In 2006, Gerard Beukeveld declared the independence of a piece of land less than three thousand square meters in size — a sovereign state on an industrial area in Coevorden (the Netherlands). Support poured in, but in short order the battle intensified. A curious encounter with the founders.
Two men are standing in the living room of a terraced house in Huizen. The shorter one has a gray beard and a pen tucked into the breast pocket of his light blue shirt. He walks over to the kitchen on slippers, getting his guests something to drink. In the mean time, the other man settles down on the light brown suede couch. He has several pages worth of print-outs that he places in front of him on the coffee table. He wants to get started right away, but from the kitchen the host urges him to hold his tongue. ‘Let’s wait for Willem.’
It is a rainy weekday morning and at a glance you might mistake this for a monthly gathering of the board of the local bridge club. You couldn’t be more wrong: standing in this living room are the Regent and the Minister of Finance of EuroStaete, ‘the smallest mainland country in the world’.
‘Welcome to the epicenter of unwelcome questions,’ says Rob Brockhus (78) as he shuffles out of the kitchen with a cup of coffee. He sits down on the far end of the couch by the window and places his feet on a footstool, some dust dangling off his right sock. The gentlemen look at their visitor wearily. ‘I don’t trust the media,’ says Gerard Beukeveld (68), the Regent of EuroStaete, to which his minister nods. ‘Journalists are incapable of asking questions.’
Meeting up with these men was no easy feat: they live spread across the country and are quite occupied with their fight against the government, or the ‘robbing regime ’, as they prefer to call it — because this they know for certain: the government is a corrupt, fraudulent gang. ‘A criminal organization,’ Gerard hisses, peering through the window to see if Willem, their third companion, is showing up yet.
Nevertheless, they agreed to an interview, precisely because they believe the media is spreading so many falsehoods. They’re happy to repeat their story once more, doubtful as they may be that this journalist will understand their point of view. ‘We live in completely different worlds,’ says Gerard.
I myself had been hoping for a meeting with the founders of EuroStaete for quite some time. In recent years I’ve been traveling around the world as a journalist in search of unrecognized states, wondrous border regions and micro-nations. I wanted to understand what it is like to live in places whose status is contested, to put it mildly. Places the rest of the world might snicker at, but are dead serious to its inhabitants — often with a president of their own, a flag, an anthem. In areas like Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh and Northern Cyprus, I looked for stories of ordinary people: what impact do geopolitical shifts have on their everyday life? And in micro-nations like Christiania and Uzupis, I was curious about the current residents: did they also still believe in these utopias of yore?
All this time I presumed these wondrous border regions required distant travels to faraway places. After all, the borders of the Netherlands have been fixed for centuries, right? But reality turned out to be a lot more complex and, with that, more interesting: even now the delineation of our own national borders is disputed at several points, both by Germany and Belgium, and occasionally corrections are even issued. For example, Belgium and the Netherlands recently agreed to relocate a section of the border running through the Maas river near Eijsden — on January 1, 2018, Limburg grew twenty soccer fields in size.
But within our borders we even have a veritable micronation: EuroStaete, a filled ditch on an industrial estate in Coevorden, right on the border between the Netherlands and Germany. In 2006 Gerard Beukeveld proclaimed the ‘sovereign state of Beukeveld’ here, at which point a battle broke out with the municipality and project developers. In the mean time, the area attracted idealists from far and wide, who hoped to realize their dreams of freedom and autonomy here.
Yet this place does not in the least resemble the micronations in Copenhagen and Vilnius, where leftist activists squatted a piece of the city and tried to implement their utopian ideas. Nor does it have much in common with the ad hoc micronations that arise in the minds of artists or students with playful ideas but no physical location, which usually disappear again before they are even truly established.
EuroStaete may be uninhabited, but it’s definitely on the map, even if the place doesn’t at first glance capture your imagination. Its contours are shaped like a loop, right across a piece of no man’s land - less than six meters wide and 485 meters long. I have gazed at this loop, on the border between the Netherlands and Germany, endlessly. The fact that it has been the site of a fifteen-year confrontation between bureaucrats and freebooters is hard to imagine. What is driving these people?
