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The border paradox. Uneven development, cross-border mobility and the comparative history of the Euregio Meuse-Rhine

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The border paradox

1I want to start my argument with an example of today’s cross-border relations in the area we live in. The Dutch fiscal system allows mortgage interests to be deducted from the income tax of house owners. As you might imagine, this has an enormous upward effect on housing prices in the Netherlands. By a recent change of law, Dutch tax payers earning an income in the Netherlands, but owning a house across the border, are now allowed to deduct their mortgage interests too. As housing prices in Belgium are much lower than those in the Netherlands – partly as a result of the difference in the tax system – many Dutch families bought a house across the Belgian border to double profit from both the low Belgian housing prices and the Dutch fiscal system.1

2Here we find a clear example of what I call the «border paradox»: transborder differences – in this case the border effect in the housing market – stimulate mobility and movement of people across the border. It is not too difficult to find other contemporary examples, like the so-called «drugs tourism» into the Netherlands because of the more liberal attitude towards soft drugs, or the extent of cross-border shopping by Germans in the Netherlands because of the differences in the shops’ opening hours. To say it bluntly: in these and other cases the border acts as a bridge, precisely because it is a barrier. People living in the borderlands cross this bridge because they want to profit – economically, socially or culturally – from the transborder differences. In fact, according to geographers, the «border paradox» is at the core of the concept of «borderland» itself: the boundary creates its own distinctive region, making an element of division also the vehicle for regional definition.2

3It is very interesting to look at the history of our Euregio as a set of cross-border relations based on this «border paradox». In the field of social and economic history we find many examples of a movement of both capital and labour across borders that can be explained by the working of this paradox. Industrialists moved or established factories and branches just across the border to profit from differences in wage levels and market conditions, to avoid import duties and to open up new markets. In the eighteenth century, for instance, German textile entrepreneurs from the Aachen and Eifel area settled in the Dutch enclaves Vaals, Eijsden and Dalhem to open up international markets via the worldwide trading network of the Dutch Republic.3 In the nineteenth century, after the border realignments by the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and the secession of Belgium from the Netherlands in the 1830s, the effect of the border paradox became even stronger: the industrialisation of both Aachen and Maastricht can be explained in this way. Opportunities just across the border induced Belgian capital from the industrial heartland in Liège to invest in Maastricht and Aachen. The pottery and glassworks, later called De Sphinx, and the paper industries in Maastricht both owe their early origins and expansion to the closing of the Dutch-Belgian border after 1830. This also led to a modest immigration of skilled workers from the Walloon provinces, which, however, proved not to be lasting.4 The closing of the Dutch border also had the effect that the Liège iron masters had to redirect their exports towards Germany. To avoid import duties they invested heavily in metal factories just across the border in Aachen. The railwaymania in Germany in the 1840s also attracted many Walloon industrialists to Aachen and to the Ruhr area. In fact, the beginning of German industrialisation resulted from these border crossings.5

4In the field of labour, a striking example of the working of the border paradox can be found in the 1920s, when the galloping German inflation induced miners from the Aachener coalfields to move to the South-Limburg mines just across the border and get paid in stable Dutch guilders, as were Limburg miners in the Aachen mines themselves, the so-called Guldenmänner.6 The guilders were spent in the Netherlands, of course. Changes in the exchange rate between the Belgian franc and the Dutch guilder (the devaluation of the Belgian franc in 1926) also influenced the cross-border movement of Dutch and Belgian miners to and from the mines on both sides of the Dutch-Belgian border. This is typical for any cross-border commuting: the exchange rate and monetary relations had a direct influence on the direction of the movement.7

5In the most general sense, the phenomenon of what I call the «border paradox» is a reflection of an asymmetry in social and economic organisation on both sides of the border.8 At the border two different social systems confront each other; historical developments have created separate social structures; uneven and unequal national developments result in transborder differences and imbalances in many fields of social life. These disparities become an important factor in cross-border relations. They are perceived and assessed by people living on each side of the border and become the basis for an interaction process: people cross the border to shop, to work, to buy a house, or to amuse themselves, because they want to take advantage of the differences in prices, wages, employment opportunities, or facilities of any kind.9 Local knowledge is used to transform state barriers into corridors. So again: the border becomes a bridge for transborder movements because it is a barrier in the development of markets, institutional arrangements and social life in general. As borders divide, through this very division they set the stage for transborder action.10

6The borderland concept: geographical and anthropological perspectives.

