Belgium and the Netherlands swap land without a single shot being fired

A victory for common sense, a setback for sex and drugs and rock 'n roll

On 28 November, the Royal Palace in Amsterdam hosted a remarkable land-swap ceremony. With their respective sovereigns looking over their shoulder, the Belgian and Dutch foreign ministers signed a treaty that formalised a territorial exchange between their two countries. 

As a rule, countries are nothing if not territorial – in both senses of the word – and borders only change after a high price in death and destruction has been exacted. But Belgium and the Netherlands are adjusting a riverine stretch of their common border without a single shot fired. 

There were smiles all round at the Palace, even though the exchange is not entirely equitable. The Netherlands are getting the better deal: gaining about 35 acres of Belgian land, while the Belgians only get about 7 acres in return. But the inconvenience resolved by the exchange is more important to either side than that minor imbalance. 

The exchange had been a long time coming. Strange Maps reported on the issue in December 2013. That post is reproduced here below, with the addition of a new map of the area. 

+ + + 

A combination of sex and drugs (and possibly rock 'n roll) is forcing two governments to change the border that divides them. The Presqu'ile de l'Islal, a small Belgian peninsula stranded on the Dutch bank of the river Meuse, is to change hands to eliminate a zone that is, to all practical effects, quite literally beyond the law.

Because of its political status, the uninhabited peninsula is off limits for Dutch police. And because of its geographic isolation, it is out of reach for their Belgian colleagues. These circumstances conspire to make the peninsula a sanctuary for unlicensed sunbathing, loud bacchanalia and unrestricted drug dealing.

The Islal Peninsula is small, no more than 15 hectares (37 acres) in size, or to put it in terms easily understood on either side of the river: about 28 soccer pitches. Yet few locals will have heard of it, perhaps because it's situated in an area already rich in border peculiarities.

Areas shaded red to switch from Belgium to Netherlands, area shaded blue from Netherlands to Belgium.

The Meuse, which springs in France and flows north through Belgium, becomes a border river about 5 kilometres south of the peninsula at Lixhe, where the right bank turns Dutch. Literally a few metres north of the peninsula, both banks become Dutch, keeping Maastricht inside the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The circular land border separating that city from Belgium is 2.4 kilometres away from its ancient city walls - about the distance of a mid-19th-century cannon shot. Just north of Maastricht, the Meuse resumes its function as border river for another 40 kilometres. Beyond that, both sides of the river again go Dutch, and the Meuse eventually bends eastward to its final destination, the port of Rotterdam.

The language border that divides Belgium in a Dutch-speaking north (Flanders) and a French-speaking south (Wallonia) joins the river's course between Maastricht and Lixhe, briefly to become an international border. On the west bank, the tiny Wallonian hamlet of Petit Lanaye blocks Flemish access to the river, if only by about 200 metres. As if in compensation, the Flemish exclave of Voeren, wedged between Wallonia and the Netherlands on the other bank of the river, touches the Meuse for about 300 metres.

So how did Belgium end up with this spit of land, sticking out into the Meuse from the wrong side of the river? The border marker that indicates the territorial divide between the peninsula's Belgian north and its Dutch south is engraved with a date: 1843. Although Belgium traces its independence from the Netherlands to 1830, it took quite a few military campaigns, economic blockades and political negotiations to reach a settlement.

In 1842, Belgium grudgingly abandoned its claims to the eastern parts of Limburg and Luxembourg: the western halves of these areas became Belgian provinces, the rest fell to the Netherlands. Eastern Luxembourg became a Grand Duchy – nominally independent, but ruled by the Dutch king. Although the royal lineage of both countries has since diverged, they still use a variation of the Dutch national flag, and of its national anthem. Eastern Limburg became a Dutch province, and the Meuse the convenient border – except for where it flows through Maastricht: that city held out against the Belgian rebels, and was granted entirely to the Netherlands.

