Town twinning grew after the Second World War, forging new friendships between old enemies as civil society crossed borders. Today, though, post-war memory has faded, while Brexit and Eurosceptic politics sow new divisions. Here in Wales, will town twinning stay relevant – or be relegated to the past?
“I can’t see a future for twinning as it currently is unless there’s a major change,” an Aberystwyth town councillor recently told the Cambrian News. Aberystwyth’s four-decade relationship with St-Brieuc in Brittany is in doubt after the twinning association – which gets locals involved – admitted struggling to attract members. Aberystwyth’s association is not alone. Dwindling numbers dog twinning. There’s even a new verb: ‘un-twinning’.
Rhys Dafydd Jones and I became interested in twinning during our research with Germans in Wales for the Horizon 2020 IMAJINE project. We found that Germans who chose to move to Wales – bringing their skills especially to our health, education and environmental sectors – had often first visited on exchange. To learn more about how cultural exchange connects Wales to the rest of Europe, we looked to our Breton neighbours.
Celtic connections have grown with the resurgence of Welsh language and identity. Since Cardiff first twinned with historically Breton Nantes in 1964, more than forty Welsh towns have found a Breton twin. In September, I travelled to Brittany to visit two of these: St-Brieuc, Aberystwyth’s twin, and Hennebont, which twinned with Mumbles in 2004.
In St-Brieuc, I learnt how twinning has helped facilitate exchanges from dance groups to sports clubs. A new initiative has given people with learning disabilities the opportunity to visit Wales in a safe, supportive group. In Hennebont, I learnt how twinning grows friendships, at home and abroad. Newcomers to the town especially valued the sense of welcome and belonging the association gave. Learning and practicing English was a common drawcard in both towns. As Hennebont association member Brigitte explained to me, the local residents who get involved in twinning “are curious and want to learn from other countries, discover other ways of life, and share their own way of living.”
Alas for rosy visions, the troubles of twinning in Wales echo across the Channel. French youngsters are just as likely as their Welsh equivalents to give association membership a miss. With budget airlines offering travel almost anywhere, visiting a twin town doesn’t make many ‘bucket lists’. Meanwhile, the greyer twinning turns, the fewer young people will see the appeal. Association leaders told me they worry about finding younger successors, and they know it takes new energy to keep connections alive.
We might blame social media for changing younger people’s patterns of participation, but bigger issues lurk. School exchanges, for example, have been a twinning mainstay, but as numbers of Welsh students enrolling into European language electives fall fast, many schools have cut classes. This does not bode well for twinning – or the Welsh Government’s new International Strategy. Are we inadvertently building an insular post-Brexit Wales?
If town twinning has had its day, some might think it doesn’t much matter. Twinning in Wales has been an easy target for austerity-era budget cuts, and an easy headline about council-funded ‘junkets’. The trouble with cuts to the cultural sector is that we often don’t realise what was there until its gone. Town twinning does need to change to fit the future. But Wales also needs to forge future connections to Europe, and civil society has a big role to play. After all, connection cannot live by Easyjet alone.