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Demarcating sovereignty: a history of Dutch-Belgian land swaps

In early November 2015, the Belgian and Dutch press announced that a small land swap was in the making between Belgium and the Netherlands. Agreement has been reached at the local level that Belgium would cede a small peninsula in the river Maas [Meuse] of about 14 hectares – the size of 28 soccer fields – to the Netherlands. In return, Belgium would get a smaller piece of Dutch territory where it had already built a water lock. The swap makes sense because the first plot of land had become unreachable over land from Belgium following the straightening of the river Maas over a stretch of four kilometres during the 1960s. As this makes it difficult for the Belgian police to patrol there, it has become a safe-haven for drug dealers. In late December the story hit the international press as another nice fait divers to end the year on.

The story is indeed peculiar. Border swaps (including those between Belgium and the Netherlands) have become a rarity and the term has the ring of the remote past. If the agreement materialises at the national level and is implemented, it will be the first border correction between the two countries since the early days of Belgium’s independence from the Netherlands.

The delineation and demarcation of precise border lines only became a concern as a consequence of the rise of the modern sovereign State in Europe from the 17th century onwards. Before this time, the borders between realms were neither clearly established nor marked. In many instances, vaguely defined border land existed. Also, different jurisdictions (e.g., fiscal, judicial, and ecclesiastical) would not necessarily overlap so that the judicial border could vary from the fiscal one, and some entities – such as those of a bishopric or feudal fief – would straddle the border of two countries.

The modern sovereign State with its claim of exclusive jurisdiction over its territory in all public matters changed this. European princes and governments of the late 17th to 19th centuries were much concerned if not obsessed with achieving legally impenetrable as well as clearly marked border lines that would unequivocally define the extent of their jurisdiction in all issues. This meant that judicial, fiscal, ecclesiastical, local, and feudal entities were as much as possible adapted to fit the borders of the state and that numerous border agreements were negotiated and implemented to swap enclaves and draw clear lines. Such border conventions were often layered, in the sense that more detailed agreements followed upon general treaties. Whereas the general treaties would determine land swaps and define the border in more general terms, later conventions were necessary to work the agreement out in more detail on the map and then mark the borders in the field.

The history of the Belgian-Dutch border is illustrative of what occurred in many parts of Europe, and later outside Europe. The roots of the border go back to the Eighty Years’ War (1567–1648), which ended with the independence of the Dutch Republic of the United Provinces from Spain by the Peace of Münster of 30 January 1648 (1 CTS 1). Article 3 of the Münster treaty fixed the border on the basis of the military status quo. This left much uncertainty as to the exact delineation of the border. The Münster Treaty applied the common principle which said that all lands and villages went with the town or local authority on which they depended, opening a Pandora’s box of claims and counterclaims. Problems arose over the whole stretch of the border from west to east. The military status quo meant that the two major provinces of the Netherlands, the County of Flanders and the Duchy of Brabant, were split, implying that it was the territorial extent of regional and local authorities that became the yardstick for establishing the new ‘national’ borders. This was a recipe for enclaves, overlapping claims, and constant bickering. On 20 September 1664, Spain and the Netherlands reached an agreement to fix the border in somewhat more detail in the Treaty of The Hague (8 CTS 187). To the east of Brabant, in the zone where the Bishopric of Liège and the duchies of Limburg and Gelre [Guelders] clashed with each other and with several smaller fiefs, the situation was and would remain more fluid and complex. With the Barrier Treaty of Antwerp of 15 November 1715 (29 CTS 333), part of Gelre was ceded to Prussia by the then-Austrian rulers of the Southern Netherlands, adding a third major contender to the imbroglio.

The short-lived United Kingdom of the Netherlands (1815–1830) formed the context for some land swaps between provinces and local authorities that dealt with some communal enclaves. Previously, attempts to resolve the complex situation in the east had already begun under French rule (1806–1813). After Belgium reached its independence from the Netherlands through its secession in 1830 and the Dutch recognition thereof in the treaty of London of 19 April 1839 (see especially 88 CTS 427), new problems arose. Through the treaty, Belgium lost half of the province of Limburg and retained only the larger part of the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg, ruled by the Dutch King William I (1813–1840). This left the need to delineate and demarcate the new Belgian borders with Luxemburg as well at the Netherlands. The latter was done through the Treaty of The Hague of 5 November 1842 (94 CTS 37) and the Convention of Maastricht of 8 August 1843 (95 CTS 223). The Hague Treaty fixed the border in more general terms and included several land swaps. The Maastricht Convention included more exchanges and delineated the boundary with detailed descriptions and maps on a 1/10,000 or, where necessary, 1/2,500 scale. Subsequently, 365 border posts were erected to indicate the border.

The 1842–1843 boundary treaties were the final general exercise between the Northern and Southern Netherlands to deal with the inheritance of a complex, contentious, and bloody past and achieve the aim of a clearly defined, manageable, and defensible national territory. They left one peculiarity. The village of Baarle finds itself surrounded by Dutch territory. However, it is not completely Dutch as the village is home to two municipalities, the Dutch municipality of Baarle-Nassau and the Belgian municipality of Baarle-Hertog. Both municipalities consist of different patches of land whereby some streets and even houses straddle the national border. This situation is a remnant of the feudal age. In the Late Middle Ages, the dukes of Brabant ceded part of the village as a feudal fief to the barons of Breda, while retaining other parts for themselves. Later, they turned over these latter parts to the Land of Turnhout. When the Münster Treaty fixed the military status quo in 1648, Breda went to the Republic while Turnhout remained with the Spanish Netherlands. The respective possessions of both fiefs in Baarle went along. Several subsequent negotiations could not straighten out this anomaly. Today, Baarle is famous as a tourist attraction and any change in its situation is happily considered by most to be completely unnecessary.

Image credit: River Maas. Photo by Hans Hagenaars. CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. […] In 2015, Belgium and the Netherlands reached an agreement in which Belgium ceded a small peninsula (about 14 hectares in area) in the Maas River to the Netherlands. In return, Belgium received a smaller piece of Dutch territory where it had already built a water lock. The swap made sense because the first plot had become unreachable over land from Belgium following the straightening of the Maas River during the 1960s. Thus, it made it difficult for the Belgian police to patrol there, transforming the area into a safe-haven for drug dealers and criminals. The border change was prompted by a violent murder and arduous police investigation. Both countries’ deputy prime ministers and ministers of foreign affairs signed the border correction treaty in Amsterdam at the end of 2016. This way, Belgium and the Netherlands settled a festering territorial dispute without firing a single bullet. […]

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