The success of Servatius — a cooperative project of social housing in the Meuse-Rhine triangle
If you watch television, you may have encountered a British comedy series called ‘Allo, Allo’. Although it takes place in WWII, with a motley crew of French, Germans and English, actually all of the actors are English and the effect and the laughs come from a focus on national stereotypes.
These clichés include: sexy French girls with their lecherous boss; Germans who march around stiffly and click their heels all the time; and Englishmen who always seem to have lost their way. Of course, it’s all just good clean fun; but there is a grain of truth in the series, in the sense that one tends to view neighbours whom one doesn’t know very well in terms of such clichés and stereotypes.
They highlight those characteristics that stick out and seem different and, in some way, laughable.
It is probably fairly general in Europe to view other nations in this way, but there is an exception. This is formed by communities, belonging to different nations, whose long contact has made them familiar with one another, and has, perhaps, inclined people to take on characteristics that may belong to the area as a whole.
In general, people do not regard The Netherlands as the culinary center of the universe. However, in Maastricht, there are five Michelin-starred restaurants, four within walking distance of one another, and you’d have to look hard in France to find a comparable situation in a town with a population of just 120,000. Our contention here would be that the French/Belgian gastronomic tradition is at home in Maastricht too.
The historical context
One thousand years ago, actually on April 10, 1008, the first Prince-Bishop of the Principality of Liège ¬Notger ¬ died. He left a heritage that would last for 800 years, or perhaps a thousand, as, in spirit at least, it survived the French Revolution. This heritage was the Principality itself, which took in what we now call the Meuse-Rhine Euroregion, with the Aachen Region of Germany as a close relation.
Although these areas are today distinct political units, their proximity and shared history seems to have led to an identity, which, although it draws on several cultures, encompasses a sense of fellow feeling. For example, although the Liégeois may be a little sniffy about the Dutch, he will see the Maastrichtois essentially as close neighbors and, although in Hasselt and Maastricht, in Aachen and Eupen, there are differences in language, all these areas benefit from the use of the mutually-intelligible cross-border dialect (Lower Franconian).
In many respects, the Euroregions – with a shared heritage and permeable borders – offer the best opportunity of developing a tolerant European identity.
The issue is: ‘How can one put these Euroregions at the centre of European development and not at the periphery, which is where they are always to be found?’ The path to this objective would lead to shared benefits, in an economic sense. Recently, there was a good example of this type of project in a housing project developed in Liège by the Maastricht Housing Association, Servatius.
The case in point
In 2004, Servatius started building 39 rental and 49 private housing units in the Sainte Marguerite area, that could be rented or bought by people from Maastricht or Liège. The city was also building a further nine homes as part of a public housing project. Completion was scheduled for 2005.
The City of Liège also played an important role in this development by upgrading the infrastructure, providing parking and landscaping the park, making the work a Liège project too. Following the refurbishment and upgrading of an important part of the city, Servatius received a watching brief to monitor the project after sale and rental. The initiative came from a request on the part of Liège.
At that time, Liège was emerging from the economic doldrums, thanks to the logistical assets of the region, and there was a great need for new housing, a field in which the city did not have a great deal of experience. Public housing had a bad name in the area. The Netherlands, on the other hand, has a different tradition in public housing and builds for a range of income groups, including the middle-income range.
Social Housing Associations, like Servatius, manage 40 percent of the Dutch housing stock of 2.4 million units, making them obvious partners. In Maastricht, there was little movement from rental to purchase and projects took too long. Prices were high too, in a market on which increasing demands were being made by the elderly and by students. At the same time, an urgent need was growing within the expatriate employee community. It was a difficult situation. One solution was to view the entire Meuse-Rhine as the area of operations. The housing market in Liège is relatively stable and only 20 minutes from Maastricht. This provides the option for people, working in Maastricht, of remaining in Liège or moving back there.
Servatius wants to play a role within Meuse-Rhine as a whole. It had, at that time, a stock of 12,000 apartment units in Maastricht and Eijsden and was working with the Municipality of Visé and the villages of Basse-Meuse on new ideas. This area of cooperation with Liège is an interesting market with a population of 400,000.
There have, however, been obstacles to this cross-border development and in 2005 the Dutch Ministry of Transport, Planning and the Environment (VROM) demanded that the Servatius Housing Association give up its housing project in the Rue d’ Hesbaye in Liège by the end of the year, or be subject to a penalty of € 2.6m. Servatius decided that the case should go to court and Leks Verzijlbergh, its President, pointed out that its activities in Liège were carried out by a Liège-based subsidiary, in keeping with the demand for transparent capital costs, based on current market conditions. The Ministry had contended that Servatius’ activities in Liège were a form of Dutch state support.
In 2006, Servatius won the case against the Dutch Ministry (VROM). The issue was whether Servatius could build housing projects in nearby Belgium where the building costs were significantly lower. This was good news for Servatius, enabling it to complete its € 15m housing project in Liège.
What this story reveals is that there are cross-border economic needs and there are parties able to meet them in Meuse-Rhine. There are needs, in terms of employment, housing, education and shopping; but we have chosen to focus on the main issue – housing. What sometimes gets in the way is national governmental policy.
There are various cross-border cooperative agreements designed to promote cross-border cooperation, particularly in cultural and educational areas and there are EU structures intended to facilitate this type of activity. One important structure is formed by the European Groupings of Territorial Cooperation (EGTCs), which provides a legal framework for cross-border activity, provided that the National Government parties have signed the agreement.
(Recently (2007), at a meeting in Brussels, it was noted that the Dutch Government had not signed enabling legislation and this leads to a final point on cross-border cooperation.)
Clearly, there has to be an administrative infrastructure, to monitor cross-border activities in the same way that one has a parliament to monitor and approve, or disapprove, of legislation. However, monitoring at a national level, involves popular participation, where public interest reinforces the monitoring role.
In the case of Meuse-Rhine, the monitoring agency for the Euroregion is cast in the form of a Dutch ‘Trust’ or ‘Foundation’ [Stichting]. This is because of the administrative differences between the five sub-regions, all of which have differing legislative competencies. This Trust, which, in a sense, is the Meuse-Rhine’s ‘government’, is made up largely of appointees, put there by public and other administrative bodies, without any democratic supervision. This means that there is no popular pressure to encourage members to take their participation seriously and this, in turn, leads to very low attendance at meetings and to a lack of public involvement or interest in the bodies concerned.
Surely, the next step in Euroregional development must be to add an element of popular participation and transparency to what is, after all, another level of government. This new level has the potential of providing great benefits to its cross-border constituents and also of introducing cross-border solidarity. This is the way to building a true European Union: not ‘top-down’ but ‘bottom-up’. x
Author of this story: Stafford Wadsworth
Stafford Wadsworth is an English Journalist who has been active in Meuse-Rhine, for more than 25 years. He has written for media in the French and German speaking parts of Meuse-Rhine and was editor-in-chief of Dutch Limburg’s International Magazine for 10 years. His Meuse-Rhine Journal (http://www.meuse-rhine.eu/), an online, biweekly, business newsletter is now in its eighth year of publication.