Building Sustainable Relationships

Strengthening Active Citizenship with Twinning Partnerships.

The Twin Cities World Tourism Association’s goal is to increase cultural exchange and help create sustainable cross-border relationships by establishing new twinning partnerships and revitalising existing ones. The location of our conference couldn’t be more fitting for this topic.

After all, Bingen maintains active partnerships with six towns:

  • With the English town of Hitchin since 1958. Hitchin has a population of around 33,000.
  • With the small French town of Nuits-Saint Georges near Dijon since 1960. Nuits-Saint Georges has a population of around 6,000.
  • With Prizrem in Kosovo since 1968 – long before the war in the nineties. Prizrem has a population of over 130,000.
  • With the French village of Venarey-Les Laumes, also situated near Dijon. Venarey-Les Laumes has a population of 3,800.
  • With the Turkish town of Anamur since 2011. Anamur has a population of around 63,000.
  • And with the Czech city of Kutnà Hora since 2012. Kutnà Hora is situated about 70 kilometres east of Prague and has a population of around 21,000.

 

With just under 26,000 inhabitants, the town of Bingen is not the biggest place in the world. But – allow me to say this again – it is certainly one of the most beautiful towns in Europe. And with six active partnerships, it is a prime example of the value of town twinning. But it is by no means alone in this sense. Since the end of the 20th century, more than 20,000 twinning partnerships have been born worldwide. Why do towns and municipalities enter into partnerships with other towns and municipalities? How do these partnerships benefit the towns and their people? Do twinning partnerships work over a longer period of time – say many years – or are they usually just short-lived relationships that soon fizzle out?

Over the next few minutes, I will answer these questions and others in more detail, drawing mainly on the study ‘Twinning partnerships – strengthening active European citizenship’, published by the Bertelsmann Foundation in 2018.

Céline Diebold, who was still working at the Bertelsmann Foundation at the time, and Dr Eileen Keller from Deutsch-Franz√∂sisches Institut Ludwigsburg (dfi) were responsible for the study. Unfortunately, the two authors were not able to attend today’s conference, so I will share some of the key findings from the study on their behalf. The study focused on German-French twinning partnerships, which constitute the majority of twinning partnerships established by German towns and municipalities. However, the key findings can also be applied directly to most other partnerships.

Foreign policy most commonly falls under the remit of national governments. At this level, it is characterised by many rules, high-table diplomacy and substantial bureaucracy.

However, towns and municipalities can also engage in foreign policy. This kind of ‘bottom-up’ foreign policy often takes the form of them entering into partnerships with other towns and municipalities. Bottom-up foreign policy is characterised by grassroots pragmatism. Delegations from the twin towns will visit each other annually or at other regular intervals. Associations from one town or municipality will visit similar associations in the other. Some twin towns might also establish a school exchange programme. Artists from one town can present their work in the other town. Or one city might help the other to build and operate important infrastructure, such as a school building. These are just some of the numerous ways in which a twinning partnership can be lived out.

Many twinning partnerships were established after 1945, i.e. after two devastating world wars. They were initially intended as peacekeeping projects. This was based on the idea that peace in Europe could be maintained by strengthening relationships and building friendships at local level.

Many twinning partnerships were also established when the Iron Curtain between western and eastern Europe fell. These were intended to contribute towards creating one undivided world and strengthening this unity. Many firm friendships were formed as a result.

But following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we now find ourselves in the midst of a crisis again. Like in 1945, twinning partnerships are becoming more important again as a potential tool for helping to maintain peace and rebuild destroyed towns. Ukrainian President Selensky recently suggested such partnerships as a way to reconstruct the bombed towns more quickly after the war. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen supported this suggestion, and she too believes that twinning partnerships could make a very valuable contribution after the war.

Peacekeeping has thus remained an important motivation for establishing twinning partnerships. But other reasons have also become increasingly important, such as creating new opportunities for the younger generation. That’s why the Council of European Municipalities and Regions is a supporter of Europe’s twinning partnerships. The CEMR said that ‘Twinning partnerships create strong relationships between the main decision-makers in local labour market policy throughout Europe. The people involved in twinning partnerships know and trust one another.’

 

There are many other reasons for forming friendships between towns, such as broadening horizons in general and reducing prejudice. You see – this is precisely why I consider intercontinental twinning partnerships to be so important: In light of how much prejudice still exists towards African or Asian cultures in many places, it would certainly benefit us to broaden our horizons by interacting with towns and municipalities in far-flung regions.

