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Lost inside borders: the curious question of geographical enclaves

  • Written by  Vitali Vitaliev
  • Published in Places
Lost inside borders: the curious question of geographical enclaves
04 Apr
In the first of a series on geopolitical curiosities and anomalies, of which he has been a devoted explorer for years, Vitali Vitaliev looks at enclaves – parts of one country which find themselves lost inside another’s borders

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.

WEBshutterstock 1179205858The Baarle border between Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Hertog cuts right through shops, cafes and houses

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.

shutterstock 1320481322Though part of Italy, Campione D'Italia, a small patch of the Lombardy region is not part of the EU

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.

WEBshutterstock 340206809The enclave of Campione is also home to Europe's largest casino

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. 

The latest edition of Vitali Vitaliev’s book, Passport to Enclavia, was published by Thrust Books and is available from Amazon. His talk ‘Geopolitical enclaves of Western Europe and issues of European identity’ in the ‘Be Inspired’ series will take place in the RGS-IBG Education Centre (1 Kensington Gore, London, SW7 2AR ) on 15 April 2019 at 2.30pm. Visit geog.gr/rgs-enclave to book tickets.

This was published in the April 2019 edition of Geographical magazine

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Campione D'Italia

Though part of Italy, Campione d’Italia, a small patch of the Lombardy region, surrounded by the Swiss canton of Ticino, is not part of the EU (it is excluded from membership by a special Protocol). As Italian passport holders, its residents have the right to live and work in any EU member country – but not in Switzerland, on whose territory Campione is located!

The safeguarding of law and order in the town is entrusted to the visiting Como-based Italian Carabinieri unit, but every time a policeman goes home to Italy he has to leave his weapons in Campione, in accordance with a Swiss law forbidding foreigners to carry arms across Switzerland. Interestingly, both fire-fighters and ambulance crews in Campione are Swiss.

The Campionese drive around in cars with TI number plates (for Ticino, the neighbouring Swiss canton) and carry Swiss driving licences, but vote in Italian elections and mail their letters with stamps of the Italian Republic.

It all started in the year 777, when Totone – a local landowner – tried to buy an indulgence for his sins by donating his holdings, including the fishing village of Campione, to the Basilica of St Ambrose in Milan. As a result, Campione fell under the rule of the Milanese ecclesiastical authorities and not those of nearby Como, as would have been more logical. Miraculously, this illogical bond has survived all the ups and downs of a turbulent history.

Campione’s modern townscape is stunning: narrow streets winding up and down the hill; the renovated casino; mountains spotted with red-roofed houses, as if suffering from measles; the mirror-like surface of Lake Lugano. Yet it looks and feels distinctly un-Italian – in its tidiness, in the absence of washing on the balconies, in the quiet demeanour of the locals who seldom gesticulate or raise their voices.

Its spotlessly clean Italian coffee shops sell inimitable Italian espresso, for which you have to pay in Swiss francs. Two seemingly incompatible lifestyles packed into one square-mile of a town that was once poetically compared by Giovanni Cenzato to ‘a little Italian boy wearing a Swiss costume’.

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In his 1891 Handbook to Southern France, Karl Baedeker – somewhat disdainfully – referred to Llivia as ‘a dirty village of ancient origin with some ruins remaining’. It is a pity that the great guidebook writer overlooked the most interesting feature of Llivia – that of the only Spanish enclave in Europe. Founded by ancient Romans, Llivia had been a pawn in Franco-Spanish struggles until 1659, when the Peace of the Pyrenees Treaty gave 33 ‘villages’ in the Cerdagne Plain to Louis XIV of France. The French thought that Llivia was included in the transfer, but the Spanish regarded the territory not as a village (pueblo), but as a town (villa). Having spotted the discrepancy, the patriotic residents of Llivia, who wanted to remain Spanish, claimed that the treaty had nothing to do with them, and the French had to agree. Today’s Llivia is much less ‘dirty’ than it, allegedly, was in 1891, and its per capita rate of recycling bins must be one of the highest in both France and Spain. Yet the hooray-patriotism of its 1,000 inhabitants remains unchanged. Modern Llivia is fiercely Catalan, with few people willing to speak French to a visitor – an unusual scenario for a village – sorry ‘town’ – surrounded by France.

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Busingen, a small German enclave in Switzerland, scarcely features on maps, owing to the fact that it is actually a suburb of the Swiss town of Schaffhausen, where the residents of Busingen routinely do their shopping. The erratic Swiss-German border goes totally haywire in the Busingen-Schaffhausen area. In one instance, it runs across the beer garden of a Busingen pub, so that the tables are in Switzerland and the bar in Germany. The village police are German. The Swiss policemen are also allowed, but no more than ten at a time! 
The reason for this confusion is that – rather like Campione – economically Busingen is Swiss, whereas politically it is German, albeit not part of the EU. Busingers get their salaries in Swiss francs, but, being German citizens, they have to pay high German income tax – the bane of the villagers’ existence. Busingers are free to shop in Switzerland, but those who wish to work there need a hard-to-obtain permit, normally granted only after many years of residence.

In their daily trials, the residents of modern Busingen are reaping the consequences of their own ancestors’ unforgiving pride, better known as stubbornness. In April 1693, Eberhard Im Thurn, a popular ruler of then Austrian Busingen, was kidnapped and put in prison in Schaffhausen for a religious offence – to the villagers’ great dismay. He was released in 1699, but Busingers have a long memory and when Schaffhausen tried to incorporate the village into the Swiss federation in 1723, they came out adamantly against it. Eventually, Busingen fell under German control, where it remains as a living reproach to Schaffhausen for the mistreatment of its leading citizen.

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If modern Busingen, with its two official postcodes: 78266 (Swiss) and 8238 (German) – strikes the visitor as eccentric, then Baarle-Nassau/Baarle-Hertog can safely be described as insane. The border here resembles a hank of wool chased by a playful kitten, thoughtlessly leaping across streets and squares and cutting through houses, offices and shops. The confusion is such that every building in town has to be marked not just with a number, but also with a tiny Dutch or Belgian flag underneath it. Of three houses, standing next to each other on the same side of the same street, one can be in Belgium, the next in Holland, and the third split between the two. ‘If the border runs through a house, it is better for a baby to be born on the Belgian side, because child benefits are higher in Belgium,’ a local woman explained to me without a shade of irony. In rural Baarle it is still common to give birth at home with the help of a midwife.

There is no end to the duplicity of life in Baarle – the town with 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 the policemen of two different countries share not only the same offices but one and the same desk, with filing cabinets painted in the colours of Dutch or Belgian national flags.

The existing 22 Belgian and eight Dutch enclaves that constitute modern Baarle are a huge improvement on the situation in 1843, when, in the aftermath of the Treaty of Maastricht, 5,732 parcels of land between just two border posts had their nationalities laid down separately. Baarle’s split personality crisis originates from 1203 when the Duke of Brabant, in a gesture of gratitude and appeasement, lent a chunk of his territory to Godfrid of Schoten, the powerful Lord of Breda, but kept all inhabited – and hence tax-paying – bits (houses, farms etc) for himself. In the course of centuries most dwellings disappeared, but the patches of land on which they stood retained their original ‘nationhood’.

Baarle is also the only place in the world where one can find the so-called sub-enclaves (or counter-enclaves), ie. Dutch enclaves that are within the Belgian enclaves that are within the Netherlands!

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