Baarle-Hertog, Belgium (CNN)Like so many small business owners, Monic van der Krogt has been hit hard by the coronavirus. The terrace of her cafe and beer garden in this small Belgian town sits empty.
“It’s never so quiet. Never.”
Her story, though, is not entirely universal. While her town is Belgian, it’s also Dutch — or at least partially. Walk two minutes down the road, and you’re in the Netherlands. Walk a bit further, and you’re back in Belgium.
The Belgian town, Baarle-Hertog, is an enclave inside the Netherlands, just 10 kilometers or so from the border, and bisected in dizzying ways by the Dutch town, Baarle-Nassau.
This oddity, which dates to the Middle Ages, is normally nearly irrelevant to daily life. But the coronavirus crisis has led governments to spurn the open borders that define the European Union. And Belgium — with about double the number of Covid-19 deaths per capita than the Netherlands — has instituted a much stricter lockdown.
“I’m not allowed to open,” van der Kogt said. “But 50 meters, on the other side, the cafes and the restaurants, they open the first of June. And I’m not allowed to go there, because I live in Belgium.”
Though Dutch restaurants remain closed, retail shops have stayed open throughout the crisis. And while Belgian stores were allowed to open this week, Belgians have been prohibited from shopping across the border — even when that means just crossing one of the white cobblestones that dot the town center.
“In this crisis situation, it’s not the mayors who are the authority,” said Marjon de Hoon-Veelenturf, one of Baarle’s two mayors (she’s the Dutch one). “We had to just listen to the laws and regulations from The Hague and Brussels.
“A discussion arose where residents talked with each other about which country is taking the most sensible measures. That brings a certain polarization.”
People are “shocked” by the coronavirus crisis the Belgian mayor, Frans de Bont, weighs in. “Personally, but also the countries, Europe. I think they are shocked together.”
Baarle is of course an extreme example. The question for Europe is whether the go-it-your-own, country-by-country approach is indication of a deeper rot in the union.
“The first reaction was clearly a national-level reaction, completely uncoordinated and chaotic, and really not in line with what you would expect from a common border-free, travel area that has been in place since 1995,” said Marie de Somer, senior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre.
The European Commission itself said on Wednesday, in a policy paper meant to outline how to re-open the Schengen free travel area, that internal border controls “harm our European way of life.”
It warned that if borders remained closed “beyond what is needed for reasons of public health,” the closures would “put a heavy burden not only on the functioning of the Single Market, but also on the lives of millions of EU citizens deprived of the benefits of the freedom of movement, which is a key achievement of the European Union.”
This is not the first time that the EU has had to deal with governments abandoning Schengen at the first sign of crisis. For several years now, countries including Germany have been carrying out some level of border control, ostensibly to stem the flow of migrants moving illegally within the EU.
The scale of the coronavirus closures, though, are unprecedented, said Ian Lesser, vice president at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels.
“The risk, of course, is that this kind of national-member-state-first approach becomes somehow the norm, and embedded in policy and politics,” he said.
More likely, he added, the economic benefits of open borders will at least in the short term mean that border controls will be untenable, and “only reinforce the value of having open borders within the Schengen area.”
For now, local roads across the Dutch-Belgian border a short drive from Baarle remain barricaded with concrete blocks. Locals scoff that the barriers are easily bypassed by smaller rural farm roads, but the symbolism is stark.
Julien Leemans, 63, is quizzically taking it all in stride. The border is no abstraction for him — it runs right through his house.
“Ninety percent of the house is Dutch,” he laughs. “Ten percent — only the toilet — is Belgium.”
Well, the front door is Belgian too, and that means he lives in Belgium — unable to shop in Dutch stores, even though he himself was born and raised in the Netherlands.
“You see now the difference from the countries about the corona — Belgium, Dutch, Germany, England — all different.”
“European?” he says with a laugh. “What is that?”
CNN’s Darren Bull and Mark Baron contributed to this report.