During my lunch break or in the evening, it is a pleasure to take a walk and visit the border crossing, because I want to know how our southern neighbours have cordoned off the border. The Dutch-Belgian border is about 300 meters away from me. Only recently I realised that my father once guarded that border, as a member of the Royal Netherlands Marechaussee in the sixties. As a result of European unification, the border became gradually less visible, until the coronavirus struck. Without a vignette for commuting you are no longer allowed to cross the main roads. Even the many stealthy roads cannot be accessed by car due to the roadblocks and fences that are placed everywhere. It is possible by bike or on foot, which requires some effort at times, but it is not allowed. Not a single Dutch policeman to be seen, but a lot of Belgian policemen. They enforce the rules that have been tightened in the last few weeks.
What has unfortunately also gotten sharper is the tone with regard to the Netherlands. Some Flemish mayors have also stirred up tension with the Netherlands, claiming the country would be lax and late in the battle against the coronavirus, which would cause the Dutch to spread the virus into Belgium. You may get sad about the foul tones on the other side of the border. Although the measures that have been implemented differ somewhat between the two countries, it is very quiet on the streets, both in Belgium, as well as in the Netherlands. What we have in common is the presence of the virus and the deaths. Regrettably, the number and increase are relatively the same in Belgium and the Netherlands.
There should be greater understanding of the national awareness and timing of the introduction of measures, of the culture of decision making and enforcement, of the way authority versus autonomy is perceived, and of the different national health care systems, in which the European Union hardly plays a role.
Cultural differences between countries can be understood by tackling the influential dimensions of Hofstede (view the graph below). There are six, but the biggest differences between the Netherlands and Belgium are the scores on the dimensions ‘power distance’ and ‘masculinity’. In short, it comes down to the fact that the Dutch are more independent and attach less value to hierarchy than the Belgians, and seek support through negotiations and compromises. In crisis situations in the Netherlands, this can lead to a valuable time loss before action is taken. Also on the so-called ‘uncertainty avoidance’ dimension, the difference is large. This means that Belgians attach great value to safety, and that they expect safety to be regulated with firm authority from a top level. These are stereotypes, but how striking is this in the light of the Belgian and Dutch measures against the coronavirus!
For their safety, the Belgians thus meticulously cordon off the border, although they have to pass through the half-opened Zeeman shop of the Belgian Baarle Hertog and the Dutch Baarle Nassau. In the eyes of the Belgians this is understandable, and also that they find the Dutch to be lax and late with their policy. However, in both countries the citizens and the media are full of praise for their national leaders and experts. This is where the lack of coordination between governments takes its toll, causing citizens of the Netherlands and Belgium to be at odds with each other.
I encountered a curiosity before the (Dutch) Château Neercanne at the border between Maastricht and Kanne, where the fences and tapes are located tens of metres from the official border on Dutch territory. The beautiful border posts from 1843, the asphalting and Google Maps are unambiguous in where the border runs. Technically speaking, the Belgian police officers patrolling the fences should have a vignette to stay on Dutch territory.……
By Frank Cörvers, professor ‘Demographic Transition, human capital and employment’ and affiliated with the Institute for Transnational and Euregional cross border cooperation and Mobility / ITEM and Neimed.