, for the inhabitants of Baarle to drive the functionaries to distraction. I’ll mention just a few of the pleasures I have discovered.
The frontiers sometimes run straight through houses and shops, offering great opportunities to irritate the bureaucrats. Dutch and Belgian taxes and child benefits often vary in their generosity. This affords the chance to change your residence as you deem best for you. Residence is defined by in which country your main entrance is located, so if you want to change your residency, and hence your fiscal regime, you can change your front door. People do this. There are houses in Baarle with an inward-opening front entrance in one country and an outward-opening door in the other. If the relative tax merits of Holland and Belgium change you can always reverse the hinges. How the Dutch and Belgian petty bureaucrats must hate this!
And then there is no better way to savour the ludicrous, capricious nature of state borders than to post a letter. If you post a letter in a Dutch enclave within the Belgian enclave in Holland, to a person down the street in the Belgian enclave itself, your letter will first go to Brussels then by air to Amsterdam before eventually making its way back to Baarle. If, on the other hand, you were to walk a few metres down the street and post your letter in the Belgian enclave it would never leave the town at all.
Back to alcohol. One report I have read tells us that ‘several years ago Belgium and Holland had different licensing hours which the landlord of one of Baarle’s pubs, bisected by the frontier, blatantly exploited by installing a set of doors on each side of the border. When they stopped selling alcohol in Belgium, the patrons hastily left through the Belgian door, only to re-enter immediately through the Dutch one and to carry on boozing.’ It irritated the authorities so much they had to harmonize the licensing laws to do away with this simple pleasure.
What about fireworks and sex? The truly important things in life. Anyone who knows Holland a little will know that you’re only allowed to buy fireworks on Christmas Eve (please tell me if I am wrong); but then the Dutch go absolutely crazy with them. In Belgium you can buy them all year round, so the firework trade in Baarle thrives. ‘The Dutch bits of the town respond with numerous sex shops – not allowed near public buildings in Belgium, but thriving on the Dutch territory, next door to the Belgian town council in Baarle.’
Finally, I love the fact that in the town there are ‘two mayors (Belgian and Dutch), two sets of political parties, two town councils, two fire brigades trying to beat each other to the fire, two post offices, two refuse collection services. It is the only town in the world where police forces of two different countries share not only the same police station but also the same offices, with filing cabinets painted in the colours of Dutch or Belgian national flags.’
Belgium is, of course, an artificial creation, a place where the French-speaking Walloons, the Flemish, and the oft forgotten Germans in the east of the country, have been living unhappily together for nearly two hundred years. But the Belgian enclaves have been a real and great gift that Belgium has given to the world; along with… well I can’t think of anything else at the moment.
So the Belgian enclaves of Baarle in Holland are the places for me. Now I only need to persuade my family of their merits.