7If we want to start historical research in the Euregio as a border area, the problem of regional definition is very important. As historians, we cannot be satisfied with the administrative boundaries set by today’s definition of the Euregio Meuse-Rhine. Apart from being very recent, they do not reflect the historical extension of transborder interactions and influences. Geographical criteria for defining a border region can be more helpful in this respect. A border region clearly is an area on both sides of an international political boundary, whose populations are affected by its proximity in various ways. Political boundaries may be defined as imaginary lines at which a state’s territorial competence finds it ultimate expression. As such, they are subject of disputes and conflicts of delimitation, sometimes culminating in wars, but today I am interested in the more lasting and structural effects on social life on each side of the border, in what geographers call the «borderland».

8If the concept of «borderland» can be useful anywhere in Western Europe, it is here in the Euregio Meuse-Rhine. There are few areas where so many borders have influenced the life of so many people. Within the European Community, the SaarLorLux Raum (the border area of Saarland, Lotharingen and Luxemburg) has its own history as a comparable border region;11 partly outside the Community we can also think of the Swiss-German-French area around Basle.12 Geographers have a long lasting interest in the specific nature of these type of  regions; more recently, anthropologists have started their own kind of «border research». In the most general sense, these social sciences open our eyes for the way borders shape social, cultural and economic relations of people of different nationalities living on both sides of state borders. Geographers are interested in the spatial effects of the formation of border regions; for them, a border region is «the product of a set of cultural, economic and political interactions and processes occurring in space».13 Economic geographers focus on the way borders influence markets for capital, labour, and commodities – the above mentioned border effect in the Dutch-Belgian housing market is a clear example. In their view, cross-border transactions are regulated by differences in price levels and/or institutional arrangements between nationally oriented markets on each side of the border, and of the transaction costs associated with its crossing.14 Anthropologists are interested in the way borders have a symbolic meaning in the construction of local identities and the sense of belonging to «imagined communities».15 For them, border regions have a special meaning as areas where national, ethnic or linguistic identities are negotiated in a daily confrontation with «the other». In these regions, perhaps more than in others, it becomes clear how these identities were «territorialised» and «institutionalised» by powerful political, juridical and cultural agents of delimitation and unification.  

Geographers on borderlands: spatial interactions

9In geography, border regions are categorized on a scale between cross-border and inner-state integration. Located far from the main centres of economic activity and political decision-making, the populations of these regions suffer from the effects of economic and social marginalisation. Often, these encourage people in frontier regions to look beyond the international boundary and to develop relationships with their neighbours. As in our own Euregio, these relationships have often been shaped by highly complex borderland histories.16 The more border regions are peripheral within a national state, away from the centre of political and economic power, the better the chance that they interact and integrate with adjoining regions across the state border.17 And, of course, the other way around: the more border regions are becoming integrated within the national state – economically, politically, or culturally – the less their inhabitants tend to interact with their now increasingly foreign neighbours. Taking permeability and cross-border movement as key factors, the borderland concept can be brought down to types according to the degree of cross-border interaction, from alienated or closed on the one hand, to interdependent, integrated or open borderlands on the other hand.18  In closed borderlands, borders become barriers in the first place. Their closing has a centripetal effect: the orientation is away from the borders towards the nation state. Open borders refer to a centrifugal orientation of its inhabitants away from the national centre towards the neighbouring countries. In this case, free movement across the border is prevalent. The border is seen as a contact line, as a meeting place between nations or socio-economic subsystems.

10Categorization of borderlands in this way reveals some interesting parallels all over the world, as one American expert in this field, Oscar Martinez, observed by indicating that trinational urban regions in Europe like that of Basel, Mulhouse and Freiburg, or Maastricht, Aachen and Liège, in may ways replicate processes of pronounced transboundary movement and interdependence evident in twin U.S.-Mexico border cities like San Diego and Tijuana.19 For historians, it is interesting to note that both the integration within the nation state and the closing and opening of borderlands for transborder interaction are essentially historical processes. Not only borders themselves, but also their meaning in the social life of border regions are subject to continuous change. Historical analysis is needed to understand the centripetal or the centrifugal tendencies in border regions.

