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Elections split Dutch-Belgian community

Crossing from Baarle-Hertog into Baarle-Nassau
The borders are marked with white crosses on roads, pavements and buildings

By Stephen Chittenden
BBC News, Baarle-Nassau/ Baarle-Hertog

The European Parliament elections in June look set to split one very peculiar community right down the middle.

But the international border that separates the Belgian town of Baarle-Hertog from the Dutch town of Baarle-Nassau does not run straight. It is not even curved.

Our citizens mingle with the citizens of Baarle-Hertog, our Belgian neighbours, but not in a regular way
Jan Hendrikx
Mayor of Baarle-Nassau

The cat's cradle of zigzags, squares and oblongs is what makes this place unique - two countries intertwined in one tiny town.

When Europe goes to the polls, the 8,000 townspeople will vote in two completely separate ballots.

The Dutch, who form a large majority, will choose whether to cast their vote on 4 June. But there is no choice for the Belgians, for whom voting is compulsory three days later.

'Capricious' borders

The town lies several miles north of Belgium. It consists of 22 pockets of Belgium entirely surrounded by Holland. But within those pockets are more enclaves, which are Dutch.

"Our borders follow a capricious course", says Jan Hendrikx, the burgemeester or mayor of Baarle-Nassau.

"They run through houses, gardens and streets."

Map of Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Hertog

The borders pay no heed to roads or buildings and are marked with white crosses on the pavement, and metal studs in the road. One line enters a block via a gift shop then comes out of the back of a supermarket.

Many homes are cut in half by the border, so as a matter of convention each household's nationality is determined by the location of its front door.

"Our citizens mingle with the citizens of Baarle-Hertog, our Belgian neighbours, but not in a regular way." says Mr Hendrikx,

"I have to operate between two different cultures."

Shared responsibilities

His Belgian counterpart, Jan Van Leuven, puts their differences in a more emotional way.

Jan Van Leuven
We speak the same language but the words have a different significance
Jan Van Leuven
Mayor of Baarle-Hertog

"My head is, I think, a little Dutch, but my heart is Flemish," says the former pathologist.

"This is a very big difference between the two communities here."

"In general Dutch people are more rational. They think. They look to the north. We Flemish think also, but we are more emotional. We speak the same language but the words have a different significance."

The two communities share the work of the town. Two police forces work in one office. The Belgians take responsibility for electricity and telephones, the Dutch supply the gas and water.

There is rivalry too, as shown in the civic pride of the two town councils.

Baarle-Nassau has a shiny new town hall with bells on top. Now Baarle-Hertog plans an upgrade to its own. The new building will feature a council chamber with the border running right through the middle.

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Stephen Chittenden and doppelganger visit Baarle-Hertog and Baarle-Nassau

One local mother named Vivian was forced by her husband's national pride into an international relocation.

"I am Dutch and my daughter is Belgian because my husband is Belgian," she says.

"But he won't live in Holland. He won't have a yellow number plate on his car. So we had to move countries. But it was not so far."

Geographical relic

This bizarre state of affairs is a geographical relic, a throwback to medieval times when the whole continent was parcelled up into tiny pieces of land.

Baarle-Hertog and Baarle-Nassau
The community consists of 22 pockets of Belgium entirely by the Netherlands

Trees Van Geluwe, an expert on the towns' history, says that once upon a time there was nothing unusual about the situation.

"The origins of this puzzle are not unique at all," she says.

"Most borders became regularised, except here. Through those centuries the difference in ownership has always remained, even under German occupation we had the difference."

It has been like this for nearly 1,000 years, but can it go on? Or, will Baarle-Hertog and Baarle-Nassau eventually be tidied up by national governments and swallowed up by surrounding Holland.

Never, insists Mr Hendrikx.

"The inhabitants of Baarle-Hertog are real Belgians and want to stay Belgian. The Dutch are the same and want to live in Holland. Maybe it would be simpler if the two countries came together on this."

"But it's not going to happen, not at all."



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