English town cuts links with French and German twins
An English town council has decided to end a 46-year twinning relationship with towns in France and Germany. Is it euroscepticism, or has the twinning of towns become anachronistic and irrelevant?
In September, the Conservative-dominated council of English market town Bishop's Stortford voted by 13 votes to 3 to wash its hands of Villiers-sur-Marne in France and Friedberg in Germany, its twin towns since 1965.
At the end of November, they wrote to inform their French and German twins that the relationship was over. Villiers-sur-Marne and Friedberg were taken by surprise.
According to Thursday’s edition of left-leaning UK daily the Guardian, the “vote appears to be the latest manifestation of grassroots euroscepticism” that has taken hold in Conservative Britain.
Bishop's Stortford’s senior councillor John Wyllie denied the charge, telling FRANCE 24 on Friday that talk of anti-European sentiment was “absolute nonsense” being put about by his political rivals.
The decision, he said, was taken “because there is no interest at all in twinning in this town.”
“The Twinning Association can carry on with its activities [without any council involvement]," he said, adding that the "non-story" would "help the association now that more people actually know it exists.”
When challenged that the council’s decision would stop the Twinning Association from receiving EU funding, Mr Wyllie insisted he “didn’t see how that had any relevance to the people of this town.”
Twinning arrangements between European towns and cities increased exponentially after the Second World War as a way to promote cultural understanding between communities.
These include school exchanges, sporting activities, and even visits by councillors to see how other countries conduct local government.
Links are formalised between respective councils and municipalities, while the relationships are managed by volunteer civic associations. EU funding for activities began in 1989, with an overall annual budget of around 12 million euros. These funds are dependent on official council involvement.
Coventry, in the English Midlands, originally twinned with Stalingrad (now Volgograd) in 1944 and then with Dresden, both fellow victims of Second World War devastation.
But the city has since added another 25 cities to its portfolio of “siblings” and many people in Coventry question whether such links can remain relevant or carry any real cultural value.
Bishop's Stortford is not alone in reversing the trend. In recent years, other towns in England have done away with their European twins, including Doncaster in Yorkshire and Wallingford in Oxfordshire. Both towns are run by Conservative-dominated councils.
The Twinning Association of Bishop's Stortford feels hard done by.
Association chairman and former mayor David Smith explained that twinning costs the council just 2,500 pounds (around 3,000 euros) a year, while taking up little to no council time or effort.
“There’s no evidence of euroscepticism,” he said. “But neither is there any evidence for any other sensible reason.”
Smith branded the council’s decision “hasty” and “appalling.” He said the town authorities only concession to the association was to give Villiers-sur-Marne and Friedberg a year’s notice.
Villiers-sur-Marne Councillor and twinning delegate Dorine Fumee admitted to FRANCE 24 that while twinning programmes needed modernising from the post-war model, the town authorities were still at a complete loss as to why Bishop's Stortford Town Council wanted to terminate their relationship.
“What we found particularly surprising was that we were not consulted at all,” she said. “The letter they sent this week offered no explanation. Why just throw 46 years of friendship away? What’s the reason?”
Hendrik Hollender, chairman of Friedberg’s town council, said he was less surprised about the decision because of the euro crisis and what he called a growing mistrust of some sections of British society toward their European neighbours.
“This was a political decision,” he told FRANCE 24. “But I don’t believe it was representative of the people’s wishes. Politics should not be allowed to affect small cultural links such as twinning. We hope we can discuss this properly with Bishop's Stortford Town Council, with whom we are determined to remain friends.”