Published June 2014
The partnership between Bad Münstereifel and Ashford, Bad Münstereifel and Fougères and between Fougères and Ashford is a remarkable example of a commonly lived and perceived Europe. Fathers of the European idea like Schuman, Monnet, General de Gaulle, Konrad Adenauer, and last but not least Winston Churchill, would have been very happy to see how, starting with the exchange of young people, at the end a triangle of twinning has been grown.
Today, 50 years after the official twinning act between Münstereifel and Ashford and 62 years after the beginning of the youth exchange, only few representatives of the founder generation have been left but the European Idea has manifested itself in the European Union with all its advantages but also disadvantages. What has been once special and trendsetting, is today taken as normal. Although we still feel German, French and British, we do it under a common European umbrella. The generation below 40 has problems to imagine that travelling from Germany to France was not possible without passing customs and changing money, quite apart from the free trade and other cases of freedom.
The young generation also does not know the excitement of travelling to another country in Europe. Each journey was a little bit like an adventure. The Channel Tunnel did not exist. Whatever the weather was like taking the ferry from Oostende, Zeebrugge, Dover and other ports was, beside using an aircraft, the only way of travelling from the continent to U K and vice versa. Arriving in England or Germany meant entering a foreign world. Meeting English and German people, and sometime later French people, was very exciting. Today that's completely different. In the supermarkets in Germany, Great Britain and France are many products equal or similar and even the places where you can find them are more or less the same. Admittedly left hand driving in UK is still a challenge for people from the continent as is also the currency.
Disregarding this there are not many differences left beside the language. Even the bias that the British cannot cook, German food consists of "Würstchen and Sauerkraut" only, and that French food is the benchmark for best cooking, become much harder to accept.
It is no surprise that some people say the idea of twinning between towns is a bit outdated. The reason given is that there are doubts concerning the meaningfulness of the twinning. They say the targets of the post-war era like the experience of overcoming old divisions, enmity and prejudices have been reached. In an age of unlimited and cheap travel it is of minor interest to young people in the youth exchange. The exchange has been reduced to the tourism of older people, and in the face of financial restraints of the municipalities, the question is raised if spending of public money for the twinning is still justified.
Finding an answer on these doubts and questions is not easy. For the war generation who suffered so much themselves this time is unforgotten. The parents of the post-war generation kept the traumatic experiences alive and communicated them to their children. Some prejudices about the 'enemy' remained anchored. This still was the case until the 1970s. The young people who met friends in the other country had the great feeling of contributing to the European understanding. Now to convey this feeling to the young people is becoming more and more difficult. They grow up in a Europe without borders, they use the Euro currency in many countries and they believe that all this is a matter of course. Many of them ignore the growing number of people with extreme anti-democratic political views and ethnic intolerance. We find these people in all European countries but fortunately they are a minority and hopefully will remain so. But hope alone is not sufficient. Our politicians also need to contribute. The partnership between Ashford, Bad Munstereifel and Fougeres is such a contribution. In the years after the war the partnership between our towns helped to heal the wounds and formed the basis for a peaceful co-existence. Today vital partnerships help to achieve the ideal of the European movement.
As in the post-war period today the young generation can and should play a leading role within our partnership. However, some good progress has been made. In recent years each official twinning meeting is under a different theme. At these meetings, young people from the three towns develop and present their ideas. This year the future of the partnership is the topic. In addition to the integration of young people into the official relations of partnership it is essential that they meet on a personal level. The German-English youth exchange and in later years the youth exchange between the twinned communities formed an ideal basis. Today we are often told that the young people are no longer interested in it. Is this really true or is it just the way how this is organised? Is it the competition with other possibilities as to where to spend the holidays? Or is it just the fact that we are missing engaged people like Ferdi Lethert in Germany, Mimi Renno in Fougères or Eileen Hall in Ashford, people who were able to motivate young people on the one side and convince their civic leaders of the benefits of partnership? Maybe there is not just one answer. In any case it is important to seek the dialogue with the young generation, not only at official meetings but also at every other opportunity like in schools, associations and last but not least in the new social media.
The cultural and economic exchange as well as getting to know each other are goals of the partnership. Here we can do much more. In all three twinned towns there is a wide range of cultural activities but it is surprising how little we know about it and make use of it.
When was the last exhibition of an artist or a concert from one of the twin-towns? The economic exchange simply does not exist. Perhaps there are geographical or other barriers? We should find out. A panel discussion with entrepreneurs of the three cities could be a good start.
The partnership between Ashford, Bad Munstereifel and Fougeres has grown over more than five decades and is a sound basis for co-operation. But this is no reason to rest on the success. The social, political and economic framework has changed significantly in this period. This also had an impact on the partnership. It is time to react. New interest in the partnership should be generated. Responsible people and opinion leaders should be prepared to show more interest in helping to convince their fellow citizens of the importance of partnership.
Story by Mike Bennett