However, the reasons for establishing a twinning partnership are not always serious. Sometimes, it is merely because of the name: Bocholt in Germany maintains a partnership with Bocholt in Belgium, Soest in Germany with Soest in Holland, and Coburg in Germany with Coburg in Canada. And then there’s the French town of Y, the Dutch town of Ee and the Welsh town of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogoch – forgive me if I haven’t got the pronunciation quite right – which have formed partnerships between the European towns with the shortest names and those with the longest.

Twinning is generally seen as very important by local councils and local populations. Here you can see the attitudes of people in German and French towns. People in German towns attach slightly less importance to twinning partnerships than their French counterparts do. Nevertheless, the partnerships are still considered valuable. It would be very interesting to see what this graph would look like now after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I imagine the German bars would have risen somewhat.

As I said in my introduction, twinning is practised in many different ways. Please look closely at the bottom bars, as these are the most relevant to us at the ‘Back to Travel 2022’ conference.

 

In a twinning context, the most common activity is travel:

  • Going to festivals and events in twin towns
  • Public excursions to twin towns
  • Trips by official or unofficial delegations
  • School exchange programmes
  • Joint sports or music events also take place frequently

 

You can see that twinning’s potential for tourism should not be underestimated. It is also very important for this potential to be exploited continuously. Twinning partnerships are not short-lived endeavours. They are long-term projects. The relationships can evolve. A twinning partnership might look very different after 10 years than in its first year. But it builds on the experiences of the years gone by.

At the same time, it is important that activities between twin towns take place several times a year, if possible – whether they involve local councils, associations or schools. Many twin towns meet twice a year in different groups – for example, two meetings between local council representatives, two meetings between associations, two meetings between schools – and some get together even more often.

This is also an excellent expression of the sustainable nature of twinning partnerships.

This slide shows how many citizens visit the twin town during the course of a year. Without going into the detailed figures – they are probably difficult to read from a distance anyway – the two graphs show that there is a lot of travel in larger and smaller groups.

So, who is responsible for actively maintaining the twinning relationship and its diversity? Is it the local councils, which get saddled with more work as a result of the partnership? Or is it the associations, which keep the partnership ticking over in the background?

In actual fact, it is both: often, it is the local councils; somewhat less, the associations carry most of the burden; very often, the work is shared between the two. This is another very interesting finding from the study. It shows that citizens don’t just sit back and wait for the local council to serve them up an exciting programme. Rather, the local population tends to actively contribute to the relationship.

But an active relationship also requires a corresponding budget. However, these can be composed very differently. Here you can see the range of budgets for German-French twinning partnerships: The budgets start at a few thousand euros per year and go up to almost 100,000 euros.

 

I will cover the specific benefits of twinning partnerships in greater detail in my next presentation, and I will also show why we attach so much importance to a label for cosmopolitan communities. I would now like to say a few words about the sustainability of twinning partnerships.

One might assume that twinning partnerships are particularly active in the first few years, and that the degree of interaction gradually diminishes over time. But that is not the case. Among all the twinning partnerships examined in the Bertelsmann study, the intensity of the relationship remained constant for almost half of them and increased for around a fifth. For around 15 percent, there were big fluctuations over time. What is surprising is that the picture is the same regardless of when the twinning partnership was established. Only for around a fifth did the intensity of the relationship decrease over time. And the size of the towns does not play a role, either.

The survey shows a similar picture for whether the twin towns make an effort to develop or enhance the partnership. A minority of the towns surveyed were not interested in doing so. The majority, however, are constantly developing the partnership in different areas, mostly in terms of stepping up the interaction or extending the activities to other areas. Remember that our conference is called ‘Back to Travel’ – and this is certainly a place where people like to travel!

This brings us to the end of the first part of my presentation. So, what conclusions have been drawn from this study that we have taken on board at TCWTA?

 

  1. Partnerships are bridges to European and global neighbours. We at TCWTA actively support towns and municipalities that want to help build these bridges.
  2. Partnerships make it possible to experience Europe, other continents and the world.
  3. Twinning partnerships do not depend on the size of the town or municipality. Active partnerships are maintained by places of all sizes, from small towns to large cosmopolitan cities.
  4. Twinning is aimed at all social groups, whether mayors, association members or schoolchildren.
  5. Twinning partnerships create positive connections across national borders.
  6. Twinning partnerships increase cultural competence.

 

... and twinning partnerships boost travel. After all, as the old saying goes: ‘travel is the best education’. On this note, I now look forward to the second part of my presentation about our ‘Cosmopolitan Community’ label.