11Central to the geographical approach of borderlands is the concept of cross-border interactions. Of course, from the central state’s point of view, borders are meant to separate and to divide one nation from another. At the border itself, however, all kinds of relations across borders come into being which create the borderland as a specific kind of territory. Its spatial extension is determined by the distance and the intensity of cross-border transactions and movements of people. Goods are transported across the border by way of trade or smuggling; services are delivered and capital flows are transmitted. People cross the border to live or to marry, to buy or to sell, to work or to employ, or just to travel and to visit.

12Geographers systematically research these transactions and movements to determine the extension and the character of a border region as a spatial structure. By studying the intensity of these kinds of interactions they try to measure the degree of cross-border integration and the character of borderlands as open or closed. In this respect it is interesting to have a closer look at two geographical studies on the Belgian borders, one on the southern border by Firmin Lentacker called La frontière franco-belge,20 another on the northern and eastern borders by Yola Van Wettere-Verhasselt, called Les frontières du Nord et de l’Est de la Belgique.21 Both studies refer to property relations, trade flows, capital investment and the location of industries, traffic infrastructure, and labour mobility in the form of both cross-border migration and commuting. As daily, richly documented phenomenon, cross-border commuting is one of their main topics.22 Their approach centres on two main questions: firstly, would forms of cross-border mobility also have been developed in the absence of borders, in other words: do they result from the «border paradox», or can they be explained by «normal» factors? and, secondly, did cross-border mobility lead to greater transborder social integration?

13The answer to this last question is, in my view, crucial to any evaluation of the development of the Euregio as a political project. Van Wettere-Verhasselt uses an interesting standard of measurement for social integration, namely the number of cross-border marriages. For her, the very low percentage of Belgian brides or grooms in Maastricht in the period between 1932 and 1962 suggested that cross-border social integration did not keep up with the intensity of cross-border commuting.23 Van Wettere-Verhasselt makes clear that in the 20th century the crossing of borders to work or to get married were two very different things. Much more than work, the act of marriage is related to the degree of social and cultural integration. There is, however, a big difference between «routes» [in the sense of «roads to follow»] and «roots» [in the sense of «cultural origins»].24

14This is an important outcome, which is confirmed by more recent research in other border regions like the Saar-Lor-Lux area: the truly French-German transboundary labour market in that area has not resulted in advanced cultural and political integration. The German and French commuters stay in their own social milieu and do not participate in the social, cultural and political life of the countries where they hold their jobs.25 In cross-border commuting economic rationality prevails, while social segregation continues or even proliferates. The same holds, a fortiori of course, for the Dutchmen who have come to spoil the housing market in Belgium, or the Belgians who come to Maastricht as «drugs tourists». Perhaps this is the ultimate proof of the paradoxical nature of most of today’s cross-border mobility and interaction. As long as these are based on variations and differences between regions – in fact the opposite of integration -, we can not easily expect borders to loose their social and cultural meaning in the interaction process.

Anthropologists on borderlands: symbolic boundaries

15The importance of borders as cultural divides is the subject of anthropological inspired border research. «Frontiers go but boundaries remain», wrote one prominent anthropologist, meaning that a Europe with free movement of goods and people will not necessarily make borders any less important for the communities and people who live at their sides.26 Boundaries are more than just barriers in social and economic interaction; they are also symbols and institutions that simultaneously produce and are produced by distinctions between social, ethnic, linguistic or national groups.27 Economic frontiers may disappear, but state borders and the symbolic and cultural meaning they have in daily life remain. We need historical research with an anthropological view to understand how, and to what extent, political borders become, or have become, symbolic and cultural boundaries, and how this has affected life in border areas.

