“It’s never so silent. Never.”
Its history, however, is not entirely universal. While his city is Belgian, it is also Dutch – or at least in part. Walk two minutes down the road and you’re in the Netherlands. Walk a little longer and you’re back in Belgium.
The Belgian city, Baarle-Hertog, is an enclave within the Netherlands, about 10 kilometers from the border, and dizzyingly cut in two by the Dutch city, Baarle-Nassau.
This oddity, which dates back to the Middle Ages, is normally almost irrelevant to daily life. But the coronavirus crisis has led governments to reject the open borders that define the European Union. And Belgium – with about twice the per capita deaths of Covid-19 compared to the Netherlands – has set up a much stricter blockade.
“I am not allowed to open,” said van der Kogt. “But at 50 meters, on the other side, the cafes and restaurants open on June 1st. And I’m not allowed to go there, because I live in Belgium.”
Although Dutch restaurants remain closed, retail stores have remained open during the crisis. And while Belgian stores have been allowed to open this week, Belgians have been banned from shopping across the border – even when it simply means crossing one of the white cobblestones that dot the city center.
“In this crisis situation, it is not the mayors who are the authority,” said Marjon de Hoon-Veelenturf, one of the two mayors of Baarle (she is the Dutch one). “We just have to listen to the laws and regulations of The Hague and Brussels.
“A discussion arose where the residents talked to each other which country is taking the most sensible steps. This brings some polarization.”
People are “shocked” by the coronavirus crisis facing the Belgian mayor, Frans de Bont. “Personally, but also the countries, Europe. I think they are shocked together.”
Baarle is obviously an extreme example. The question for Europe is whether the go-it-your-your approach, country by country, is indicative of a deeper putrefaction in the Union.
“The first reaction was clearly a nationwide reaction, completely uncoordinated and chaotic, and actually not in line with what would be expected from a borderless common travel area that has been in place since 1995,” said Marie de Somer, senior political analyst at the European Political Center.
The European Commission itself said Wednesday, in a policy document aimed at outlining how to reopen the Schengen free travel area, that internal border controls “damage our European lifestyle”.
He warned that if borders were closed “beyond what is necessary for public health reasons”, the closures “would weigh not only on the functioning of the single market, but also on the lives of millions of EU citizens deprived of the benefits of free movement, which is a key achievement of the European Union. “
It is not the first time that the EU has had to deal with governments abandoning Schengen at the first sign of crisis. For several years now, countries like Germany have been carrying out some level of border control, apparently to stem the flow of migrants who move illegally within the EU.
The size of coronavirus closures, however, is unprecedented, said Ian Lesser, vice president of the German Marshall Fund in Brussels.
“The risk, of course, is that this kind of national-member-state-first approach somehow becomes the norm, and incorporated into politics and politics,” he said.
More likely, he added, the economic benefits of open borders will mean at least in the short term that border controls will be unsustainable and “will only reinforce the value of having open borders within the Schengen area”.
For now, local roads across the Dutch-Belgian border a short drive from Baarle remain barricaded with concrete blocks. Locals scoff that barriers are easily bypassed by smaller rural roads, but the symbolism is stark.
Julien Leemans, 63, is doing everything questioningly. The border is not an abstraction for him – it runs right through his home.
“90% of the house is Dutch,” he laughs. “Ten percent – just the bathroom – is Belgium.”
Well, the front door is also Belgian, which means he lives in Belgium, unable to shop in Dutch stores, even though he himself was born and raised in the Netherlands.
“Now you see the difference from the crown countries – Belgium, Holland, Germany, England – all different.”
“European?” he says with a laugh. “What is that?”
CNN’s Darren Bull and Mark Baron contributed to this report.
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