Zeeuws Vlaanderen, NL/BE: the National Border as Catalyst for a Transnational Periphery

Trans-national integration has been one of the staples of the European Union, ever since its inception. As part of the Benelux Treaty, border controls between the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemburg were abolished as early as 1970. Two and a half decades later, the Schengen Agreement of 1995 led to the creation of a significantly large, borderless area within the European Union. Such agreements were deemed as significant steps towards the territorial integration and economic cooperation of participating countries. Eventually, they had profound effects on everyday practices in all regions situated along the borders of nations within the EU. Paradoxically enough, the opening of the borders and the attempts to homogenise the regulatory systems cross the Union have resulted in an increased competition among participating EU states. And as the governments of the traditional nation states increasingly try to secure the interests of their core population, peripheral areas often find themselves suspended between supra-regional powers.

A characteristic example of this phenomenon is Zeeuws Vlaanderen—an approximately 50 km. long and 15 km. wide stretch of Dutch land along the border of Belgium. Geographically, its proximity to the prosperous ports of Ghent, Antwerp and Rotterdam would suggest a thriving economy. Yet while the metropolitan areas of Ghent and Antwerp—only a 30-minute cross-border drive to the south—have demonstrated a great socio-economic vibrancy over the past few decades, Zeeuws Vlaanderen is characterised by landscapes scarred by polluting industries and disconnected infrastructures. During the past few decades, a steady brain drain to more affluent areas has resulted in a hardwearing socio-economic and demographic decline.

Situated at the southern side of the Scheldt estuary, the area was an integral part of the thriving Hinterland of the Flemish harbour towns of Ghent, Bruges and Antwerp during the Middle Ages. This glorious history came to a sudden end when Zeeuws Vlaanderen was annexed to the newly formed Republic of the 7 Provinces during the Dutch War of Independence. As a result, it was cut off from its main economic foci and utilized as a military buffer zone to control access to Flemish ports. Ironically, it was precisely its strategic location that dictated its future as an insular periphery centuries later. Ever since, the national government has treated it as a supportive area to the economic heart of the Netherlands in the north.

In terms of national legislation, regulation and planning policy, Zeeuws Vlaanderen is still no different than any other region of the Netherlands. This approach—that one could call “iso-national”—became especially apparent in the context of post-WWII reconstruction. The Dutch structural planning agenda was characterized by a homogenising strategy and an almost infrastructural approach that focussed on securing national interests. At the time, the potential of local, cross-border relations with Belgium were rather disregarded. Despite official agreements towards European Integration—such as those of the Benelux Treat or Schengen—political tension over cross-border practices between countries like the Netherlands and Belgium have only aggravated in recent decades. To shield their tax income and fortify their economies, individual member states operating within the European Single Market continuously seek ways to increase market benefits and attract foreign investment; a policy that often impedes trust and cooperation and overrules local initiative.

Because of its strategic position to the most important Belgian ports and industries, Zeeuws Vlaanderen has found itself in the position of playing card on the international fields of diplomacy and business lobby on numerous occasions, as the local interest would be subjugated to the processes of national decision-making. The Dutch central government has been notoriously un-cooperative in dredging, maintaining and enlarging the waterways of Zeeuws Vlaanderen that give access to these Flemish ports. Yet while the Belgians would accuse the Dutch of not cooperating because of their supposed fear of increased competition with the port of Rotterdam, the Dutch would answer that the infrastructural works would not be in line with the existing Dutch legislation on nature conservation.[i]1

In response, the Belgian central government has been rather reluctant in accommodating Dutch requests for a bilateral improvement of rail and road connections crossing their border. Other continuing subjects of contestation on a large-scale include the high-speed rail connection between Amsterdam and Paris and the debates over the introduction of taxes targeting lorry transport across Belgium. And on a local level, similar arguments pertain, for example, regarding rail and road connections between Zeeuws Vlaanderen and the neighbouring Belgian cities to the south. [ii]2

In line with the what the Flemish often refer to as “the mercantile spirit” of their northern neighbours, the Dutch have created true business models over the dependency of the Flemish harbours on the transport over Dutch waterways. For instance, Dutch companies that provide pilot vessel service to the port of Antwerp compete fiercely with Flemish nationally unionised ones. And the reduced size of the locks of the Terneuzen port in Zeeuws Vlanderen dictate the transhipment of cargo with small barges before they can reach the significantly larger port of Ghent.