Rivers are frequently used as international borders, for what seems like an obvious reason: they're already there, eliminating the need to negotiate and demarcate a new border. Hence the Rio Grande, separating the US and Mexico. Or the Oder and Neisse, between Poland and Germany. Or the Yalu, keeping China and North Korea apart.

However, this negates another, more ancient function of rivers – they are humanity's oldest highways. Rivers facilitate commerce and communication both between upstream and downstream, and between east and west bank. Plus, rivers are dynamic entities: wait long enough, and they shift their course. What then happens with the border? Does it stay in place, a fossil record of an ancient riverbed, or does it follow the flow of the water, shifting the border to one country's advantage, and another's disadvantage?

Questions like these have frequently led to territorial disputes, even armed conflicts [1]. Which is why river borders need to be defined very precisely. Typically, the actual borderline follows the thalweg – a German word denoting the line connecting the lowest points in the riverbed – instead of the middle of the river. Other options are for the border to run exactly down the middle of the river's width, for it to be on either bank of the river (granting the entire river to one of both border states), or for the entire river to be a condominium [2].

Each of these options is fraught with problems. The problem in this case, a classic thalweg border, is not that the river has shifted of its own accord, but that it has been rectified to facilitate shipping. Maastricht and especially Liège, just south of the border in Belgium, are busy inland ports, close to the junction of the Meuse with the Albert Canal, which connects the sea port of Antwerp with the Belgian interior.

The problem is, or rather was, that the river's meanders along this stretch proved an serious obstruction to shipping. So the Meuse was rectified, between the 1960s and the 1980s, to allow ships of a certain tonnage (a gentlemen never asks how much) to access the Meuse from the Albert Canal. These works eliminated a formerly very bendy stretch of river, which stranded bits of Netherlands on the Belgian, west bank of the river, and bits of Belgium on the Dutch, east bank of the river.

During and after the rectification, talks were started between both countries to bring their border in line with the new riverbed. But in the 1980s, local politics on the Belgian side of the border were highly explosive: Flemings and Walloons argued about political control over the Flemish exclave of Voeren (Fourons in French), with French-speakers campaigning to return the exclave to Wallonia. The times were not ripe to propose the loss of more Walloon territory, however small, uninhabited and inconveniently located.

In 2011, sanity prevailed. On the insistence of the Dutch authorities, fed up with the nuisance caused by the peculiar status of the Islal Peninsula, negotiations were restarted. Said Egbert Hanssen, spokesperson for the Dutch province of Limburg:

The nature reserve on the peninsula has become a meeting area for the gay community, who use the area for nudism and occasionally exhibit inappropriate behaviour. They have parties in the area, and leave a lot of refuse in the reservation. But the Dutch police can't do anything about this, as the area is still officially Belgian. Inversely, the Belgian police can't really effectively control the area, as it has to make a giant detour to get there”.

Mr. Rompelberg, the local tenant farmer, has had his fence destroyed more times than he cares to count. Each complaint to the Visé police goes unheeded: the only way they could make it over in time to catch the culprits would be by river speedboat. Which they lack.

An ad hoc committee, comprising the mayors of the two towns involved (Visé in Belgium, Eijsden in the Netherlands) and government officials from either country have now agreed to a transfer of territory. Two bits of Belgium stranded on the Dutch bank of the Meuse would be transferred to the Netherlands: the Islal Peninsula, and a much smaller, unnamed peninsula to the south. In exchange, one tiny morsel of Dutch territory called Petit Gravier, shipwrecked on the west bank of the river, would become Belgian. The Dutch have even agreed to pay 10% of the total cost of €64 million for the fourth lock of Lanaye, now being built in the area. Marcel Neven, the mayor of Visé, remains stoical about his town's loss of territory:

Yes, we're losing a beautiful area; a paradise for birds and plants. But few of our citizens have ever been there, because it's so difficult to reach, for lack of a decent road. A parliamentary commission visiting to study the situation couldn't even reach the peninsula”.