16Part and parcel of any anthropological thinking is that both political and cultural boundaries are historical constructions, and in now way result from inherent or «given» ethnical or linguistic identities. In border areas, identities are challenged, shaped and transformed by the interplay between symbolic and political boundary-drawing. Here, if anywhere, essentialist notions of a primordial relationship between place and identity, territory and culture, loose their meaning. State formation and national identities find specific articulation in border areas, not only as outcomes of centralizing policies, but also through the agency of the local border populations.28

17There are, in fact, two ways of looking at the construction of identities in border regions: one is about the effect of living near the border on cultural intermingling, on what has been called «crossovers», «hybridisation», or the creation of cultural «border line cases»29; the other concerns the historical process of cultural integration and enclosing within the nation state. It is not too difficult to see a parallel with the opposition of «open» or «integrated» and «closed» or «alienated» borderlands by geographers.30 Political boundaries had a profound influence on the way ethnic or linguistic groups have been split up and transformed throughout history. One interesting example, which has been thoroughly studied, is the very different evolution of the Catalan-speaking populations divided by the political boundary between France and Spain since 1659. Catalans on both sides of the border differ because of their incorporation into differently structured states, with different histories of nation-building. While in Spain, Catalan identity found a strong political expression in Catalan semi-autonomy, in France it is almost non-existent.31

18In our own Euregio, it is interesting to look at the differences between the Belgian and Dutch provinces of Limburg in this respect. The different trajectories of state formation did have profound influence on the way Limburgers on both sides of the border experience their regional identity. In the Netherlands, Limburg’s regional identity has been formulated in opposition against the social, political and cultural domination of  «Holland». As a paradoxical consequence, the definition of being a Limburger stayed within the confines of the Dutch province of Limburg which in itself was a creation of the Dutch state. There is a strong feeling of a specific Limburg cultural identity, expressed in the participation in carnival, the use of local dialects, and the like.32 In Belgian Limburg the feeling of regional identity manifested itself foremost in participation in the Flemish movement.33 The use of local dialects as an expression of regional feelings is much less common than in Dutch Limburg. This is, of course, related to the role of language in the process of state formation in Belgium, which, as we all know, has been very important.


19I have argued that there is a paradox in the Euregio Meuse-Rhine, in the sense that the national borders themselves stimulate international cross-border interaction and exchange. Separate historical developments have created inequalities and discrepancies between nations and regions on each side of the border in the field of economy, society, law and culture. At the border two different social systems and cultures confront or meet each other; uneven social developments create social differences that determine cross-border behaviour. People on both side of the border use these differences in there daily practice. They cross the border to profit from differences in wages, prices, employment, services and regulations. This is what I call the border paradox: the border, being a barrier behind which societies develop in their own way, becomes a bridge precisely for this reason. To understand cross-border developments in the Euregio Meuse-Rhine, it is very important to recognize the importance of this paradox, because it gives insight both in cross-border interaction and mobility, as in the continuation of differentiation and separation.

20The understanding of the working of this paradox means that unfounded optimism about the integration and common future of these regions must be tempered. Most of the cross-border mobility and interaction was and is of an opportunistic nature and based on national differences instead of integration. There is no reason to suppose that the opportunistic nature of cross-border relationships will change, even if differences in wages, employment opportunities, housing markets, and everything else which stimulates people to cross the border, will have been diminished. We have to take into account, that national borders, as they existed historically, will have a lasting influence in this area, even if there is free movement of people and goods.


