Sønderjylland-Schleswig, 100 Years of Successful Cross-Border Cooperation

Sønderjylland-Schleswig is a cross-border region in Denmark and Germany. I have lived in the Danish side, in the city for Aabenraa, for a year, and the level of integration between both parts was always interesting to me. Therefore, the following text will include my perceptions, as a foreign, focusing in the ‘Danish perspective’ of integration.

The Sønderjylland-Schleswig region, consisting of the South of Denmark and North of Germany, has been through two nineteenth-century wars, between Prussians/Austrians and Denmark. In the aftermath of the Second Schleswig War, in 1864, after being defeated, Denmark had to give up its Southern duchies of Schleswig and Holstein – about a fifth of its territory – to Prussia and Austria. After World War I, based on the Treaty of Versailles, the Allied forces pushed for a plebiscite in the former Danish territories, on whether they would like to return to Denmark, or to remain in Germany. The plebiscite divided the areas into two ‘zones’, out of which, zone I chose to return to Denmark.

King Christian X, then, welcomed the region back to the Denmark in a popular party, riding a white horse. This is an image which, until nowadays, is very present in the region and consists part of the Danish national identity.

The region of Sønderjylland-Schleswig is a great example of European regional integration. With exact hundred years past, nowadays, there are, officially, about 15.000 members of the German minority in Southern Denmark (called Sønderjylland, or in English, Southern Jutland), and about 50.000 Danes in the German side. In Sønderjylland, German culture is still very vivid and appreciated. For instance, the region provides the option for students to follow their studies either in Danish or German schools, and there are also kindergartens, libraries and associations. German language is still widely understood, especially among older generations. There is also a political party, the Schleswig Party, representing Germans in Southern Jutland. In the media, the minority is represented mainly by a few newspapers exclusively in German language, as Der Nordschleswiger.

In my view as an outsider, aspects of both cultures, instead of co-existing heterogeneously, they are rather homogeneous; as if it is a unique Danish-German local culture. It is almost as if, assimilation, in the last 100 years, went well enough for certain apparent cultural differences to become little relevant, and become part of a unique regional culture.

The same applies to sports; in certain occasions, it happens that citizens have their favourite teams in the other side of the border. There are cultural venues, e.g. theatres, museums, are also common. The presence of German culture is easily pointed out in Southern Jutland; and knowledge about such aspects are widespread within the Danish majority. In my view as an outsider, aspects of both cultures, instead of co-existing heterogeneously, they are rather homogeneous; as if it is a unique Danish-German local culture. It is almost as if, assimilation, in the last 100 years, went well enough for certain apparent cultural differences to become little relevant, and become part of a unique regional culture.

With the implementation of the Schengen area, and consequent increasing of movements of people between Northern Germany and Southern Denmark, as it did throughout the EU, heavily contributed to the strengthening of regional cooperation. Every day, about 15.000 people cross the German-Danish border for work. For Danes in the South, it is very popular to go to Germany for groceries, or simply to spend the day in Flensborg, a bigger city than the majority of cities in Southern Jutland. Moreover, the Hamburg airport offers an alternative for flying than Copenhagen. Whereas regional integration of the region is a reality, cooperation maintains it. The “Sønderjylland-Schleswig Regional Office” was established in 1997. Among its tasks, protecting rights of minorities in both sides, providing framework conditions for citizens for developments in collaboration and to promote cultural cohesion. The office consists of policy makers of both regions, alternating the chair.

Within Denmark, Sønderjylland is regarded as a differentiated region of the country, for its cultural particularities. Many Danes, in the self-perceived ‘centres’ of the country (Copenhagen, Århus, Odense), consider it distant of their realities, and many are not even aware on current events in this region, even though it is in a small country’s context. Copenhageners often make fun of their Danish accent – full of exclusively used expressions -, called Sønderjysk. The popular greeting, “mojn”, is associated by many as countryside vocabulary, in comparison to ‘hej’ or ‘goddag’ in ‘standard’ Danish. To be clear, in the Danish context, such differentiations are, in a wide majority of cases, not discriminatory – they are rather national stereotypes. But in practice, they enable to detect a sufficient cultural distinction in Sønderjylland.

In fact, this region has a rich history, which explains its unique local characteristics. Its return to Denmark through the plebiscite and successful integration of the German minority into the “Sønderjysk” perspective already represents a great story of cultural integration. Moreover, the high-level partnership with the Schleswig region in Germany benefits citizens from both countries, including their respective minorities. This way, the Sønderjylland-Schleswig region becomes, more and more integrated, in a successful case of efficient cross-border cooperation.

Guilherme Ursini