One way to bring together our divided Europe: town twinning

Flanked by flags, the mayor of a Bargain town signs a twinning document. Alongside him are the major of Haywards Heath and the twinning association chair Irene Balls
Christian Kegel, the then Mayor of Traunstein in Bavaria, signs his town’s twinning charter in 2019 alongside Haywards Heath Twinning Association chairperson Irene Balls and the then Mayor of Haywards Heath, Alastair McPherson. Photo credit: Traunstein Council

With tensions mounting over vaccine wars, the deportation of EU citizens and general Brexit fall-out, could it be time to breathe new life into town twinning – a proven but often neglected way for ordinary citizens to reach out to each other and perhaps mend some of the damage done to our relationship with those in Europe?

In a recent email to me the German MEP Teri Reintke wrote: “Twinning is a great way to stay in touch and keep cooperation and friendship alive. Governments and cities on both sides [of the Channel] should now provide additional resources to expand twinning programmes or revive those that were dormant in the past years.” 

In Sussex, there are many towns with thriving twinning associations. Size is no obstacle: Newick, near Lewes, with a population of around 2,500 people, enjoys a well-established twinning with Itteville, a commune 35 miles south of Paris. While Hastings has spread its twinning net wide, from Oudenaarde in Belgium and Dordrecht in The Netherlands to Schwerte in Germany and the French town of Béthune.

Many twinning associations were established just after the second world war to foster international understanding and peace. In the case of Lewes it goes back to 1948 when the schools of Lewes and Blois, in the Loire valley, set up an exchange programme. Others are more recent, such as Worthing which, since 1997, has been successfully twinned with both Les Sables-d’Olonne in France and four small towns in the Black Forest region of Germany.

Two mayors, the mayor of Hastings and of the French town of Bethune exchange fits during an al fresco lunch to celebrate the towns' continuing friendship.
The Mayor of Dordrecht, Wouter Kolff (right) receives a picture of a Hastings fishing boat – a gift from Nigel Sinden on his final visit, as mayor, to the Dutch town just before lockdown in February 2020. It was a small Friendship Trip; twinning visits usually comprise two coachloads of people.

The years since the referendum have seen a fuelling of anti-European rhetoric and misunderstanding. Exploring the language, geography, history, and culture of other European countries broadens our minds, and also gives us a clearer sense of who we are as Britons. Now we have left the EU, it seems a good time to reflect on what links us and how we can form new partnerships.

Despite the UK being one of the 44 countries that make up Europe, a 2015 report published by NatCen Social Research found that 64% of British ‘did not feel at all European’ and just 15% chose to describe themselves as European. There is evidence that this figure has risen since the 2016 EU referendum, and it will be interesting to hear how many of us identified ourselves as European in the 2021 Census.

A recent report notes that the learning of foreign languages in the UK is in worrying decline. Speaking the languages of other countries makes for more confident travellers, opens up business opportunities, and facilitates understanding and dialogue between countries.

Participants of twinning associations I have spoken to are extremely enthusiastic about the opportunities for fun, education, and friendship they have derived through twinning. 

Visits between the twinned towns are the highlights in the twinning calendar. Cate Stocken from the Lewes Twinning Association says: “I have dear friends in both Blois and Waldshut-Tiengen. Visiting them, sharing meals and outings, it’s just so enjoyable to really feel a part of a French or German town and not feel a tourist.”

Irene Balls, the chair of Haywards Heath Twinning Association (HHTA) explains that unlike European cities, which often gain funding through local councils, her group receives no council funding, although it does have a good working relationship with the council, including with the mayor.

Fundraising events have the added bonus of bringing the home community together: when not restricted by Covid measures, members organise barbecues, cinema clubs and other social events. French and German friends are invited to language exchange and musical evenings. Although some of these have been on hold since the pandemic, video conferencing has proved a valuable tool in aiding cross-Channel communication.

However, there is a looming threat to the future of twinning groups. Many acknowledge that their membership is increasingly elderly and they find it a challenge attracting younger members. This problem is compounded by the increased complexity of arranging schools exchange programmes since the tightening of UK child safeguarding laws. This has increased administration and caused some schools to shy away from pupils staying with host families.

A woman poses with a table of cakes on sale at an outside event in Haywards Heath. Behind her a French flag style bunting and other stalls and people.
A pop-up cafe at Haywards Heath Town Day in 2018. Events such as these help involve the community in twinning while promoting European understanding. Picture credit: HHTA

How do we as individuals take twinning forward? First, check to see if there is already a twinning association in your area. If your town is not twinned, see what your local councillor has to say. But ask around too: there may already be someone with contacts in a European town, maybe members of pro-EU groups.

As well as school exchanges, twinning develops from the coming together of shared interests such as the environment, sport or music, or perhaps some geographic feature in common – for example the three rivers of Lewes, Blois and Waldshut-Tiengen. 

If, like me, you live in Brighton & Hove, you may be surprised to learn that the city, the biggest and perhaps the most Europhile city in Sussex, has not been twinned since 1997 when Hove, which was twinned with Draveil, a suburb of Paris, merged with Brighton. 

Since then, successive councillors have argued against aligning with just one or two cities, preferring, as the current chair of Tourism, Equalities, Communities and Culture Committee, Cllr Marianna Ebel, explains, “to link up with different European cities on an issue basis based on the need at the time”. But she and the current Brighton & Hove administration may be open to re-thinking twinning – so now is a good time to let them know your views.

Council-to-council projects such as Eurocities, in which Brighton and Hove participates, will continue to foster good working relationships in our post-Brexit world. But it also needs the involvement of individuals making friends, being neighbourly, sharing interests, learning languages, and understanding others from different cultures. 

We cannot rely on our current leaders to stretch out the hand of friendship to our European neighbours. We owe it to our children to begin to repair the path back to possibilities of life, love, and educational and cultural opportunities across the Channel.

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