Diplomatic Folklore, the Akwizgran Discrepancy, and Swiss Cheese Sovereignties

Diplomatic Folklore, the Akwizgran Discrepancy, and Swiss Cheese Sovereignties

Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG, has up two posts on sovereignty and geography. Quoting from Neal Ascherson, one post begins:

There "may or may not have been," he writes, "something called the ‘Akwizgran Discrepancy’." It’s now just "a forgotten thread of diplomatic folklore."

(Ascherson, by the way, is the author of Black Sea, an excellent history of the region.)

The discrepancy may have been a small plot of land bordered by Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands that was unclaimed by any state.  No one argued that it was its own country; it was just a little bit of land outside of the system of sovereign states. Referring to an article by Ascherson, Manuagh explains:

Ascherson’s paper is about the fluid nature of "international space." He focuses particularly on the changing natures of both terrain and sovereignty – and how the definition of one always affects the definition of the other.


Ascherson’s geography is, for the most part, European; he discusses nation-states from the early 20th century through to the end of the Cold War. During that time, we read, there were a number of "less durable spaces" – for instance, the "parallel but unlicensed institutions" of Solidarity-era Poland. He points out that, "in the early 20th century, there were a number of spaces which were not absolutely unpopulated but whose allocation to empires or nation-states was undecided." 

From an imperial standpoint, these unofficially recognized lands and institutions – mostly rural and almost always located near borders – represented "a dangerous breach in space." They were "intercellular spaces," we’re told, and they functioned more like "gaps, crevices, interstices, [and] oversights" within much larger systems of sovereign power. A great post, check it out.

Manaugh follows this up with the story of  Baarle-Hertog, a town that is like jurisdictional swiss cheese: most of the town is in Belgium, but little disconnected pockets (the holes in the swiss cheese) are part of the Netherlands. (Does this make it Belgian cheese? Dutch cheese?)  This is a “picture is worth a thousand words" moment:




What these posts together show is that sovereignty in practice is so much more nuanced than in theory.  In seeing the Baarle-Hertog map one of the first things I thought of was the Vance-Owen map of Bosnia. And then various proposals concerning sovereignty in the Occupied Territories of Palestine.  Addressing the complex jurisdictional and policy-coordination issues that may arise from these complex arrangements may become increasingly important work for international lawyers who are involved in trying to find solutions in the contested territories of the world. 


Moreover, as political geographers explain, people who live in borderlands—that is the territory on both sides of a political border—often have more of a common identity amongst themselves than with the rest of the population of their own respective states.  The people in borderlands often have economic, environmental, and ethnic affinities that the political boundaries do not reflect.  Consequently, besides being important for conflict resolution, a greater understanding of the realities of sovereignty and of affinity may also lead to more opportunities for cooperation.


Today’s international lawyers may have much to gain in examining “forgotten diplomatic folklore” and the footnotes of political geography.


I’ll follow this up with another post on microstates and (literally) constructing sovereignty….


Hat tip: The Complex Terrain Laboratory


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Michael A. Innes


Cheers. I forgot to add in the original write-up that I thought it interesting – ironic – that Belgium, of all states, should have a claim staked on such a micro-seam.

At larger scales, Belgium itself might be considered the nether-seam between the Netherlands, France, and Germany… or a Euro-seam (or would that be, inter alia, Norway and Switzerland?).

This is an important discussion, given the resources dedicated since 2001 to plugging purported holes in the international system (in the absence of any coherent cost-benefit analysis). Looking forward to the next post.

Mike Innes
UCL Complex Terrain Lab

An Hertogen

The oddity of Baarle-Hertog can’t be fully appreciated without taking into account Baarle-Nassau, which is the name of the Dutch village, its enclave in Belgium and the subenclaves in Baarle-Hertog. So, referring to Belgium’s “claims” is slightly exaggerated and in my view turns the situation in something more than it ever was.

The enclaves go back to medieval feudalism, long before the nation-state emerged. Rather than saying much about the realities of sovereignty, I think this example shows more about how complex borders can be to draw, especially when historical ownership is taken into account.

The population of Baarle-Hertog/Nassau seems to consider it as one village, even though it spans two countries. They have created a kind of “supra-communal” organ that can take legally valid decisions binding on the communities, who then ratify these decisions so they become binding on individuals.

The “one village in two countries” is a tourist attraction because it makes the village unique. In any event, free movement has existed for a long time in the Benelux so it’s not like these “borders” had a lot of impact on the population’s ability to travel or anything.

Disclaimer: I am Belgian.

Michael A. Innes

My reference to Belgium was entirely facetious, and made in light of its renewed crisis of governance. The practicalities of sovereignty are intimately connected to the way borders are drawn, and can’t be disconnected from that process or its outcomes, regardless of prior claims. The complexity of border construction and the realities of sovereignty, interestingly, are often entirely divorced from historical ownership. This has framed, if not actually precipitated, its fair share of political violence and international crisis. Witness Iraq and its neighbors, or acute contemporary problems associated with the Durand Line. In a place like Baarle-Hertog, the consequences of locally blended jurisdictions and swiss-cheese sovereignty are benign (though I cringe at how taxation might be managed). Not so elsewhere, and especially less so at elevated scales such as the state.

Michael A. Innes

Disclaimer: I live in Belgium. 🙂

An Hertogen

So the Baarles are an example because they’re not…