‘There’s nothing more satisfying than tackling them on their own errors’, says Gerard Beukeveld in the living room in Huizen. Triumphantly, he thinks back to the early days, when he decided to declare the independence of the area between boundary posts 142 and 144. He had been running into issues with the government for years, but his troubles really took off in 2006, when he failed to reach an agreement with the municipality of Coevorden on the price of the plots of land that were being expropriated for the arrival of an industrial estate. One of the three plots consisted of the drained ditch. ‘The German notary said, “There is no ditch there”’, Gerard recalls. ‘But that ditch couldn’t be found in the land register of the Netherlands either.’ So then this farmer’s son from Drenthe had a clever hunch: how can one expropriate a piece of land if it’s neither recognized by Germany nor by the Netherlands?
Admittedly, it was a bit of a bluff at first. Gerard traveled to the National Archives in The Hague three times, in search of historical sources that would confirm his theory about the territory. On his third try he struck gold: a tract from 1824 on which the ditch was explicitly described as territory of the Kingdom of Hannover. He had never heard of tracts before, but he was convinced that he now had the ultimate proof. On the train back he called his sister Gretha, one year his senior: ‘I’ve got it!’
But the municipality of Coevorden had a very different version of the truth, and soon the battle hardened. That industrial estate simply had to be built, and the so-called sovereign state was a thorn in the side of the municipality. Letters started piling up: his theory didn’t make any sense, this land had long been expropriated, including the piece that he had declared independence on. In the meantime, a contractor went ahead and started building a road through the new Europark, right across the Beukeveld family’s filled ditch.
Gerard did not leave it at that. Letters? He could write those too. ‘Dear Prime Minister Balkenende’, he wrote on September 25, 2006, followed by an extensive account full of references to laws, treaties and dates, all supported by pictures and attachments that were meant to back up his story.
His tone hardened suddenly when, on the third page, he described how the municipality had cut down two of his oak trees and was continuing its work on his property unhindered. ‘To date, I have exercised extreme restraint with regards to the municipality of Coevorden,’ he wrote. ‘The municipality of Coevorden has once again taken enormous advantage of this by using violence, provocation and by destroying and stealing my belongings. You should understand that my patience is now exhausted and that, on the basis of self-defense, I will also resort to violence the next time they violate the law.’
‘I will blow up the sewers’
To substantiate his threat, he described his plans explicitly. ‘This means that I will firstly blow up the illegally constructed sewers on my territory. For this purpose I will import powdered sugar from Germany and fertilizer from the Netherlands and mix it up on my estate. Standing on the Three Country Point in the Netherlands, Germany and Beukeveld, this mixture will be brought to ignition through electronic means.’
He also hinted at an opportune moment: two days after the letter’s posting. ‘The afternoon of September 27, 2006 seems like a good occasion to practice. At that time, a large number of high-ranking officials will be present at the Europark in Coevorden to sign contracts. There will be no shortage of visitors.’
The police didn’t wait long: the day after Gerard sent his letter, a couple of officers showed up on his doorstep. At the very same moment, the Europark building site was being cleared and the sewers investigated. Here’s the thing: the issuer of this letter wasn’t just a farmer’s boy and self-proclaimed head of state of the sovereign state of Beukeveld, but also a clinical chemist, in charge of the laboratory of the hospital of Hoorn. The fact that he hadn’t meant it all so seriously, that he had mainly written those paragraphs to ramp up the pressure, seemed to fall on deaf ears. Threatening acts of terror can cost you dearly.
A court case ensued. Gerard’s argument that a Dutch court had no authority over the sovereign state of Beukeveld was firmly rejected by the judge: ‘You sent the letter from Hoorn and therefore from within the Netherlands, to the prime minister of the Netherlands. In the letter you clearly issue a threat to blow something up and that is a punishable offense in the Netherlands. Also, I do not recognize the state of Beukeveld. There is no justification for what you have done,’ the judge replied, according to a news report in the Coevorder Courant. Gerard was sentenced to one hundred hours of community service and a probationary prison sentence of one month.
