Ignoring history in the Westerschelde debate

The port of Antwerp.
By Luuk van Middelaar

From the Belgian point of view, what is so frustrating about the Dutch debate over the dredging of the Westerschelde is the ability to keep the heart of the matter out of the picture: trade and the raison d'état.

The Netherlands has been debating with gusto for weeks about the pros and cons of flooding 300 hectares of reclaimed land in the southern Zeeland province. All the stops are being pulled to tell the story of man against nature. A handful of farmers has succeeded in making people believe that the cutting of one dyke somehow constitutes an assault on the landscape and an emotionally unacceptable sacrifice on the part of the people of Zeeland.

At the same time the environmentalist lobby is fighting on behalf of endangered birds and lower and upper tidal marshes. Media reports describe the Hedwige polder as "a narrow strip of land flanked by imposing trees". "Stout cows cast their imposing silhouettes against the red evening sky over the dyke". As one farmer told a reporter: "Pretty, isn't it? Most members of parliament make up their minds when they see this."


There is preciously little talk of the economic interest of Europe's largest port, Rotterdam, in obstructing access to Europe's second largest port, Antwerp. The Flemish interpret this silence as proof of the perfidious Dutch mercantile spirit. Spin a nice tale about cows, the environment and the legal process while at the same time you're ringing up the profits - at the neighbours' expense.

'Degraded to a second-rate port'

Certainly, the latest delay in the dredging of the Westerschelde follows a complaint by the Zeeland environmentalist lobby with the council of state. The Belgians are aware that the green movement is hardly the mouthpiece of Rotterdam's port barons. They can only note that the various conflicting agendas about the Westerschelde in the Netherlands have a single net result: a perfect defence of the national economic interest.

According to the city executive responsible for port activities Antwerp is losing 70 million euros for every year the dredging is delayed. The Flemish feel that the battle over the international container trade has reached a decisive moment. "If the Westerschelde is not dredges soon Antwerp will be degraded to a second-rate port," said professor of maritime law Eric van Hooydonck in an interview with the Flemish news weekly Knack. The fear of losing access to the sea is very real.

The navigability of the Westerschelde is such a charged issue in the context of relations between the northern and southern Low Countries that it is hard to understand how nonchalantly The Hague is treating it. The fall of Antwerp in 1585 and the Dutch blockade of the Scheldt were a pivotal moment for the separation of North and South, of the Republic and the Spanish Netherlands. Antwerp was cut off from the sea; Amsterdam took over Antwerp's dominant position. After the 1648 Peace of Münster the Dutch Republic managed to perpetuate the Scheldt blockade.

It wasn't until the Treaty of London of 1839, in which the great powers agreed to the independence of Belgium, that the reopening of the Scheldt river was finally guaranteed. The European powers deemed this necessary to make the newly independent state economically viable. In return Belgium had to relinquish its claims on the Dutch provinces of Limburg and Zeeland. The Netherlands, under the pressure of Britain and France, reluctantly agreed.

Neighbourly relations remain important

Shortly after the prime minister of the Flemish region of Belgium, Kris Peeters, summoned the Dutch ambassador on August 13 of this year, it looked like Dutch prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende was going to take charge and let the political relationship with the neighbours to the south take precedence over the emotions of his own Zeeland. That would have been wise.

Just like neighbours - in the words of the prime minister who put 'norms and values' on the agenda in the Netherlands - shouldn't fight each other over the height of a hedge, so neighbouring countries shouldn't fight over dredging a ditch. Especially not if agreements have been signed. Even in times of globalisation good neighbourly relations remain important. Just like in a street neighbours can chose to help each other, or harass each other - in this case through mussel boycotts or imposing a road tax on Dutch trucks using the Belgian motorways. Countries, however, can't pick up and move.

This fleeting moment of Dutch decency in the common interest has already come to pass. Last Friday Balkenende said the council of state will probably need more time to reach a decision. The contractual deadline to dredge by the end of 2009 will probably not be made. The Dutch prime minister is resigned about this ("I have to deal with legal possibilities and impossibilities"). To which the Flemish prime minister responded that the Flemish government will consider additional measures. Does this mean that the Flemish want to force The Hague to adopt an emergency law to expropriate the Hedwige polder?

'Scrap of paper'

There are those in Flanders who want to take things one step further. Antwerp professor Van Hooydonk said: "If the Dutch are allowed to treat the 1839 treaty like a scrap of paper then it is our right to reopen the debate about the borders of Belgium." Van Hooydonk was referring to Belgium's historic claims on the Dutch provinces of Limburg and Zeeland, while using the same 'scrap of paper' expression that German chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg used in 1914 to express his disbelief that Britain would go to war over Germany's invasion of neutral Belgium.

But the tough talk from Belgium has yet to penetrate the Dutch reverie over the sunset over the Hedwige polder. The whole affair shows once more that even in a Europe without borders the old political order remains firmly in place. People and goods may cross the borders within the union at will, but the borders themselves are still firmly in place. The union has no power over border conflicts between the member states that predate its own existence. Slovenia can block Croatia's ascension to the EU because of an 18-year-old dispute over the sliver of Adriatic coast that is Slovenia's only access to international waters. Balkan silliness? Not really. In the Low Countries we know very well that disputes like these can last for centuries.

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