In recent years conflicts have culminated in a highly publicised dispute over the Hedwigepolder (fig 3). In 2005 an agreement was signed between the Dutch and Flemish governments to convert a 3 sq. km. patch of Dutch land into a wetland. Fully financed by Belgium, the cross-border project was intended as nature compensation with a dual purpose: to counterbalance the expansion of the port of Antwerp (fig 6); and at the same time provide space for storm surge mitigation for the densely populated areas situated on the Belgian side of the border. Eventually, local protests accompanied by a storm of national media outcries led to a violation of the initial agreement by the Dutch. The breach resulted in political instability in the Netherlands, hard-talk and deadlocks between the Dutch and Belgian governments, and finally the intervention of the European Commission as a middleman to settle the dispute.[iii]3

While this type of international conflict often has often led to Zeeuws Vlaanderen becoming the backdrop of political contest between the Netherlands and Belgium, whenever it comes to political decision-making on purely national level the region habitually doubles as the national “back-of-house” par excellence: continuing nimbyism among the core population areas on both sides of the border, has resulted in a concentration of nationally important yet locally undesirable polluting industries (fig 1), nuclear power plants (fig 4) and other unattractive land uses such as landfills and incinerators. All these are strategically pushed as close as possible to the border and peddled to the locals as bringing in investment and new jobs.

The list of cause for Zeeuws Vlaanderen’s decreasing popularity and dwindling local socio-economic status does not end here though. As a result of its relatively small population base and its peripheral location, many urban and supra-regional amenities can only be found far away on the Dutch mainland. For many of these—such as shopping or entertainment—Flemish cities offer good alternatives. But persistent incompatibilities between the Dutch and Belgian juridical-fiscal systems, especially when it comes to education, force young locals to permanently move towards the economical centre of the Netherlands[iv]4. The consequences of this include an ageing and steadily decreasing population, additional corrosion in the quality level of public services, and a dwindling housing market. Moreover, local overrepresentation of industrial activities produces an overtly specialized local economy and a monotonous labour market, rendering the region vulnerable to abrupt global moves of industrial production. Thus, there is currently an enormous demand for technically skilled employees in big-scale industries while at the same time small business suffers. Factories in Zeeuws Vlaanderen hire technical staff from Eastern Europe while the regional unemployment rate continues to be well above the national average. Professionals educated in the humanities probably face the hardest job-finding challenges of all.[v]5

Local initiatives

Thankfully, in recent years there have been some slow but steady signs that indicate an inversion of these trends, as cross-border relations strengthen. More than four centuries of separation and “iso-national” attitudes may have resulted in significantly different cultural, economic and institutional traditions. Nonetheless, both Belgians and Dutch populations living close to the border have always found ways to exploit these differences. Benefits were often to be found in secret and illegal activities, such as smuggling goods right after World War II. Today gains are increasingly tied to overt and legal activities. The institutionalisation of a porous border has nurtured a plenitude of easily accessible services, products and experiences that might even surpass the level of amenities in the economical hearts of either the Netherlands or the Flanders.

Following the European Integration, followed by the introduction of single currency, and in more recent years the (partial) relinquishment of traditional models of central planning on the Dutch side of the border,[vi]6 manifold initiatives by the local authorities and enterprises of Zeeuws Vlaanderen advocate the presence of the border as a major selling point for the region. These initiatives take the form of a regional branding strategy that promotes the benefits of living in proximity to the “other side.” Directed both towards the Dutch and the Flemish population, various marketing campaigns aim at attracting new business and residents.

Most interestingly, these campaigns rehearse the opposite arguments for Dutch and Flemish audiences. To the Dutch, Zeeuws Vlaanderen is promoted as “foreign enough.” This claim is based on the regions’ physical proximity to the culture of the Flanders, while still offering a lifestyle and residential environment that is different enough from the rest of the Netherlands. It is highly indicative that in one of these initiatives, called Uwnieuwetoekomst.nl (“Your New Future”), Zeeuws Vlaanderen is represented at the International Emigration Fair held annually in the Netherlands as if it was a non-Dutch region (fig 2); in essence it is presented as a fair alternative for building “your new future” abroad, but with much less paperwork than actually emigrating to a foreign country. Conversely, the respective Flemish initiative advertises the area as “not really Dutch” (fig 5) and even calls it “Belgium’s 11th province.”7[vii] Accompanied by the slogan “Unlimited/Borderless Zeeuws Vlaanderen,” the Flemish audience is offered all the practical solutions and (mostly financial) benefits of buying a house on the Dutch side, while still being able to pursue a largely Flemish lifestyle. Such experiences illustrate how cross-border cooperation is already taking place bilaterally: between local authorities (among others the Municipalities of Ghent, Terneuzen, Zelzate) and with business associations, such as the association of Ghent harbour Enterprises and the Dutch Zeeland Seaports.

