In the aftermath of the war the concept of twinning – in particular between former enemies – became vital as countries worked closely together to rebuild the shattered continent of Europe and to ensure that it was not again torn asunder by violent confrontation and national rivalries.
Although actively promoted by the political giants of post-war Europe – French President Charles de Gaulle and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer – the formal linking by charter of communities was very much a grassroots initiative to extend the hand of friendship in the interests of peace and reconciliation, as epitomised by the twinning between two cities both destroyed by enemy bombing in just one night – Coventry and Dresden.
While the politicians encouraged the people to extend the hand of friendship across borders, their motives were not entirely altruistic. Fostering a better understanding of other nations, cultures and political ideals through cross-border projects was not just mutually beneficial for fostering closer relationships between countries and people; there were also economic benefits.
The tens of thousands of twinning agreements that were cemented in the 1950s also helped to lay the foundations of the mighty European Union.
Town twinning is regarded by the European Parliament as an important mechanism for developing active European citizenship, regional integration and a sense of shared identity between the 27 member states – many of which have been knocking six bells out of each other for millennia.
Since 1989, when the EU set up a dedicated twinning support scheme, tens of millions of euros have been spent each year on projects designed to reinforce the twin benefits of EU integration and a common European identity.
To a cynic such as yours truly, such ulterior strategic and political motives appear sinister compared to the good old days, before the eurocrats of Brussels saw twinning as a means to an economic end.
Whatever happened to the innocent and innocuous sentiments behind the competition Jeux Sans Frontières, which featured teams from towns from all over Europe dressed in outlandish latex outfits to compete in bizarre games without an economist in sight?
In its 1970s heyday, Jeux Sans Frontières (Games Without Frontiers or Games Without Borders) topped the television ratings in Europe. Much like the Eurovision Song Contest, it was a tame conduit for national rivalries.
The idea for the competition that made the BBC presenter Stuart Hall a household name and an object of national comic derision came from President de Gaulle. In between habitually vetoing the UK’s admission to his select euro-club, the domineering French leader imagined that instead of waging war on each other, as they had been doing regularly for centuries, the countries of Europe could vent their nationalistic frustrations and xenophobia in a fun competition as opposed to a bloody battle.
The concept of twinning has its roots in an earlier global conflict. As the world began to recover from the ‘war to end all wars’, the towns and cities of Europe erected memorials to the millions of dead and set about cementing ties.
The first recorded modern twinning in the UK was agreed in 1920, when the west Yorkshire town of Keighley formally ‘adopted’ Poix du Nord in France in 1920. Fat lot of good it did, as 19 years later the two communities found themselves again blighted by war.
Twinning only gained real momentum as part of the many projects to mark the Millennium. As each parish erected Millennium crosses and stones, those who had not already twinned with a town in Normandy were encouraged to do so. All except St Clement were quick to cement once again long-severed ancestral ties with the old country.
Following a flurry of searches for suitable partners, 11 parishes have partners in the old domain of William the Conqueror. These are St Brelade and Granville, Grouville and Port-Bail, St John and Le Teilleul, St Lawrence and Barné-ville-Carteret, St Martin and Montmartin-sur-Mer, St Mary and Longues sur Mer, St Ouen and Coutances, St Peter and St Hilaire du Harcouët, St Saviour and Villedieu les Poeles, Trinity and Agon Coutainville. St Helier is twinned with Avranches and also with the German town of Bad Wurzach – after 25 years and numerous failed attempts – and the island of Madeira.
As St Clement has taken so long to complete the twin set, the good burghers of this delightful if over-developed parish have forgotten that they were supposed to cast their net in the direction of the rising sun. Constable Len Norman’s flock have decided to buck the trend by seeking a twin town in Brittany, which sort of spoils the ideal of reaffirming ancient ancestral ties by doing a deal with Normandy’s oldest and fiercest rival.
As twinning has been going on for so long, and with France being one of the most twinned EU states with almost 6,000 agreements in place to date, there may not have been a Norman town of any worth left to forge links with.
And if you are going to twin, where better than Cancale, the oyster capital of Brittany with more seafood restaurants than you can shake a baguette at?
It is a sorry fact that not a lot of parishioners and Islanders know – or are particularly bothered about – which town their community is twinned with.
Far from igniting the public’s imagination and hopes of fostering cross-border friendships in the interests of peace, international co-operation and economic union, twinning in Jersey is a minority activity of a parochial coterie. As someone actively involved in twinning, I view this apathy – which is symptomatic of so much of modern Island life – with sadness.
The problem lies in a public perception that twinning is just another excuse for a foreign junket for local dignitaries to pop over to France (or in St Helier’s case Germany and Madeira) for a game of golf or a fancy meal in some swanky restaurant. And as the overwhelming majority of parishioners are not active in parochial affairs per se, becoming an active twinner is an activity too far.
As we recall the horrors unleashed 70 years ago this month, we should reflect on the deeper meaning of the twinning movement born out of the desire of ordinary people to reconcile past differences and live in harmony rather than wage the politicians’ wars.