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Dutch? Belgian? How lockdown works in a town with one of the world's most complex borders

“In this town, of course you have the Dutch part and the Belgium part,” said Sarah Bakker.
Image: A street in Baarle Nassau which is unique as it has many cross border points with Baarle-Hertog in Belgium allowing some businesses and private properties to be in both Holland and Belgium at the same time
A street in Baarle Nassau which is unique as it has many cross border points with Baarle-Hertog in Belgium. Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Getty Images

BAARLE-HERTOG-NASSAU — How do you enforce social distancing rules in a town divided between two countries with different rules, with one of the most complex international borders in the world?

As the residents of Baarle-Hertog-Nassau have discovered, with great difficulty.

People living on some streets have been ordered to stay home, while their neighbors have been free to go out.

Baarle-Hertog-Nassau sits between Belgium and the Netherlands and is renowned for its intricate border. The town is geographically in the Netherlands, but there are 22 Belgian enclaves completely surrounded by Dutch territory.

Within those enclaves are eight Dutch enclaves, together known as Baarle-Nassau, seven of which are sub-enclaves in the two largest Belgian enclaves

A relic of feudal land swaps in medieval times, this complex situation is not usually a problem: both countries’ membership of the European Union means there is a frictionless border and no barriers to trade.

“In this town, of course you have the Dutch part and the Belgium part,” said Sarah Bakker, a 19-year-old university student who is quarantining with her family in Baarle-Hertog-Nassau. “It's weird, but I'm used to it.”

The Sylvia Reijbroek Galerie or Gallery in Baarle Nassau has crossing points marked across the bar. Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Getty Images

But Belgium and the Netherlands enforced drastically different lockdown rules, meaning that shops on the Dutch side of the border could stay open, while just yards away in Belgium, some shops had to close.

The town’s thousands of physical markers — from painted white crosses on the pavement, to the colors of the flag of either country on street signs and house numbers — suddenly became vitally important.

“Because we have the situation that Belgium has chosen the complete lockdown, in the Netherlands they have chosen the ‘intelligent’ lockdown which gives differences in thinking and acting. Well, there we have a problem,” said Willem van Gool, chairman of Tourism Baarle-Hertog-Nassau.

Van Gool explained there were already two schools, two city halls and two police forces for the people of each country. “But there's just one tourism office and we have a single fire brigade because that's more clever.”

Some of the town’s shops actually straddle the border. Before Belgium lifted restrictions on shops opening May 11, only half of a branch of a Dutch chain store, Zeeman, was accessible to customers, ensuring a unique shopping experience.

“It’s really weird,” Bakker said with a laugh. “Only one half of the store is open, so you’re only able to get half of the products.” The same goes for seeing friends. “The Dutch part, the friends who live there, I can see. But, the Belgian part I can’t because I will get a fine.”

The access and permissions sticker for cross-border commuting which is allowed for vital sectors and crucial professions on a street in Baarle Nassau.Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Getty Images

In another strange example, Belgium requires everyone to wear masks on public transportation, but the Netherlands will only start imposing this rule June 1. So if passengers take a bus on the Dutch side of Baarle-Hertog-Nassau, they can get on mask-free, but just a little distance down the road, they have to put one on.

Local residents have long been used to the quirks of living in a town that borders two countries, but some admit the differing lockdown rules have caused real problems.

Artist Sylvia Reybroek, whose gallery sits right on the border, had a firsthand taste of how strange life has become. in their little town. The white painted crosses dividing the two countries run across the street and through her shop's front door and into the gallery. Because her business is registered in Belgium, she decided to follow its stricter rules.

“After a few weeks, you see a big difference,” Reybroek lamented. “I closed my shop, I have a Belgian company, so I was closed. Meanwhile, the rest of the shops [on the street] were open.”

Like many countries in Europe, both Belgium and the Netherlands have started lifting their restrictions and Reybroek has since reopened.

But, she said, her shop is a microcosm of Europe's problems and she suggests a simpler way to handle the crisis.

“I think Europe should have had one rule,” she said. “We are Europe.”