‘This was more or less the moment that Gretha and I understood that we needed some help’, says Gerard in the living room in Huizen. Because as far as they were concerned, the battle was far from over. The Beukeveld family would never give up their plot of land — at this point, that had become a matter of principle for them. But Gerard did not want to give up his full-time job as a chemist on the other side of the country, and his sister did not have the time to continue their fight against the municipality on her own. What if they gathered some people around them? In the months before the verdict, plenty of sympathizers had reached out, and the court case had generated a lot of extra publicity.
‘I was there from the start,’ says Rob Brockhus, not without a hint of pride. For twenty-five years he has dedicated his life to raising awareness of miscarriages of justice in society, about which he publishes flaming speeches on his personal website. The injustice inflicted on Gerard did not leave him indifferent, and moreover, he saw how this new, independent state, presented the opportunity to organize matters in an entirely different way. He soon presented himself as a supporter in the battle for the small piece of land on the industrial estate near Coevorden.
A car slows to a halt in front of the living room in Huizen. ‘That’ll be him,’ says Gerard, gesturing at the window. Rob gets up and walks to the front door. They only met Willem Sikkink (63) a year ago, but in him they turned out to have found a good ally when it comes to aversion to everything related to the government. Even before the host has taken his coat, Willem is telling me about how the government has been out to get not only him, but also his son. ‘Now I’ve had it’, he says imploringly. ‘Now it’s war.’
Pain in the ass
He plops down on the couch next to Gerard. Behind them hangs a painting of three voluptuous women on the beach, one in a bathing suit, the other two are scantily-clad in bikinis. ‘We’re a pain in the ass for the government,’ Rob says as he shuffles to the kitchen to get some coffee. And precisely because they distrust everything to do with ‘the system’ so much, they prefer to take the wheel themselves. ‘We want to show people that things can be better,’ says Gerard. ‘And more beautiful. If we take things into our own hands, we won’t need the government and the banks anymore.’
Now that Willem has arrived, the men tumble over one another with litanies on the state, the police, the media and the world of finance. According to the comrades, everything is part of a global conspiracy, and both science and business are full of falsehoods: anyone willing to ask the right questions will understand that. Willem even refuses to pour any sugar into his coffee - he doesn’t fall for that kind of thing anymore. Does Rob have any honey, maybe?
In the period following the court case, Gerard and his sister Gretha decided to rename their little plot of land EuroStaete. ‘With a capital S in the middle, and staete written with “ae”,’ the man from Drenthe says, self-satisfied. ‘Pretty fancy, isn’t it?’ He designed a flag himself: the European blue flag with twelve yellow stars in a circle, and one yellow star in the middle. That star, of course, was to represent EuroStaete: a new state in the heart of Europe, with seven billion outhabitants. ‘If you include Iceland, EuroStaete is exactly in the middle of our continent,’ Gerard claims. An artist designed a currency, the guldenmarke, and Beethoven’s Ode an die Freude was to be the national anthem - the idea of brotherhood immediately appealed to the founders.
In 2010 the country was officially proclaimed, with a festive Independence Day in the middle of the industrial area near Coevorden. Meanwhile, dozens of people had already registered as ‘EuroStaeter’, and in founding meetings Rob Brockhus had made himself indispensable as the future Minister of Finance. They presented plans of a grand scale: there was to be a casino, tax-free stores, a bartering-based economy. In EuroStaete people would live in freedom, surrounded by wealth, prosperity and happiness. And all that on a damp piece of land with a acreage of less than three thousand square meters, recognized by no one else.
In the short, experimental documentary Dit is hoe een land ontstond by Harko Wubs (2012), we see how father Willem Beukeveld - who retained the title ‘king, emperor, admiral’ in this new country - plants a beech tree from his wheelchair by the side of the road. It is a bleak but joyful day on which, under the cover of a party tent, attendees sing Beethoven’s hymn aloud and the first out-of-state residents who have paid their dues are officially presented with a certificate. The organization has erected a yurt on the grounds that is to serve as an embassy in the following period.
