Our friends Dave and Carol Lam took us to Baarle when we were working in the Balkans. We wondered about the possibility of ever being able to draw borders that reflected ethnic realities. Dave said he had something he wanted to show us, the municipality of Baarle in Belgium, or is it the Netherlands? The map of Europe has many geographic anomalies.
But one of the strangest borders runs through Baarle. The town is divided between the countries, Baarle-Nassau is Dutch and Baarle-Hertog is Belgian. The dividing line is anything but straight, or rational. The border was set in the Treaty of Maastricht in 1843 reflecting deals made in the 14th (some sources say the 12th) century between different dukes who needed money to wage war. They sold or pawned parcels of land in this region. The different dukes’ heirs ended up as vassels to different kings so the border became confused. How confused? On the Dutch side of the line there are somewhat more than 20 parcels of land belonging to Belgium, enclaves.
And there are something like 8 parcels of Dutch land surrounded by Belgian land that is surrounded by Dutch land, exclaves. And on the Belgian side of the border there are some parcels of land belonging to the Netherlands. It’s all explained on a map posted at the towns’ borders.
Some buildings are split between countries. On some streets one house will be in Belgium, the next in the Netherlands. Border markings consisting of colored paving stones run down streets. On some streets you can tell what country the house is in by the number plate on the door. Those number plates with Dutch flags are in Netherlands, those with Belgian flags are in Belgium.
Before the European Union’s common market, the Schengen treaty that opened borders and the common currency the town was a smuggling center, especially cigarettes. There is a story about a bank that could launder funds because, while its vault was in Belgium, the door to the vault was in the Netherlands. Belgian authorities could not get into the vault and while Dutch officials could, if they found things they had no jurisdiction. This sounds, to me, like a tall tale. But then so does the existence of Baarle.
Now the village has a common fire department but kids go to the school in their own country. When we left this border area I did ask Dave if he ever wondered how zoning disputes are settled. If someone extends their deck over a property line does it have to be settled by the two foreign ministries? Could a common building dispute become an international incident that threatens the stability of the EU or NATO? Not so far.
This is a repost from my old website, which, rather than crash just kind of slowly disintegrated. I am reposting it by request. The original post had only my pictures. But in this repost I took a map from Wiki Commons and a couple of pictures of address number plaques to illustrate the text. Zoom in on the map at the top of this post and switch it from satellite to map and you get a pretty good idea of how crazy this border is.