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Heads Will Roll: Belgium and the Netherlands Conduct a Peaceful Land Swap

It was not until the discovery of a headless body was reported in the lower Meuse region of the Netherlands that police decided to investigate. The region had been plagued by violence and degeneracy for decades, but every time Dutch judicial authorities attempted to explore the crime-ridden area, they were stopped by the national borders of neighboring Belgium. Belgium and the Netherlands are divided by the Meuse River, and traditionally, their national borders ran along the deepest part of the river. But due to a straightening of the river in 1961, parts of Belgium ended up on the “Netherlands side” of the river and vice versa. For over fifty years, both nations have owned small plots of land attached to the neighboring country but have been unable to practically access them across the river.

The limitations of judicial authorities in this respect, as well as a police report of a headless body found by a couple nearly four years ago, sparked talks of border renegotiation between the two countries. As of November 2016, a bilateral treaty between Belgium and the Netherlands has been reached. The treaty marks one of the quickest and most peaceful land settlements to ever be made between two European countries.

The land swap is the product of a very rare geographical situation. The border between Belgium and the Netherlands was established in 1843 in the Treaty of Maastricht. But in 1961 both nations decided to improve the connection of canals along the river by straightening out its naturally windy path.

A depiction of the border between Belgium and the Netherlands before and after the border renegotiation.

A depiction of the border between Belgium and the Netherlands before and after the border renegotiation.

The de-facto peninsulas created by the dredging of the river made it impossible for the Dutch to enter Belgian territory and simultaneously difficult for the Belgian police to access the land. Crossing the Meuse River requires special permission and there is little to no landing zone area on the isolated peninsulas.

The combination of unintentional neglect on the part of both countries created the perfect opportunity for illegal activity to spread across the unchecked plots of land. In particular, authorities were eventually made aware of illicit sex scandals, mass drug movements, and large parties that violated both noise and land ordinances across the river in areas previously known for wildlife preservation. The report of a headless body in Presqu’ile de L’llal finally warranted enough attention from the Belgian authorities to begin an investigation. But the absence of proper landing zones and gear made it extremely difficult for the authorities to access the land––teams were forced to circle the coasts with all necessary investigative parties including prosecutors, legal doctors, and the judicial lab. The process was not only time-consuming but inefficient.

After four years of discussion, a treaty titled Memorandum van Overeenstemming was finally signed by both King Philipp of Belgium and King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands last month. Once ratified, the border change will have a monumental impact on the civilians who have been living on the peninsulas, civilians who have been subject to unchecked criminal activity and difficulty moving across international borders. Border changes are an extremely convoluted process–they not only involve changes to the national border but changes to municipal borders as well. Given its complexity, the deal is setting a new precedent for being resolved both quickly and peacefully.

The deal, scheduled to be ratified on January 1, 2018, will give Belgium roughly eight acres of land, while the Netherlands receives approximately 40 acres. The unusual resolution proves that not all border changes are met with conflict and violence. As Didier Reynders, Belgium’s foreign minister, said last month, it is remarkable that “borders can be peacefully changed…perhaps that is only possible between the Netherlands and Belgium.”

The excellent relationship between Belgium and the Netherlands seems to be the exception rather than the rule among European land disputes, which have historically led to long and bloody wars on an international scale. Even if the desired changes are mutual, they can still be prevented by constitutional law. Earlier this year, a similar border change caught traction in Nordic countries––Norway considered moving the peak of one of its tallest mountains into Finish territory to mark the 100th anniversary of Finland’s declaration of independence. However, this movement caught a snag on an article in the Norwegian constitution that prohibited such a change.

Despite the obstacles created by both law and administrative practicality, the Belgium-Netherlands talks have created momentum for change across the globe. Earlier this year, India and Bangladesh decided to put aside differences to begin exchanging more than 160 enclaves, small pockets of land that are completely surrounded by foreign territory. The trend may even impact the United State’s decisions to open up discussion with Canada and Mexico. Paul Rozenweig, a U.S. homeland security official, recently wrote a report on how isolate land-swapping on the U.S.-Canada border could allow for revamped, pre-clearance security measures that efficiently control the movement of people between countries.

History has demonstrated that territorial disputes are usually followed by an army of lawyers and then by an army of soldiers. But Belgium and the Netherlands seem to have charted a more amiable approach, one that surpasses the national pride that gridlocks countries into violent land disputes. The deal promotes the recognition of a common good for citizens of both countries. The impact of the treaty is monumental. Restoring land to either side of the river will allow both countries to properly enforce nature preservation laws in the parks, give farmers in the respective areas more freedom to move about each country, and create a land without pockets of lawlessness, free of loud parties and headless bodies.