Column by Xavier Jongen
Living in Maastricht in the southernmost tip of the Netherlands near the German and Belgian borders is, in a word, fantastic. The city and surrounding hillsides are beautiful, green, walkable and safe and it is a great destination for fine food and shopping. The icing on the cake, for people like me who live in Maastricht, is that it’s not overly expensive. Houses in this area are cheaper than in Amsterdam, Utrecht, Rotterdam and other cities in the highly urbanised western conglomeration of the Netherlands. There’s a very strong feel-good factor here, because every day feels like a holiday. Our house is located within walking distance of Maastricht’s city centre in Wyck, close to Ceramique, the first Dutch public-private partnership for housing with Dutch pension fund APG , now a regenerated neighbourhood where the former Sphinx factory, a ceramic sanitary products manufacturer, was located. Our bank is on the other side of the Dutch-German border in Aachen; our tennis club (one of the oldest in the world) is in the French-speaking province of Wallonia in nearby Belgium; and our drycleaner is located in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium in Flanders. We regularly cross the Dutch-German and Dutch-Belgian borders to shop and meet friends, all the while aware that Maastricht, with its 122,000 inhabitants, remains a relatively unknown city in our country.
However, smiles have turned to frowns, since the outbreak of Covid 19 and the lockdown that has subsequently been enforced in the three countries that we visit on a daily basis. Around 2,000 years ago, the Romans founded the city here, precisely because of its surroundings. That is where the value of the city lies. Under the lockdown, Maastricht finds itself at the epicenter of nothing. Now that the borders with neighbouring Germany and Belgium are closed, Maastricht is just another provincial city like several hundred others in Europe.
The borders are actually physically closed. There are concrete roadblocks on the roads. There is no way of bypassing them. Even by bicycle – see the photo of my children on their bikes at the Dutch-Belgian border, a 10-minute bike ride from where the Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992 to further European integration.
Of course, we need to track and isolate the geographic hotspots of Covid 19, but it is unlikely that the virus stops at the Dutch-Belgian border. In my opinion, our capacity as human beings to cooperate and work together is a key asset against the virus.
Because of this blockade Maastricht has become ein Gespensterstadt – a ghetto. Only now has it become clear to what extent the city centre is normally dominated by tourists, expats and predominantly international students. Only a very few locals actually live here. Even provincial cities can be less affordable than I had realized.
I never dreamt that I would one day witness the Schengen borders being closed. Now that it has happened, I see my family cycling to the roadblock and back, as a crystal ball experience of how ugly Europe could become without Europe. Poignantly, the little roadblock near where we live is the European version of “the great wall against Mexico”. The idea that such a thing might exist as a “German/Dutch/Walloon/Flemish virus” is tantamount to the idea that “a Chinese virus” exists. Nationalistic sentiment has politicised the coronavirus, more dangerous, I believe, than the virus itself.
Earlier last week, the European Commission warned that the coronavirus crisis threatens the stability of the eurozone and risks exacerbating economic and social divisions within the European Union. There is indeed a threat that nationalist sentiment could turn Covid-19 into a sovereign debt crisis that marks the end to the euro and buries the EU as a result. Our world would then become so much smaller, unfriendlier and impoverished. Europe’s founding fathers wanted to create a culturally unified Europe through the economic interdependence of its member states. The rationale is that countries with cultural ties are better equipped to manage a crisis. The proposal of creating eurobonds to help finance the rising national debt of the EU’s member states would, I believe, reinforce these ties beyond the geographic borders. Many historic decisions that will affect the trajectory of the European Union will be taken in the coming months.
Europe is the sum of its crises. So, is there a silver lining to the cloud that Covid-19 represents? For Maastricht, the need to push for real transnational democracy at the Euregional level has become evident. Momentum is growing for a common agenda in areas that will be restructured in the post-Covid world such as health, education and transportation. At present, three major hospitals, three universities with 180,000 students, two regional airports and two high-speed railway lines in the Meuse-Rhine Euroregion are acting independently. Maybe the silver lining of Covid-19 is that it exposes even more clearly than before the less visible, unchecked undercurrents of nationalist sentiment that have been incubating for decades and which have continued to infect individual after individual across the borders near our fantastic hometown. Let us hope that this virus is contained now as well.
Xavier Jongen is Managing Director of Catella Investment Management Benelux