Skip to comments.AP Enterprise: Quirky Splits Still Divide Newly Enlarged, 'borderless' Europe
Posted on 05/08/2004 8:52:12 PM PDT by nuconvert
AP Enterprise: Quirky Splits Still Divide Newly Enlarged, 'borderless' Europe
The Associated Press
May 8, 2004
EDITOR'S NOTE - As the European Union expands, the challenges to building a border-free continent are vivid in its divided towns and villages. Associated Press correspondents visited two of them. By RAF CASERT
Associated Press Writers
Imagine bellying up to the bar in one country and excusing yourself to use the toilet in another. Or chalking up a pool cue and crossing a border to sink the 8-ball.
Borders are supposed to fade away on a continent that on May 1 took another giant step toward creating a superstate, adding 10 new countries to expand the European Union to 25 members and 450 million people.
But borders remain very much present in Baarle Hertog, a sliver of Belgium within the Netherlands, and in Bregana, a town split between Slovenia and Croatia.
They, and a handful of other obscure border towns, are the freaks of Europe's fractious history - mired in the sediment of centuries of war and feudal history.
Their experience is a cautionary tale: Melting borders is one thing; melding hearts, minds and national sensibilities is quite another.
The effect in Baarle is not unlike the differences that remain between Jersey City, N.J., and New York City - same metropolitan area, but paying different taxes and obeying different traffic codes.
But it's less benign in Bregana. There, the split barely mattered as long as Slovenia and Croatia were part of one country, Yugoslavia. But it threatens to widen into a gulf now that Slovenia is in the EU while Croatia is left out.
"We are already caught between two worlds," said Blazenka Kalin. "Now, one world is entering the EU and the other is staying behind."
Her tavern's dining area is in Slovenia and its restroom is in Croatia. The border between the two countries, whose people speak two distinct languages, runs across a pool table.
To waitress Maria Vodusek, the change has ushered in new shades of political correctness.
"Slovenian or Croatian?" she asks before recommending the specialty of the day.
"We understand each other just fine," Vodusek explained. "It's just that the border has made some people a bit too sensitive about nationality and language."
Breganans can be forgiven; until a few days ago, they all shared the same sleepy corner of the Balkans.
Folks in Baarle, though, have had more than a decade to come together.
Although the town of 8,400 has touted itself as the "experimental garden" of a unified Europe since 1993, experience reveals cracks in the test tube.
The town of brown-brick houses huddled around a tree-shaded square remains Baarle Hertog on the Belgian side and Baarle Nassau on the Dutch side.
"Because they are intertwined this way in the center of Baarle, the one cannot do anything without the other," proclaims a plaque at the Dutch city hall. The irony is implicit: Baarle also has a Belgian city hall, along with two of just about everything else - two Roman Catholic churches, two police departments, two fire brigades, two schools, two tennis clubs.
There's no ill-will; they share a language (Dutch), faith (Catholicism) and currency (the euro). Many drink at the same bar or shop at the same supermarket. But they identify firmly with their own homeland, church and soccer club.
The border cuts right down the middle of the main street and slices through several homes. Big, gleaming metal markers run along the middle of another street, dividing the Belgian side from the Dutch and drawing visitors who snap goofy pictures of each other with a foot in each country.
In this "borderless" part of the EU, where customs checkpoints and controls have been scrapped between most member states, the crooked lines through Baarle should be just that - an amusing tourist trap, an outdated remnant of a bygone era.
Instead, the two Baarles have bickered for years over paid parking, road repairs, even the size of the sewer pipes.
Although both do their best to coordinate policies, the marriage has resulted in some unorthodox arrangements. The Dutch side of one street, reflecting the Netherlands' unbuttoned ways, features a Thai massage parlor and a shop selling hallucinogenic mushrooms.
"You are dealing with differences in legislation and differences in culture," said Jan Hendrikx, the Dutch mayor. "Belgian political culture is totally different. Baarle Hertog is totally incorporated in the Belgian system. They read the Belgian papers, they deal with their capital, and we look the other way. It is all just very tough."
Bregana - at least its newly minted EU half - is just beginning to know the feeling.
The town was unified for most of its history, stretching back to the rule of Napoleon I.
When Yugoslavia disintegrated into independent republics in 1991, a border was carved along a wildly meandering stream running through town. Overnight, next-door neighbors became foreigners. Farmers had their lands split in pieces.
"We have families and friends on the other side," said Maria Kumek, a 64-year-old Slovene retiree who worked all her life in Croatia and sees EU membership as a double-edged sword for multiethnic communities in border regions.
"While the EU is uniting many, we tend to forget that it is also ripping others apart."
Croatia is pushing hard to meet the standards of democracy, free markets and rule of law needed to qualify for EU membership in 2007. In the meantime, Slovenia is tightening border controls to keep illegal immigrants, drug smugglers and other undesirables out of the newly expanded EU.
Croats are still free to dine at Kalin's establishment, and head deeper into Slovenia, after flashing their passports at a nearby border post they have to drive across to reach the tavern.
Once inside, they're free to playfully wander both sides of the border bisecting the restaurant. But the moment they step outside, visitors who unwittingly take a few steps back onto Croatian soil are stopped by unamused guards who seem to materialize from nowhere.
Back in Baarle, officials say they are trying to make the best of things.
Tax evasion has united both sides in the past: The Belgians patronize Dutch banks to escape savings and inheritance taxes, and the wealthiest Dutch live in villas on the Belgian side, where property taxes are lower.
"It gives us a lot of trouble, yet we cherish it. There is no other place like it," Hendrikx said.
Humor helps keep the mood light.
In 1995, when a Dutch politician called for the annexation of the Belgian part of town, former Belgian mayor Fons Cornelissen pulled an April Fool's Day prank: He assigned some Dutch U.N peacekeepers just back from Bosnia to stop every Dutch car at the border and make each driver swear not to lay a hand on the Belgian enclave.
Cornelissen has some advice for the EU's 10 newcomers:
"Make sure you have plenty of time to negotiate about everything."