Border benefits

In many ways, marketing strategies as the ones described above correctly highlight the multitude of easily accessible services, products and experiences offered by a trans-national urbanism between the Netherlands and Flanders. The advantages of living at the border of the two countries are mainly rooted in the myriad incongruities on both a cultural and economic level, as well as the ones caused by the different regulatory and tax systems on both sides of the border. It is exactly where the “backsides” of the two countries meet that a trans-national game of hide-and-seek is played, as local inhabitants selectively cross the border to enjoy a larger freedom in their daily choices and maximize the exchange power of their money.

Culturally, there are many differences that are easily perceived when the border is crossed. Additionally, centuries of two separate “iso-national” policies have caused a large divergence in the way the built environment of both territories is planned and organised. In an attempt to limit sprawl and spontaneous urbanisation, the highly centralised Dutch planning system appointed in 1959 only a few of the settlements of Zeeuws Vlaanderen as “growth nuclei.” Concurrently, the much more organic model of planning followed in the Flanders[viii]8 effectively led to a large percentage of urbanised land. Thus, Zeeuws Vlaanderen is both more sparsely populated and much less sprawly than Flanders, offering nowadays an easy way out of the Belgian suburbia into seemingly “natural” landscapes suited for outdoor activities. Conversely, the Flanders offers to the Dutch the comforts of a more metropolitan lifestyle.

When it comes to certain products and services, regulations or even prohibitions established on a national level often lose their meaning by simply crossing the border. In Zeeuws Vlaanderen, higher taxation of alcohol and a ban on its consumption for individuals under 18 years of age has led to Saturday night bus-tours from Zeeuws Vlaanderen to Belgian clubs being organised by a local Tour Operator. In a similar fashion, a reverse stream of regular visitors is attracted to the Netherlands by coffeeshops selling (semi)legal marijuana. The tongue-in-cheek named coffeeshop Checkpoint in Terneuzen (fig 8 and 9) grew into the biggest coffeeshop in the Netherlands due to its advantageous proximity to open border crossings. In its heydays it attracted over 2700 customers a day, outdoing even the ones in Amsterdam. Because this border phenomenon escalated in a multitude of localities close to the national borders, the sales of soft drugs in the southern provinces of the Netherlands are nowadays limited to locally registered residents only. The introduction of this system however has led only to a partial reduction of “drug tourism” while simultaneously resulting in a thriving black-market, pick-up service at the homes of local residents who resell their legally acquired drugs at competitive profit margins.

Another telling example pertains the liberal regulatory climate on the Dutch side of the border that has also caused a flourishing local prostitution industry. In Zeeuws Vlaanderen, a multitude of sex clubs (or “sex farms,” when the activities take place in vacant farmhouses), host foreign prostitutes (among whom many Belgian) and are targeting a predominantly Belgian customer base. Effectively, “sex farms” cater for a Belgian demand while profiting from the leniency of Dutch legislation. Similarly, crossing the border to purchase fireworks towards the end of the year had become an annual ritual for Dutch who benefit from the relaxed regulation of consumer firework sales in Belgium.

Large discrepancies between regulations on both sides of the border, like the ones described here, majorly shape the lives of EU residents living on their country fringes on a day-to-day level (fig 12). In Zeeuws Vlaanderen, one of the most obvious ones regards housing prices that are considerably lower than those found on the Flemish side.9[ix] Driven by a decreasing population and a low popularity of the region, existing price differences are exacerbated even further by the competitive notary fees and a system of tax-deductible mortgages found on the Dutch side. Likewise, lower average grocery prices in the Netherlands leads to a big Flemish client-base for supermarkets in Zeeuws Vlaanderen (fig 10)[x]10. At the same time, the Dutch periodically cross the border for low priced fuel, as fuel taxes in Belgium are noticeably lower than in the Netherlands. Or even further, the Dutch enjoy the proximity of quality health care services at the hospitals of Antwerp, Ghent and Bruges.