But it is precisely on this Independence Day that the first cracks begin to show. ‘Would you mind telling everyone out loud that you are now handing over this land to EuroStaete?’ asks Theo Lalleman in front of the rolling camera. The artist from Rotterdam has taken on the coordination of the day. He sees countless possibilities for this new state, and with his red scarf and big smile he looks at Beukeveld, who grows visibly uncomfortable. ‘I’m not handing it over to EuroStaete, it is and remains EuroStaete’, Gerard answers cryptically, after which he tries to deflect with a joke.
‘He ruined my whole day with that,’ Gerard growls from the sofa in Huizen. ‘Your country doesn’t even exist yet and they’re already trying to wrest it away from you.’ Things quickly soured between the two men. ‘The definition of dictatorship is a form of government where one person imposes his will on all others’, says Theo Lalleman in an interview with documentary maker Harko Wubs. ’At that point I wrote a letter saying that, under these conditions, I won’t participate anymore, I’m getting out of this. Well, in return I got a dismissal letter.’
The fact that the men fell out at such an early stage is not unusual when establishing a micronation: as soon as people have skin in the game, views on the next course of action often prove to be irreconcilable. Recently, this dictum proved itself yet again in Liberland, the micronation proclaimed in 2015 on a piece of no man’s land between Serbia and Croatia. The country now has its own first official dissident. ‘I want a Liberland for everyone, whereas Vít (Vít Jedlička, the founder and president - JH) wants to make it a mini-state for a select elite club,’ says the Dutch dissident Yoshi Livo in an article in De Groene Amsterdammer. According to him, the founder has accepted half measures by not physically living in Liberland. ‘If you want a constitution, you need land. Virtual existence is not enough.’
‘Theo wanted to determine far too much,’ says Gerard. ‘For example, he wanted to replace the star in our flag with a four-leaf clover, he even made stamps of it. And he wanted to invent an anthem. I told him: “Theo, we already have an anthem”’ Rob Brockhus shakes his head. He also found it hard to swallow that the artist from Rotterdam wanted to be reimbursed for his expenses. ‘Money doesn’t interest us at all,’ the Minister of Finance stresses. Unfortunately, I can no longer ask the artist how he looks back on the episode: he passed away in 2016. Trouw published an obituary in which he was praised as the founder of EuroStaete. Gerard sighs. ‘I told you the media are unreliable, didn’t I?’
It was an important lesson for the men: in this life, people you can trust are few and far between. They agreed to keep the club small from here on out. But in the years since new freebooters sought them out, people enthralled by the piece of no man’s land in Drenthe. For Gerard it was a tough dilemma: he didn’t want to accept any new figures of authority in EuroStaete, but his microstate could use some fresh faces. After a while he found the solution: he would give away patches of land of ten by ten meters to a few solid people. Thus, the Federation of Sovereign Nations was born.
This certainly brought new life to the place. In 2015, the Free State of Wonderland was proclaimed, “a country for the sovereign man”, once again with its own flag and currency. The founders showed up on the area with a caravan and tent and reached the national news, but in short order they too came to realize that the municipality did not appreciate their occupation of this territory and had to shut the operation down. One of them was Yoshi Livo, who proceeded to leave for Liberland.
‘Things didn’t go smoothly with Wonderland either’, says Gerard, but he doesn’t want to disclose much about it. What he does want to emphasize is that he still owns most of his territory. ‘I have now given away a hundred square meters to eight people, so there are still two thousand square meters left for EuroStaete. I am and will remain the legal and technical owner of that area.’ He and his minister hope to continue living in peace with the owners of the stamp-sized patches of land. ‘I don’t understand why conflicts arise between countries,’ says Rob. ‘The Russians, Americans, the Chinese: why are they arguing with each other? Surely everyone can just work together?’
This article was made with the support of the Steunfonds Freelance Journalisten. It originally appeared in the Dutch literary magazine De Revisor. Translation: Alma Apt.