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Apoplectic Euroskeptics: English Town Cuts Ties with French, German Twin Cities

By Marco Evers

To hell with Europe, the tiny English town of Bishop's Stortford has decided. The community was twinned with Friedberg in Germany and Villiers-sur Marne in France for 46 years. But the mayor, a Tory like Prime Minister David Cameron, has cancelled the partnership in a one-page letter, offering no explanation.

Dave Smith from the Town Twinning Association of Bishop's Stortford says he will try to fight the decision. Zoom
Horst Friedrichs

Dave Smith from the Town Twinning Association of Bishop's Stortford says he will try to fight the decision.

The fate of Europe won't be decided in Bishop's Stortford, of course. But this pretty little market town near London has turned itself into a miniature battleground in Prime Minister David Cameron's campaign against Europe.

A group of local politicians from his Conservative Party there has taken matters into its own hands, and their message is plain and simple: to hell with Germany, France and Europe.

It's the end of November. Berlin, Paris and London are arguing about the future shape of the European Union and the euro zone. But in Bishop's Stortford, the die has already been cast.

Mayor John Wyllie has written letters to his honourable counterparts in the town's two twin cities: Friedberg near the German financial capital of Frankfurt, and Villiers-sur-Marne near Paris. He isn't writing to invite them to the usual partnership ceremonies, conferences or youth exchange programs. He is writing to cancel the town's friendship with them, after 46 years.

On September 28, 2012, Wyllie informed them that his town would sever all ties with the twin towns. He gave no reason for this break-off of diplomatic relations.

In Friedberg and Villiers, the civic leaders are astounded. Michael Keller, the mayor of Friedberg, said the last decades "were a successful period." The concept of twin cities was a little dated, the member of the center-left Social Democratic party admitted, but the relationship could have been changed or improved. A conversation over the matter was the "minimum" he would have expected.

Keller believes the Conservative town council of Bishop's Stortford simply wanted to show "what it thinks of Europe." He said it was regrettable, and even dangerous. "The local authorities are system-relevant in Europe, not the banks," he warned. Meaning: If cooperation stopped working at the municipal level, one might as well forget partnership at the higher levels.

No Debate, No Consultation

Bishop's Stortford, population 35,000, is a quiet, well-to-do market town with virtually no unemployment. It takes 38 minutes by train from here to the City of London financial district, where most of its inhabitants earn their living, including Wyllie, the mayor.

Since the local election in May, the Conservatives have had an overwhelming majority in the town council, making up 16 of the 18 members. That might explain why Friedberg and Villiers were given such short shrift. There was no debate, no consultation. The decision came as a "complete surprise," complained Dave Smith, 68, a retired electrical engineer who chairs the partnership association which has more than 100 paying members. Smith has been visiting Friedberg, which he describes as a "wonderful town," for the past 35 years. He always paid for the trips himself, as did all the members.

Smith is international understanding personified. In 1990, he was awarded the "Honorary Shield of the Town of Friedberg" -- for his "personal contribution to a united Europe," as the certificate declares.

Now his commitment to Europe is forcing him to go to war with his own town council. He admits it will be a tough battle to change its mind.

Mike Wood, 66, the only council member from the pro-European Liberal Democrat party, says Tories are "usually normal people. But whenever you mention Europe they turn into some kind of monster."

The Leader of the Monsters

Cameron has put himself at the head of these euroskeptics and hasn't regretted it yet. Suddenly the prime minister's poll ratings are improving even though things haven't been going well for his government. The economy is sliding back into recession, unemployment is at its highest level in 17 years and inflation is close to five percent. But all the bad news seems forgotten since Cameron styled himself as an EU rebel.

Wyllie, the mayor of Bishop's Stortford, has never been in Friedberg or Villiers. "Unfortunately," he says. He can't understand the uproar over the cancelled partnership. These days pupils preferred to do exchanges with young people in China, Russia or the US rather than Germany, due to a "lack of interest," he says.

He insists the decision wasn't about Europe or about money, because civic partnerships hardly cost anything.

So what was it about? Wyllie is a Tory through and through, which means he is fundamentally suspicious of anything to do with the Continent. He only says this: "We simply felt we needed to depoliticize the issue of twinning."

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© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2011
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