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‘Condominiums’ allow countries to amicably share land

March 24, 2018 GMT

Ever since human beings first got together and settled down in one place, they have jealously guarded what they regarded as their territory. Over the centuries, countless wars have been fought and millions have died over tiny strips of land. This is still going on today, of course, and there are border disputes all over the world, with just a few notable exceptions.

One of these exceptions is a tiny piece of land between France and Spain, two countries that have fought each other dozens of times over much less. To find the land in question you need to go to the far south of France. On the coast there is a curved bay with a beach of white sand at the resort of Hendaye. It is the last town in France and, beyond its breakwater and the wide estuary of the River Bidassoa, one can see the Spanish towns of Hondarriba and Irun.

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These are typical European beach resorts with elegant villas and small hotels but if you follow the river, which marks the frontier, inland three or four miles the scenery becomes more industrialized. The river is probably not as wide as the Kanawha here but in the middle is a small island. It doesn’t look like much, standing about four feet above the water. It bears a few small trees and its sides are clad in stone in an effort to prevent erosion. No one lives there and there are no buildings or animals, although it is called Isle de Faisan, which translates as the Island of Pheasants.

The island has a long history and its fame began exactly 400 years ago this year with a war. Like so many other wars, this one started over religion. The new Holy Roman Emperor was a devout Catholic and tried to impose his religion on his Protestant domains. It was one of the longest wars in history, lasting just eight days short of 30 years. It involved virtually all of Europe and it caused over 8 million casualties, a huge number for the 17th century. Two of the countries involved were France and Spain and they fought on opposite sides. In the end they were both exhausted and they agreed to meet to discuss peace. The place they chose was the island in the river between the two countries. Each massed their army on their own side of the stream, wooden bridges were built out to the island and there their emissaries met.

It took three long months to agree the terms of the settlement, known as the Treaty of the Pyrenees. Various pieces of territory were swapped, the border was agreed upon and King Phillipe IV of Spain gave his consent for King Louis XIV of France to marry his daughter, Maria Teresa.

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One other thing was agreed, that the island where the treaty was signed would be perpetually shared by the two countries.

The island isn’t large. At its widest point it’s only about 45 yards wide and it’s just 225 yards long. Thanks to erosion over the centuries, what’s left is only half the size it was when the treaty was signed 350 years ago, but at the moment it’s under Spanish rule. That will end on July 31 when it will become part of France until Jan. 31 next year, because the countries swap ownership every six months. There is a monument to the treaty on the island but it’s rarely seen because people are not supposed to land there. There is nothing else to signify which country has sovereignty at any particular time and as I said above, the island is shrinking because neither side wants to spend money to shore up its defenses against erosion.

This sort of agreement, where ownership of a piece of land is shared between countries, is called a condominium, and Pheasant Island is not only the oldest, it is one of the smallest and the only one where the two countries take it in turns to own the land. Further north, where Germany and Luxembourg come together is another, much larger one. It covers the rivers Moselle, the Sauer and the Our where they form the border between the two countries.

This condominium was also was forged out of a treaty that ended a war. It was in 1815 and on this occasion it was the Treaty of Vienna that marked the end of the Napoleonic wars. In it the signatories decreed that: “the rivers themselves, where they form the border, belong in common to the neighboring Powers.”

This agreement is different in that both Germany and Luxembourg simultaneously own the rivers, the 15 or so islands on them and the bridges crossing them. Obviously the bridges are used by the public and access to the area is not restricted so, if you are on one of the bridges, happen to land on an island or are boating on the rivers within the condominium, you are legally in two countries at the same time.

International borders that cross water seem to be the place for condominiums. Austria, Germany and Switzerland meet at Lake Constance and share a condominium over the governance of the lake. The Gulf of Fonseca is a part of the Pacific Ocean bordered by Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador. The countries argued over who controlled the gulf for years but thanks to a 1992 agreement it is now a condominium governed by all three countries. Also in South America Brazil and Paraguay share responsibility for a condominium on a part of the Parana River and in Eastern Europe the Serb Republic and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina oversee the condominium formed by the Brcko District.

By far the biggest condominium, and the one that is governed by the most countries, is Antarctica, which is overseen by the 12 signatories of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty and which has been accepted by 53 countries worldwide. It’s the peaceful way to settle who governs what and it seems a pity to me that all territorial disputes cannot be settled in the same way.

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.