1  Vanvelthoven (Peter), «De lust van Nederland is de last van België», NRC-Handelsblad 12 décembre 2000.
2  Minghi (J.V.), «From conflict to harmony in border landscapes», in
Rumley (D.) and Minghi (J.V.) (eds.), The geography of border landscapes, London/New York, Routledge, 1991, p. 15-30; 15: «[...] the boundary creates its own distinctive region, making an element of division also the vehicle for regional definition. This paradox is at the core of the borderland concept»; also Guichonnet (P.), Raffesti (C.), Géographie des frontières, Paris, PUF, 1974, p. 147-148: «Le maillage politique des frontières [...] est paradoxal en ce sens qu’il oppose aux actions [des hommes] une résistance ou, au contraire, qu’il tend à les amplifier...».
3  Wijnen (C.), «De lakennijverheid in de Staatse landen van Overmaas aan het eind van de achttiende eeuw», in Textielhistorische Bijdragen 35, 1995, p. 44-61.
4  Cf. de Groot (G.), «Pielemannen en cassetendraagsters; conducteurs en sorteersters. De arbeidseling naar sekse bij De Sphinx aardewerkfabriek en de Koninklijke Nederlandse Papierfabriek te Maastricht», to appear in Studies over de sociaal-economische geschiedenis van Limburg/Jaarboek van het Sociaal Historisch Centrum voor Limburg XLVI, 2001.
5  Devos (G.), «Belgische initiatieven in de erts- en steenkoolmijnen en in de metaalindustrie in grensgebieden, 19e-begin 20e eeuw», in Jansen (J.C.G.M.) (ed.), Economische betrekkingen in grensregio»s in een industrieel tijdperk, 1750-1965 [Maaslandse Monografieën 58], Leeuwarden/Maastricht, Eisma, 1996, p. 173-193.
6  Kreukels (L.H.M.), «Mijnarbeid: volgzaamheid en strijdbaarheid. Geschiedenis van de arbeidsverhoudingen in de Nederlandse steenkolenmijnen, 1900-1940» [Maaslandse Monografieën 42/43], Assen/Maastricht, Van Gorcum, 1986, p. 286 en 294; Gramm (M.), «Das Belgisch-Niederländisch-Deutsche Dreiländereck. Wechselseitige grenzüberschreitende Beziehungen und regionalgeographische Kenntnisse bei Schulkindern» [Schriften für die Schulpraxis 74], München, Paul List Verlag, 1979, p. 54-55; Hermens (P.), «Buitenlandse arbeiders in het Zuid-Limburgse kolendistrict, in het bijzonder de rol van de Duitse arbeiders in de mijnen, 1900-1930», scriptie Tilburg, 1983, p. 32-33.
7  Pluymers (B.), «De Limburgse mijnwerkers (1917-1939). Ontstaan en consolidatie van de arbeidsmarkt voor mijnarbeid» [OSW nr. 1996/02], Limburgs Universitair Centrum Diepenbeek, 1996, p. 40.
8  House (J.W.), «Frontier studies: an applied approach», in Burnett (A.D.) and Taylor (P.J.), Anglo-American essays on political geography, New York, 1981, p. 291-312.
9  Leimgruber (W.), «Die Grenze als Forschungsobjekt der Geographie», Regio Basiliensis XXI, 1980, p.  67-78.
10  Cf. Wendl (T.) and Rösler (M.), «Introduction: Frontiers and borderlands. The rise and relevance of an anthropological research genre» in idem (eds.), Frontiers and borderlands. Anthropological perspectives, Frankfurt a/M., Peter Lang, 1999, p. 1-27, cit. 18.
11  Lehners (J.P.), «Zur historischen Legitimation einer Raumkonstruktion: Die europäischen Großregion Saar-Lor-Lux», in Westfälische Forschungen 46, 1996, p. 259-274; see also: Lehners (J.P.) e.a. (eds.), Héritages culturels dans la Grande Région Saar-Lor-Lux-Rhénanie-Palatinat [Cahiers I.S.I.S. IV], Luxembourg, Centre Universitaire, 1996.
12  The review Regio Basiliensis. Basler Zeitschrift für Geographie/Revue de Géographie de Bâle is devoted to this area.
13  Rumley (D.) and Minghi (J.V.), «Introduction:  The border landscape concept», in idem (eds.), The Geography of Border Landscapes, p. 1-13, cit. 4.
14  Cf. van Houtum (H.J.), The development of cross-border economic relations. A theoretical and empirical study of the influence of the state border on the development of cross-border economic relations between firms in border regions of the Netherlands and Belgium, diss. KUB, Tilburg, 1998.
15  Cf. Donnan (H.) and Wilson (Th.M.) (eds.), Border approaches. Anthropological perspectives on frontiers, Lanham/New York/London, University Press of America, 1994 ; Rösler (M.), Wendl (T.) (eds.), Frontiers and borderlands. Anthropological perspectives, Franfurt a/M., Peter Lang, 1999.
16  Anderson (M.), «The political problems of frontier regions», in West European Politics, 1978, 1-17, cit. 2.
