“It’s never so calm. Never.”
Its history, however, is not entirely universal. Although her city is Belgian, she is also Dutch – or at least partially. Walk two minutes down the road, and you’re in the Netherlands. Walk a little further and you are back in Belgium.
The Belgian city, Baarle-Hertog, is an enclave in the interior of the Netherlands, just 10 kilometers from the border, and vertically bisected by the Dutch city, Baarle-Nassau.
This quirk, which dates back to the Middle Ages, is normally almost unrelated to everyday life. But the coronavirus crisis has led governments to push back the open borders that define the European Union. And Belgium – with roughly double the number of deaths per inhabitant of Covid-19 compared to the Netherlands – has instituted a much tighter lockout.
“I am not allowed to open,” said van der Kogt. “But 50 meters away, on the other side, cafes and restaurants, they open on June 1. And I am not allowed to go there, because I live in Belgium.”
Although Dutch restaurants remain closed, retail stores remained open throughout the crisis. And while Belgian stores were allowed to open this week, Belgians were not allowed to shop across the border – even if it means just crossing one of the white cobblestones dotted around the downtown.
“In this crisis situation, it is not the mayors who are authoritative,” said Marjon de Hoon-Veelenturf, one of the two mayors of Baarle (she is Dutch). “We simply had to listen to the laws and regulations of The Hague and Brussels.
“A discussion broke out during which residents discussed among themselves the country that was taking the most appropriate measures. This brings some polarization.”
People are “shocked” by the coronavirus crisis, intervenes the Belgian mayor, Frans de Bont. “Personally, but also countries, Europe. I think they are shocked together.”
Baarle is of course an extreme example. The question for Europe is whether the country-by-country approach indicates deeper decay in the Union.
“The first reaction was clearly a reaction at the national level, completely disorderly and chaotic, and really not in line with what you would expect from a common travel area without borders which has been in place since 1995,” said Marie de Somer, Senior Policy Analyst at the European Policy Center.
The European Commission itself said on Wednesday in a policy document intended to describe how to reopen the Schengen area of free movement that checks at internal borders “harm our European way of life”.
He warned that if the borders remained closed “beyond what is necessary for public health reasons”, the closings “would impose a heavy burden not only on the functioning of the single market, but also on the lives of millions of citizens deprived of the benefits of free movement, which is a key achievement of the European Union. “
It is not the first time that the EU has faced governments abandoning Schengen at the first sign of a crisis. For several years, countries, including Germany, have carried out a certain level of border control, apparently to stem the flow of migrants moving illegally within the EU.
The scale of the coronavirus closings, however, is unprecedented, said Ian Lesser, vice president of the German Marshall Fund in Brussels.
“The risk, of course, is that this kind of national approach first by member states becomes somehow the norm, and embedded in politics and politics,” he said.
It is more likely, he added, that the economic benefits of opening borders will lead at least in the short term to unsustainable border controls and “will only enhance the value of opening borders within Schengen area”.
For the moment, the local roads crossing the Belgian-Dutch border a few minutes’ drive from Baarle remain barricaded with concrete blocks. Locals do not care that the barriers are easily bypassed by small rural agricultural roads, but the symbolism is austere.
Julien Leemans, 63, takes the game in perplexity. The border is not an abstraction for him – it runs through his whole house.
“Ninety percent of the house is Dutch,” he laughs. “Ten percent – only the toilets – it’s Belgium.”
Well, the front door is also Belgian, which means he lives in Belgium – unable to shop in Dutch stores, even though he was himself born and raised in the Netherlands.
“You now see the difference of the countries on the crown – Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, England – all different.”
“European?” he said laughing. “What is that?”
CNN’s Darren Bull and Mark Baron contributed to this report.