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Gibraltar isn't the world's weirdest border

In fact, it may not even be close. Here's the competition...

17 August 2013

9:00 AM

17 August 2013

9:00 AM

Borders are fascinating places. The subtle changes in scenery and atmosphere as you near the limits of one territory and enter the orbit of the other; the way fencing gets higher and fiercer. Then there’s the shuffling of papers and passports, the opening of suitcases, car boots and, sometimes, wallets. The nervous sweat in no-man’s-land as men who reek of tobacco and bad coffee judge your suitability to enter or, worse, leave. In nearly all ways the (more or less) borderless new Europe is a wonderful thing, but something has been lost along the way.

If ordinary borders are weird, then the very special lines that surround the world’s several hundred anomalous enclaves and exclaves are museum pieces of geography, living testaments (as much as any castle or monument) to forgotten chapters of history. The current spat over Gibraltar, a pene-exclave of British territory which began with an antique treaty signed in a Dutch town, highlights the truth that when small, detached bits of one country abut or are surrounded by another, trouble often ensues.

For map nerds like me, the weird world of the enclave and exclave is as exciting as it gets. Discovering, at the age of nine, that there is a bit of Germany forever marooned in Switzerland (the city of Konstanz) was like finding a four-leaved clover. What must it be like, surrounded by another nation? What happened in the war? Did Nazi officials and soldiers have to take off their uniforms when bicycling through one to the other? Could they buy cuckoo clocks on the way? Look closely and you will see bits of Germany marooned in Belgium, slices of Italy stuck in the Swiss Alps, chunks of Spain cut off by Andorra and slivers of Finland stuck in Sweden.

Some definitions: an exclave is a slice of one country’s territory not attached to the rest of it but entirely surrounded by another country. A ‘pene-exclave’, such as Gibraltar, Alaska or Northern Ireland, is partially surrounded by water. An enclave is totally surrounded by foreign territory. An enclave in one nation may also be an exclave of another. Or not. Thus Lesotho, which is entirely surrounded by South Africa, is an enclave, but not an exclave as there is no Lesothoan motherland. Whereas Kaliningrad on the shores of the Baltic is an exclave of Russia but, since it borders two countries (and the sea), is not, technically, an enclave.

These are simple cases, O-level examples of the surreal world of comedy border-drawing. Moving up a grade, we have Point Roberts, a tongue of US territory on the southern tip of the Tsawwassen Peninsula in British Columbia. There is nothing particularly exciting about the geography of Point Roberts — it is a bog-standard pene-exclave — but the peculiarities of American border controls and its location as effectively a suburb of Vancouver make Point Roberts a jewel in the crown of territorial weirdness.

Last year I drove to the border from the Canadian side to have a look. In Canada the houses are neat and the picket fences white, the lawns mowed and the parks well-tended. I walked to the border to be faced by a substantial, security-ridden checkpoint, on the other side of which, in the land of the not-really-any-freer, could be seen identical houses, picket fences, cars and parks. I thought about trying to pick an unofficial way across but had no wish to end up in another, less welcoming exclave, that of Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Every day hundreds of Americans make their way across the border, including all children older than fourth grade, who must make a 40-minute detour through land still labouring under the royal yoke, in order to attend elementary school in Washington State. And the reason for this? A mistake.

In the 19th century the British, Americans, Russians and Mexicans spent decades squabbling over borders in the American west, and eventually it was decided to make the line between British and US territory follow the 49th Parallel. Sensibly, they remembered Vancouver Island, which juts south of this, and wiggled the border round its southern tip. But they forgot about Point Roberts altogether.

If Point Roberts is surreal, then Baarle-Nassau in the Netherlands (visit it in person or on Google Maps) is plain insane. This municipality contains no fewer than 22 exclaves of the Belgian municipality of Baarle-Hertog, which in turn contain eight Dutch double-exclaves (aka counter-enclaves or, possibly, double-Dutch exclaves). It began with various half-forgotten treaties in the 19th century. Thus there are Dutchmen who walk out of their house and are in Belgium, walk a few hundred yards further to find themselves back in their homeland and, down the end of the road, are back in Belgium again.

There is fun to be had. The smallest exclave of Baarle-Hertog is a square patch of field — not even an entire field — about the size of a tennis court. Borders run through people’s houses, factories, pubs and restaurants. One off-licence has tills in both countries, and the border is helpfully marked on the floor. Before the EU harmonised these things, alcohol taxes and even closing times differed markedly between the two countries, and drinkers had to move from one side of the bar to the other when last orders were called.

The prize for borderland insanity goes to the Chitmahals between India and Bangladesh. There are 102 bits of India marooned in its neighbour, and 71 gobbets of Bangladesh on the wrong side. These anomalies, in turn, contain a total of 24 counter-enclaves and, marvellously, one enclave of an enclave of an enclave, Dahala Khagrabari Number 51, a strip of Indian farmland marooned in a small puddle of Bangladesh which is itself submerged in India.

Locals insist this geographical craziness is a result of a card game played by the maharajas in the 18th century; more sober historians say the exclaves result from ill-conceived attempts to parcel out land between the Maharaja of Cooch Behar and Faujdar of Rangpur. Unlike in Baarle-Hertog, there is little fun to be had from the zany borders; this is a bitterly poor part of the world with few bars. But, as one Bangladeshi/Indian/Bangladeshi farmer told the Economist a few years ago, the endless border fences ‘at least mean my cows don’t run away’.

When things go well, exclaves and enclaves promote internationalism. Patriotic fervour is silly when your local pub sits in two countries and your children have to go abroad to enter their bedroom. But when things go badly, as with Gibraltar and Ulster, anomalous borders are invoked to raise tensions. And if you find yourself on the receiving end of a bit of border aggression, as Britain currently is with Spain, the best thing to do is to look at a map and find something to bat back with. In this case there are, helpfully, two superb counter-examples, called Ceuta and Melilla. The Spanish pene-exclaves on the Moroccan coast always provoke entertaining debate with any Spaniard keen to raise the Gibraltar issue.

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