Limburg is one of the Netherlands’ 12 provinces. Situated between Belgium and Germany, the Region is dominated by borders. Long, tall Limburg has 351 km of borders with other countries and is connected to the rest of the Netherlands by just 113 km. It’s not surprising that Limburgians have traditionally looked further than the borders and have worked, studied or shopped in...

At the cross-roads of the future of Europe

At the cross-roads of the future of Europe


The success of regions lying along the EU’s 16,500 kilometers of soft internal borders show the EU’s success in fostering trade, labor movement and cultural exchange.

And few regions have benefited as much as the Netherlands’ southern province of Limburg. And few have such intimate contact with their neighbors. Its slender form means it shares 350 kilometers of border with Germany and Belgium. In places, it is little more than 5 kilometers wide.


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“It is a 15-minute walk from my house to Belgium. In a car, you can get to Germany in 20,” says Patricia Senge, a German studying in the provincial capital of Maastricht for the last two years. Criss-crossed by roads and rail links and with German, Dutch and Flemish widely spoken, it can be hard to be sure which country you are in. “Limburg is possibly the best example of how border crossings can work.”


The future belongs to Europe! So is, in essence, the message of the manifesto that was signed in February at the end of the Yo!Fest, a festival organized by the so-called “generation Maastricht”, people between 18 and 25. “Listen to these young people and others like them. It is their future, not yours,” says Annemarie Penn-te Strake, mayor of Maastricht. “Now, it’s all about proclaiming the message in the right places.”


“Limburg is a laboratory of future developments of the EU,” says Theo Bovens, the province’s King Commissioner, its head appointed by ministers of the monarch. It was no coincidence the treaty which helped establish the EU and did much to harmonize life in Europe’s border regions was negotiated in Limburg’s provincial capital, Maastricht, in 1992.


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It is no coincidence either, at a time when the direction of the EU has come under scrutiny, that the province is keen to remind fellow Europeans of the benefits of the treaty signed there 25 years ago. There was a citizens’ summit this month, a youth festival in February and a high-level summit in December to mark the anniversary and chart a path forwards.


The EU has reduced some of the region’s oddities. One resident on the German side of the border in the 50s remembers shopping in the Netherlands as a child, because clothes were then cheaper there. With strict border controls and customs still in place he remembers his mother making him put on three or four layers of new clothes to get them home without attracting German duty. For others, the traffic in cigarettes and alcohol proved still more lucrative still.


Not all of them are gone. “There is no reasonable family in Limburg that gets its gasoline in the Netherlands,” says Bovens. Dutch families routinely drive to Germany to buy petrol 25c cheaper for a liter. So, seeing a queue of cars with Dutch number plates at a petrol station is one sign that you may be in Germany. Another is the 130 kilometers per hour allowed Dutch highways gives way to the white-knuckle ride of the German autobahn.


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Examples of the success of opening borders are more common if less eye-catching. Limburg’s Toverland theme park, or “Magic Land”, for example, which opened its gates in 2001 is a cross-border business. “We are looking at a catchment area of 38 million people. That is amazing. There can’t be many places like this in the world,” says Jean Gelissen, whose family runs the park together.


The park tries to make German visitors feel at home at Toverland, having German-speaking staff and stocking German beer. Visitors from Germany and Belgium together make up 40 percent of the 700,000 visitors a year to its roller-coasters, log flumes and play areas. Gelissen is hopeful this will reach 1 million by 2020, assuming there are no new border controls to dent their enthusiasm.


Yet it is the problems and peculiarities of the EU which tend to get the most coverage, says Gelissen. The media report the EU’s successes too, he says. Part of the problem, he says, is that the EU does not have a vision. “Europe is not clear enough on what Europe means to the people.” Such a vision for the EU’s future, he says, should be written on a single side of paper.


Alternative visions are prospering in Limburg, as elsewhere, with the far-right PVV (Partij Voor de Vrijheid, or the Party for Freedom), led by local-born Geert Wilders, managing nearly 20 percent of the vote in recent elections in March 2017. “It has to do with populism. People who are representatives of people who are not feeling good,” says Gelissen. Suspicion of politicians tends to be stronger outside the center, according to Bovens. Penn-te Strake acknowledges that “the confidence of people in the power of European cooperation is melting faster that the ice cap at the North Pole.” Nevertheless, pro-EU parties still won almost 80 percent of the vote on the highest turnout since World War II.


This month’s Maastricht summit of 150 citizens came out strongly against more borders, says Bovens, with 90 percent voting against. “Cross border cooperation is very positive for countries because the internal markets work better.” This may be a useful lesson for Britain about the consequences of any return to a “hard” border on the island of Ireland as a result of Brexit. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May has, however, yet to accept Bovens’ invitation to hold Brexit negotiations in Limburg.


Recognizing the benefits of softer borders need not mean ignoring the real difficulties which need to be solved. Security is one. “The free movement of people also means the free movement of criminals,” says Bovens. Criminal gangs sometimes steal in one country and flee across the border to exploit a lack of coordination between national police forces. Terrorists too might try to take advantage. Both undermine support for open borders. Local leaders hoping to improve coordination.


Immigration from further afield is also mainstay of far-right rhetoric in Limburg. But any attraction is based on a misunderstanding, Bovens says. Even back in the 50s Slovenians were working in Limburg’s now defunct mines, joined by many others who went West as “gastarbeiters”. And with 70,000 eastern Europeans now working in Limburg’s automotive industry, “the reality is: without them we are over.”


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