THE LOW COUNTRIES: Land Without a Country

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For more than a century everyone had managed to get along just fine, even though part of the town was called Baarle-Hertog and was Belgian, and the other was called Baarle-Nassau and was Dutch. Then one day in 1939, a Belgian named Sooi Van Den Eijnde decided to lead his pigs across Lots 91 and 92. The Netherlands Railways, convinced that the lots were Dutch, had built nine houses there, and the Dutch customs official lived in one of them.

"Hey, you," cried the Dutchman when he saw Sooi, "have you got a license to import those pigs?" Retorted Sooi: "I am on Belgian soil—Hertog soil." It soon turned out that in a way he was right: in their treaty of 1843 Holland and Belgium had decided that the land in question was Dutch, but because of an error of a sleepy clerk, it was listed as Belgian—as Sooi subsequently proved in court.

100% Delighted. Even if Sooi had not brought the matter up—and thus unleashed the chain of events that was to make the 35 disputed acres such a headache to both Brussels and The Hague—things would have been confusing enough. Of all Europe's confusing enclaves, none is quite so complex. The border between the two countries runs so crazily that in one place a man can switch countries just by walking from his bedroom into his living room. The frontier slices one café's billiard table in two, and there was a time when players on one side would have to quit at 11 p.m. while those on the other could keep going until midnight. In 1942, the occupying Nazis proclaimed the whole district to be Dutch, but the very next day they sheepishly withdrew their decree: the two electric systems, the two water systems, the two gas suppliers, not to mention the two town halls and two sets of laws, were just too much to cope with.

Baarle's chief occupation, naturally, is smuggling. Even legitimate businessmen can prosper by setting up their establishments on both sides of the border and operating in whichever country happens to offer the more favorable price levels and the lower taxes. "From the cradle to the grave," says Dutch Burgomaster Franciscus de Grauw of Baarle-Nassau, "our actions violate the law." "But," adds his Belgian colleague, Burgomaster Jan Loots of Baarle-Hertog, "we feel 100% delighted with the situation."

Up Flag, Up Rent. Having been brought up in this sort of atmosphere, Sooi saw that the case of Lots 91 and 92 could mean more to him than just easy foraging land for his pigs. He saved up his money after the war, in 1952 bought the nine houses from the railway. He promptly hoisted the Belgian flag, demanded that his new tenants pay Belgian rents rather than the lower Dutch rents. Later, he decided that since there was still so much confusion as to the nationality of the land, he would declare it "Sooi" soil until the bosses in Brussels and The Hague straightened things out. To stir the authorities, he put up posters saying, "Are Belgians Afraid of the Dutch?" When that did not bring results, he cut down three "Sooi" trees and barricaded the road with their trunks. When Dutch police arrived on bicycles to clear the road, they had to fight off Sooi's bloodhounds.

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