A cross-border periphery

European Integration has eliminated many of the obstacles that were previously defined by national borders. Interestingly, this has led to a situation in which national governments are finding themselves in a position in which they have to simultaneously “compete and collaborate.”[xi]11 In the case of Zeeuws Vlaanderen, the national governments are currently still hampering developments in the region, while local initiatives have already realised and capitalised on the potential of this relatively recent cross-border reality. The common use of the Euro along with a common language spoken on both sides has further facilitated a series of daily practices that when considered together constitute a new way of living: being close to the Dutch/Flemish border can literally bring about “the best of both worlds.”

As these advantages are directly dependent on the parameters of vicinity to, and the differences at the border, we can imagine the already existing cross-border twin-towns such as Nieuw Namen—Kieldrecht, (map 2) Sas van Gent—Zelzate (map 3) and Hulst—Klinge (map 4) to become the focal points of a truly trans-national peripheral development. As the border in these towns has already been reduced to a fairly abstract given, as it crosses right through the urban environment, cross-border living is already to a large extent a reality there.

Knowing how to exploit these temporary systemic differences in legislation, taxes and economy locally, the inhabitants will be empowered by the myriad of choices that provide more quality for their time and money. At the same time businesses will fully exploit the taxes and regulations on either side on the border, depending on the best offer. This results in a highly dynamic urban environment in which consumption and migration patterns follow the differences between the national systems. And by strategically sharing resources among national “backyards” across Europe, peripheries like Zeeuws Vlaanderen could become the best places to live.

Fuelled by the vision of European Integration, local peripheral communities actively seek practical ways to engage with each other. The resulting local initiatives seem to pave the way for a future in which Zeeuws Vlaanderen will finally be re-connected to its closest economic powerhouses, becoming a true cross-border periphery of the Flemish metropolitan areas rather than a backward and insular no-man’s land, subjugated to continuing border conflicts between national central governments that are remote and increasingly non-representative of the local interest. In this process, the presence of the border could ironically be the local catalyst.

Bakker, P Huiberts, R (2015). Zeeuws Vlaanderen, NL/BE: the National Border as Catalyst for a Transnational Periphery. MONU, (22), pp 64-71

[i] 1 Programmadirectie Natura 2000 (2009). “Natura 2000-gebied Westerschelde & Saeftinghe.”

2 2 De Vries, J., Harbers, A., Verwest, F., 2007. “Grensoverschrijdende projecten in Nederland en Vlaanderen: leren van HSL Zuid, Schelde en IJzeren Rijn”, Rotterdam: NAi Publishers

[iii] 3 Redactie NRC. (2015, February 5). “Vlaanderen en Nederland vinden elkaar, procedure om Hedwigepolder gestaakt.” NRC Handelsblad.

[iv] 4 Berg, E.H. van den (2010). “Braindrain vanuit Zeeuws Vlaanderen? –Onderzoek naar het migratiepatroon en motief van hoogopgeleide jongeren afkomstig uit Oost Zeeuws-Vlaanderen.” Utrecht: Universiteit Utrecht, Faculteit Geowetenschappen.

[v] 5 Wouw, D van der (ed.) (2011) “Leefbaarheid Themarapport Sociale staat van Zeeland.” Middelburg: Scoop

[vi] 6 This trend is illustrated by the fact that in 2010 the Dutch Ministry for Spatial Planning and the Environment was re-organised and merged with the Ministry of Infrastructure . The term “spatial planning” was removed from the Ministry’s name.

[vii] 7 http://www.zeeuws-vlaanderen.be

[viii] 8 See Christ, E., Munarin, S., Nio, E., 2002, “After Sprawl” . Rotterdam: NAi Publishers

[ix] 9 Vliet, M van, Roost, M van, Brouwer, M, Zunderdorp, M (2011) “Grensoverschrijdend wonen, verkenning.” Rotterdam: SEV.

[x] 10 Meijsen, J. (2014, March 7). “Belgische boodschappen 13 procent duurder.“ Distrifood, onafhankelijke nieuwssite voor supermarkten.

[xi] 11 De Vries (et al), 2007, op. cit. p. 28

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