Europe has grown together in the decades following World War Two. One project was of particular importance back then: town twinnings. EURACTIV Germany reports.
While economic integration from the Coal and Steel Community to the Monetary Union has always been a top-down process, approaches of a “Europe bottom-up” have enabled fruitful cultural exchanges and brought people together.
Today, the German section of the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR) deals with more than 5,200 German-international town twinnings. More than 2,000 of them are French partnerships.
However, the very first post-war partnerships began in the late 1940s with the UK. Back then, the British had invited German municipal representatives to offer them an insight into their local government systems. Ongoing partnerships like those between Hannover and Bristol or Bonn and Oxford date back to that time.
A short time later it was followed by an initiative by Swiss intellectuals, who provided an important impetus with their founding of the union for Franco-German understanding. Franco-German town twinnings started to rapidly increase.
Since France-Germany relations were burdened by ‘hereditary hostility’, whose origins date back to the 16th century, the rapprochement process was of particular importance.
Political tensions between the two neighbours resurfaced repeatedly in the post-war period. However, the idea that the two populations could be incited against each other again seems almost unthinkable today. The cultural rapprochement through real encounter has contributed much to this. The town twinnings are considered as lighthouses.
Germany and France are Europe’s town twinnings masters: Both countries have respectively more than 6.000 inner-European town twinnings, followed by Poland (3.500) and Italy (2.750).
Bottom-up European integration
On the occasion of the 55th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty, the Bertelsmann Foundation published a study on Franco-German town twinning, which confirms that this kind of direct international understanding, bottom-up European integration, is relatively resistant to economic crises and Euroscepticism.
Two-thirds of the community representatives involved in the study stated that partnerships have been stable or have been increased in recent years.
Almost three-quarters of respondents also said that partnerships in their administrations are of high importance. The main forms of action that bring partnerships to life are, according to the study, travel to festivals or events, student exchange programs, and music or sports events.
Through the diverse offer, town twinnings reach broad sections of the population. Only one in ten said that mainly citizens with high educational qualifications participate in the programs. This compares to 70% who say that broad sections of the population are addressed.
“Many participants find access to a twinning to be more about their hobby or curiosity about other people than their overriding interest in Europe,” said study director Céline Diebold.
Town twinnings – a phase-out model?
But has town twinning had its day? In the age of ever-increasing labour mobility and low-cost airlines, travelling to other European countries is nothing special anymore.
After World War Two, visiting the twin town was the first stay abroad for many local mayors. Today, just about everyone has been abroad several times – inside Europe anyway. The most adventurous are attracted by distant cultures in India or Japan. For adventure-hungry young people, Franco-German town twinning might sound rather old-fashioned.
Youth involvement is seen as a problem in the Bertelsmann study. The generation of over-60s is the largest group of participants with 40%. Only just about every fourth participant is younger than 30. Once, that was the other way round. “The poll numbers are encouraging, but we need to make sure at all levels that this commitment does not fall asleep,” concluded the project leader.
Are the town twinning arrangements an outdated model? Have they – once celebrated as the “greatest peace movement in the world” – made their contribution to European understanding among nations and are now in the late autumn of their existence? Maybe, but not necessarily.
Inner-European initiatives are indeed becoming increasingly difficult. They urgently need innovative ideas in order to remain attractive. Intercontinental partnerships, such as those of the Berlin district of Treptow-Köpenick with Cajamarca in Peru or those between Aachen and Cape Town, have already made it easier.
Globalisation has not yet gone so far to make a cultural encounter with Peru or South Africa lose its special charm.
And there are many reasons for partnerships. The German city of Bocholt is friends with the Belgian city of Bocholt, simply because of the name.
And the French commune Y is friends with the Welsh village of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch – simply because they are the shortest and longest town names in the EU. Sometimes personal relationships, geographic similarities or historical parallels make the difference. There are enough reasons. What it needs are committed citizens.