Dutch-Belgian border village left half open, half shut by virus

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BAARLE-HERTOG, Belgium/BAARLE-NASSAU, Netherlands (Reuters) - Measures to halt the spread of the coronavirus have created an odd situation in a village straddling the Dutch-Belgian border where opposite sides of the road are in different countries.

For decades residents have freely gone about their business barely noticing the dotted frontier on the ground, but now tougher lockdown rules in Belgium limit its citizens to food shops and pharmacies, while the Dutch are also allowed to visit the shoe shop, travel agency and optician on their territory.

“These are all Dutch shops, but in Belgium they would have to be closed in this time of coronavirus,” said Frans De Bont, mayor of the Belgian municipality Baarle-Hertog, pointing at a row of shops on a Dutch street section.

“I live just 50 meters away, I walk by, but I cannot go into any of these shops because I am Belgian,” he told Reuters TV. “We have extra police driving around, but we are calling for understanding from the public.”

One store even had a ribbon down the middle of its premises, marking the border, with the Belgian section off-limits. Belgians are still allowed to go to food shops, a pharmacy or a doctor if they happen to be on Dutch territory.

The village and its surroundings are entirely within the Netherlands, but it also comprises 22 Belgian enclaves that form Baarle-Hertog and, within these, a further eight Dutch micro-enclaves, which belong to Dutch Baarle-Nassau. The border even bisects some properties.

De Bont said the quirky geography stemmed from a feudal system of land swaps and rentals that took place as much as 1,000 years ago, and left in place.

“It used to be very common, but it’s just here that it’s stayed,” he said, adding that efforts to establish a more regular border, including after World War One, had come to nothing.

(This story corrects first name of mayor to Frans from Frank in paragraph 3)

Writing by Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Gareth Jones