Perhaps they just weren't as determined as the sex fiends and drug hounds monopolising the area, Neven seems to imply:

In this day and age, the international border doesn't stop anyone from our city from going for a walk there. And it's only logical for a border river to have one bank entirely in one country, and the other bank in the other country. So it's only normal that principle that the Meuse should mark the Dutch-Belgian border should be maintained here as well. This should have been arranged years ago”.

The Belgian side agreed to the transfer on one condition: that the area's status as a nature reserve be maintained. According to Albert Stassen, District Commissioner on the Belgian side,

the peninsula at present is under the jurisdiction of the Walloon Department of Forests and Wildlife, but is already being managed by Het Limburgs Landschap, the Dutch wildlife association that manages De Eijsder Beemden, the adjacent nature reserve in the Netherlands”.

The nature reserve is home to a band of koniks – a breed of semi-feral Polish horses – and lies next to a string of river lakes which in summer are a popular recreational area.

The new border will again follow the thalweg of the Meuse, the new one, this time. When the actual transfer of territory will take place is as yet unknown. Officials for the Belgian and Dutch foreign ministries are preparing the dossiers for their respective governments, after which the proposals will need to be ratified by both countries' parliaments.

So, will 2014 see the first border change for Belgium in almost a century [3]? If the federal parliament in Brussels votes yes, it will violate the spirit and the letter of at least one version of the Brabançonne, the country's national anthem:

Never shall we cede even the smallest plot of land / If but one Belgian, be he Fleming or Walloon, remains alive.

Except, it seems, if that plot of land is used for sex parties and drug dealing – a possibility probably overlooked by the anthem's composers.

UPDATE - Below a detailed map of the border changes, which also involve straightening out a few kinks in the course of the border on the river itself - a remnant of its former pathway. 

Aerial map of the border zone taken from this page at the Visé city desk of the Walloon newspaper publisher Sudpresse. Map above provided by E. Berns to the Borderpoint Yahoo Group. Other maps courtesy of Ruland Kolen.


[1] E.g. the dispute between Iran and Iraq over the exact course of their border along the mouth of the Shatt-al-Arab, which contributed to the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). 

[2] The rarest of options – for an example, look no further than just a few dozen kilometres south, to the riverine border between the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and Germany. More on that in this episode of Borderlines. 

[3] In 1919, Belgium annexed the German territories of Eupen and Malmédy as part of its compensation for Germany's invasion in 1914, and the consequent horrors of the First World War. The Netherlands similarly annexed a few areas of Germany after the Second World War, but gave most of them back after a few years. 

Big Think Edge
  • The meaning of the word 'confidence' seems obvious. But it's not the same as self-esteem.
  • Confidence isn't just a feeling on your inside. It comes from taking action in the world.
  • Join Big Think Edge today and learn how to achieve more confidence when and where it really matters.

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
  • The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
  • The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
Keep reading Show less

Active ingredient in Roundup found in 95% of studied beers and wines

The controversial herbicide is everywhere, apparently.

Surprising Science
  • U.S. PIRG tested 20 beers and wines, including organics, and found Roundup's active ingredient in almost all of them.
  • A jury on August 2018 awarded a non-Hodgkin's lymphoma victim $289 million in Roundup damages.
  • Bayer/Monsanto says Roundup is totally safe. Others disagree.
Keep reading Show less

Why compassion fades

A scientific look into a ubiquitous phenomenon.

Photo credit: Adrian Swancar on Unsplash
Sex & Relationships

One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or the recent Sri Lanka Easter bombings? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?

Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."

Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.

Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured, and dead mounts.

The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion. The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."

That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"

The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.

Some back story

Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.

The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.


Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.

There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.

A Dunbar Correlation

Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?

"Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.

I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.

Professor Dunbar's response:

"The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense. . . . One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous."

I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:

"These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."

In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time — investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.

Friendship, kinship and limitations

"We devote around 40 percent of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60 percent in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145."

These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.

"These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.

As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three — which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."

We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.

Emotional regulation

In a paper, C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."

This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.

If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.

Gray matter matters

One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network."

It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷

It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.

Rabbit holes

There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:

(1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."

(2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.

In the end

Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.

Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.

Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.