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The union with Gestel
Gestel is a very small village located north west of the city of Heist-op-den-Berg. It has less than 200 inhabitants. After the independence in November 2011, the provisional government of Heist-op-den-Berg started a diplomatic mission towards the people of the village in attempt to convince them to join the newly formed Republic. The interest not only came because of historical reasons. More than 80% of the communal border of Gestel was made up of water wide and deep enough to form a safe natural border. The northern border was a continuation of the Grote Nete river, equal to the Republic’s state border at Ter Streien and Hullebrug. The (south)western border consisted of a large stream called the Gestelbeek. In terms of administrative affairs, Gestel would become part of the City of Heist-op-den-Berg as an exclave of the city.
The first gesture towards the people of Gestel consisted of a free borderpass for those with a domicile in the tiny village. The respons towards this benefit was only mild, and an official and formal invitation was sent in December. It was clear the Hestian government was keen on a union, but the outcome was rather doubtful since Gestel already became national news in 1965 for its resistance of merging with Berlaar.
There was very little change in diplomatic relations between Heist and Gestel during the following weeks. Some sources speak of a mild increase of requests about the border crossing advantages, but this is questionable.
At the end of February, three residents of Gestel took a unique initiative to accelerate a possible outcome, whatever that would be. They went from door to door with a questionnaire and asked people two questions:
- Do you want to join the Republic?
- Do you want to join the Republic if it includes privileges for the villagers?
On both questions, people could answer “yes”, ”no” or “neutral”. The organizers used tally marks to write down the answers. 122 of the 188 residents were questioned. The first questions made clear that Gestel wasn’t really interested in a fusion, but question two left some space for negotiations:
|Do you want to join the Republic?||14%||31%||55%|
|Do you want to join the Republic if it includes privileges for the villagers?||29%||43%||28%|
The courage to ask for such an amount of money caused commotion among many members of the Council. Certainly SVV was extremely bewildered and insisted on a fully shutdown of the diplomatic mission. Heist-op-den-Berg had just taken over its share of the Belgian government debt as bailout so spending such a sum was impossible.
The counteroffer the Republic made was a subsidy of 3/4 million, which would be spreaded over several years and not be paid before fiscal year 2013. As a compensation the government made a pledge that Gestel would again become an independent municipality for the first time in 36 years. The reactions were mixed, but Gestel somewhat surprisingly agreed on a fusion under these new terms and became the seventh municipality on July 1, 2012 making it the most important realization of the provisional government.
The stubborn hamlets
Additional geographical research in the weeks after the first approach (late December 2011) revealed that the entire length of the Gestelbeek would be a very interesting natural border for the Republic, since its source was already within its territory and as it turned out to be its mouth would become part of the future municipality of Gestel. The only territory left to claim were two small hamlets: Elzenhoek and Kijfbossen. These were wedged between the Republic on the eastside and the little stream on the westside. Both had a comparable surface area (about 1.3 km² each) and an equal amount of inhabitants, about 250 each.
The economic importance of these hamlets was and still is very low. Apart from some agricultural production, it was a primarily residential zone, the reason why people of Elzenhoek are strongly dependent from stores in the town centre of Itegem and Berlaar. All together the Council decided it would be beneficial for all parties that both hamlets would join the Republic. They argued that both hamlets would join voluntarily if Gestel did and therefore didn’t launch a referendum like the one that was held during the Dekbunders affaire.
It soon became clear that all these assumptions were completely wrong. The inhabitants received an official notice of the intentions of the Republic and were not amused. When Gestel got its subsidy - although reduced - and finally joined the Republic, the fear of a compulsory union reached its breaking point. The border crossing at the IC 44 was blocked and a minor fighting broke out between local residents and border control officers. Three residents and one officer got hit by thrown rocks.
Belgian police forces were sent to the area to maintain peace. In the next few weeks, they constantly patrolled the area, merely to avoid Hestian police forces to install new border controls at the several bridges over the Gestelbeek. From September 2012 onwards this task was taken over by a very small battalion of Belgian soldiers.
Effects and latest developments
Local shop owners in Itegem estimated that between 2012 and 2013, their sales decreased with about 15%, and still did not reach the same level even after some recovery during the past years. Former customers living in Elzenhoek and Kijfbossen are going to shops in Berlaar as a way of protest. Its not likely they will return before the blocking is lifted. Some owners fear that they will have to close their businesses and ask for a quick solution.
During the following years, the situation in the area stabilized and very little changed compared with the situation at the end of the fightings: roads from and to Heist-op-den-Berg were blocked, and eventually police again took over the patrolling functions of the Belgian army, since they were needed to guard public places after the attacks in Paris and Brussels.
In late spring 2016, new approachements were made between the Belgian government and the Republic. As a sign of good intentions, Heist-op-den-Berg gave up thirteen hectares of its land at the northern border of the country. These thirteen hectares, although uninhabited, always were part of the country even before its independence. The Secretary BPA stated that "it is likely that border crossing at the IC 44 will reopen before the end of this year".
Belgium is in the middle of a big financial restructuration: a tax shift. The tax shift should create about €9 billion extra via new taxes and savings. Their budget for 2017 was rejected by the European Commission in November 2016, because the budgetary deficit would be 3%, the alarm treshold the EU maintains. On top of that, some new introduced taxes like the sugar tax on soda drinks and the speculation tax on shares didn't have the desired effect and were abolished the same year they were introduced. Belgium is very likely to have a deficit higher than 3% and that would lead to sanctions from the EU.
Since new approachments during the past few months were successful, it is the Belgian government who currently is most interested in a deal or solution about the Elzenhoek impasse. Belgium stated that it would agree to resign on its territorial rights in exchange for €306 million, or sixteen times the current Belgian debt per capita of the people living in both hamlets. In case of an agreement, Belgium is planning to reopen all border crossings and transfer jurisdiction officially on the first Sunday of February 2017. In the mean time, both nations are aware this can lead to new protests. To give the citizens of both hamlets a chance to comment, no formal meetings will be held before the beginning of 2017.
As expected, the new developments led to new protests, but not from parties who disagreed in the past. The opposition in the Hestian House of Vogt strongly emphasized the Belgian government tried to blackmail the Hestian Republic. Tempers ran high. One member of Eenheid! seated in the House called the Prime Minister of Belgium "a vampire with funny glasses in a fancy costume" during the debate. He later made public excuses. The polarisation in the House of Vogt almost lead to a fall of the government in May 2017. To calm things down the Elzenhoek matter is postponed to the end of the summer holiday of 2017 so the governement could focus on other urgent matters. Diplomatic negotiations with Belgium were put on hold.
In September 2017, at the start of the new governmental year, the matter was first on the political agenda. There was a general agreement among the whole house of Vogt that not a single case of territorial enlargement is worth such an enormous amount of money. This general opinion eliminated the possible fall of the Vleugels-Vantyghem cabinet and brought back total political stability in Heist.