17  Knippenberg (H.) and Markusse (J.), «19th and 20th century borders and border regions in Europe: some reflections», in idem, Nationalising and denationalising European border regions, 1800-2000. Views from geography and history, Dordrecht, Kluwer Acadademic Publishers, 1999, p. 1-19, esp. 12-13. See also Rumley/Minghi, «Introduction» (stressing the meaning of core-periphery relations),
18  According to Martinez (O.J.), «The dynamics of border interaction. New approaches to border analysis», in Schofield (C.H.) (ed.), Global boundaries, world boundaries, Vol. I, London/New York, Routledge, 1994, p. 1-15, cited by Knippenberg and Markusse, «19th and 20th century borders and border regions», 13. See also Martinez (O.J.) , Border people. Life and society in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands,Tucson/London, University of Arizona Press, 1994,  p. 5-10.
19  Ibidem, xviii-xix.
20  Lentacker (F.), La frontière franco-belge. Étude géographique des effets d’une frontière internationale sur la vie de relations, Lille, 1974.
21  Van Wettere-Verhasselt (Y.), Les frontières du Nord et de l’Est de la Belgique. Étude de géographie humaine, Bruxelles, Société Royale Belge de Géographie, 1966. See also eadem, «Aspecten van de menselijke aardrijkskunde langsheen de Belgisch-Nederlandse grens», Geografisch Tijdschrift, Nieuwe Reeks 3, 1969, p. 409-418.
22  For a comparable geographical study on the Swiss-French border: Jeanneret (Ph.),
Maillat (D.), Jura, canton frontière. Problèmes des régions frontalières entre Genève et Bâle, effets économiques de la frontière, Neuchâtel, Groupe d’Études Économiques, 1981.
23  Van Wettere-Verhasselt, Les frontières du Nord et de l’Est de la Belgique, p. 287-289. See also eadem, «Huwelijkskringen, een voorbeeld van de sociale invloed der staatsgrenzen», in Tijdschrift van de Belgische Vereniging voor Aardrijkskundige Studies 36, 1967, p. 265-27, and «Frontière politique: différenciation du paysage et barrière sociale», in Regio Basiliensis 21, 1980, p. 67-78.
24  The opposition of «routes» and «roots» is taken from Wendl and Rösler, «Introduction», 12.
25  Dörrenbacher (P.), Schulz (Ch.), «Cultural and regional integration. The case of the Saar-Lor-Lux cross-border labour market», in Koter (M.) and Heffner (K.) (eds.), Multicultural regions and cities [Region and regionalism, 4], Lódž-Opole, 1999, p. 125-139, cit: 136.
26  Wilson (Th. M.), «Frontiers go but boundaries remain: the Irish border as a cultural divide», in Wilson (Th. M.) and (Estellie Smith M.), Cultural change and the new Europe. Perspectives on the European Community, Boulder, Westview Press, 1993, p. 167-187.
27  Cf. Paassi (A.), «Boundaries as social processes: territoriality in the world of flows», in Newman (D.) (ed.), Boundaries, territory and postmodernity, London/Portland, Frank Cass, 1999, p. 69-88, cit: 81.
28  Cf. Thomassen (B.), «Border studies in Europe: symbolic and political boundaries, anthropological perspectives», in Europea. Journal des Européanistes II, 1996, p. 37-48, cit. 39. For an inspiring local historical-anthropological study of the process of state formation in the Catalan borderland (Cerdanya/Cerdagne): Sahlins (P.), Boundaries. The making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1989.
29  «Crossovers» and «hybridization» are cited from: Wendl and Rösler, «Introduction», 10-11; «border line cases» from Leerssen (J.), «Europe as a set of borders», in idem and van Montfrans (M.) (eds.), Borders and territories [Yearbook of European Studies/Annuaire d’Études Européennes 6], Amsterdam/Atlanta, Rodopi, 1993, p. 1-14; for a Euregional case-study: idem, «Macht, afstand en culturele diversiteit: bijvoorbeeld Overmaas», Theoretische Geschiedenis 18, 1991, p. 423-433.
30  See also Wendl and Rösler, «Introduction», 10.
31  Cf. Thomassen, «Border studies in Europe», p. 39-40. For an inspiring local historical-anthropological study of  the effect of the process of state formation in the Catalan borderland (Cerdanya/Cerdagne): Sahlins (P.), Boundaries. The making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1989.

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Ad Knotter, «The border paradox. Uneven development, cross-border mobility and the comparative history of the Euregio Meuse-Rhine», Fédéralisme Régionalisme [En ligne], Volume 3 : 2002-2003 - Mobilité et identités dans l'Eurégio Meuse-Rhin, URL :

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Professeur à l’Université de Maastricht