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Confusing Borders: Baarle-Hertog

Today’s topic is international borders, specifically a very messy border between Belgium and the Netherlands. It is allegedly the most complicated border in the world, and this isn’t that hard to believe. It is Baarle-Hertog, a Belgian exclave in the Netherlands. It is more than just an exclave, however, because it contains numerous smaller Dutch enclaves within it.

What drew this to my attention was the following video, in which presenter Tom Scott asked about the origin of borders and traces them to the Peace of Westphalia. After all, borders imply recognizing sovereignty, and Westphalia is the origin of sovereignty, so they must be related, right?

We know that Westphalia was not the origin of sovereignty, but let’s leave that to the side for a moment. Do you have to have sovereignty to have borders? Were there no borders prior to 1648? The answer to both, of course, is “no.” Borders are basically an inevitable result of multiple competing states, and have existed as long as statehood has; at least since the 3rd millennium B.C. The borders that went into Baarle-Hertog, in fact, go back to the Middle Ages. The Dutch and Spanish recognized these existing borders in 1648 at the Treaty of Münster, but they did nothing to originate them.

The interesting thing about such a messy border as this is that it could only exist among two states that get along extremely well. If Belgium and the Netherlands were hostile, such interwoven borders would be unworkable. Baarle-Hertog therefore represents, not an extreme example of sovereignty, but rather an usual amount of co-operation at the expense of strict sovereignty.

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When searching for an alternative to borders and sovereignty, Scott asks,

Surely it’s just as sensible to that the locals should say what laws they follow, not national governments. That if the state of New York suddenly wanted to become part of Canada instead of the United States, that if they voted, that if they had some sort of referendum, that if it was democratically decided that they should be able to just…go and become part of Canada.

But what he is describing here is not an alternative to sovereignty, but rather a different way of dividing up lands into sovereign countries. Either way, in his scenario, New York is still part of a country; it just changes from America to Canada.

I understand the problem. When I first started to investigate sovereignty, I had a lot of trouble coming up with its opposite. Our political understanding is so bound up with modern ideas of sovereignty that it is difficult to un-think them. Let me propose, therefore, some characteristcs of a political system not based on sovereignty:

What if we had different court systems in the same territory? What if some inhabitants were tried by the local lord, but members of the clergy could only be tried in an ecclesiastical court? And the ecclesiastical jurisdiction would be based on an ecclesiastic administration — the local parish or bishopric — so it would not be coterminous with secular jurisdiction. All non-religious persons in the duchy, say, might be subject to the jursidiction of the local duke, but half of the clergy might belong to one parish and half to another.

What if you paid taxes to different people? We still have this to some extent in America, where you pay local, state, and federal taxes, but those are strictly hierarchical levels and each has distinct things that it’s allowed to tax. In the Middle Ages, villagers in one region might owe certain taxes, say a land tax, to a local lord, but might have to pay a different kind of tax to a completely unrelated noble who just happens to exercise some taxing rights in that region. And, of course, the church would also collect its taxes in the form of tithes, which everyone was expected to pay. There is nothing hierarchical about this; each taxing authority is independent, and is probably limited in the amount of tax to collect strictly by custom, which they are all likely to try to increase at every opportunity.

Now we are starting to come up with an arrangement that defies sovereignty. There are borders of a sort, because each aspect of administration is bounded by some geographic region. But borders don’t define a sovereign state, where everything is administered in a unified fashion on one side of the border and in a different fashion on the other. Instead, borders overlay each other and administration is defined in overlapping layers that do not encompass one another.

You can probably imagine some of the many problems that would arise from this arrangement, and those problems are precisely why we have evolved to a sovereign system now.

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