Early into lockdown, French friends I met while researching Welsh-Breton town twinning emailed with the news that they were cancelling their summer exchange to Wales. Members from both towns had been planning the trip for months. The Welsh cakes were already on standby. But now no-one knows when (or if) there might be another town twinning trip. Could COVID-19 spell the end for town twinning?
When I first wrote about town twinning for a WISERD research report , COVID-19 had not yet seen borders closed and flights grounded across Europe. But twinning associations were already struggling. More cheap travel and fewer school language enrolments had turned twinning exchanges passé. New members had long dwindled, while dedicated leaders aged. Austerity brought accusations of council-funded ‘junkets’. Brexit brought fears of growing further apart. The pandemic might prove the final straw – but I would like to think otherwise.
I would like to think otherwise because international travel routes are only physical connections. Flights and ferries don’t make friendships – people do, and town twinning has always been about connecting civil society across borders. The movement grew in the aftermath of the Second World War as a grassroots way to overcome division and find commonalities. There is hope and heart in that, worth remembering.
Of course, the war has been remembered during the pandemic, with plenty of ‘Blitz spirit’ from politicians. But division is back, too. We’ve learnt to associate rising infections with certain places, and fear can make it all too easy to confuse the virus with ‘other’ people. Re-connecting with each other will need to be as much a part of our recovery as reviving the economy.
Just as we should revisit the solidarity behind town twinning, we might remember that twinning comes from an era when most people did not regularly travel abroad. When Welsh-Breton links started growing in the 1970s, the main way to cross the Channel was by ferry, with long drives either side. Twinning connections celebrated shared Celtic heritage, not because it was easy to visit each other, but because it was hard.
COVID-19 has already reminded us that we’ve come to take travel for granted. Predicted drops in carbon emissions from cancelled flights tell a stark story of our unsustainable travel habits. Closer to home, over-crowded beaches and dumped litter are surely signs that too many of us have too little care for the places we visit. Re-thinking the ways we travel has been long overdue. While the hurry to re-start tourism is economically necessary, for the well-being of our planet and our communities, we also need to travel more consciously.
Town twinning exists to forge genuine connections between people and places. Those are ingredients to value and learn from. I don’t want to be sentimental: town twinning needs new life and the movement’s future will not look like its past. But as we learn to live with pandemic (and, shortly, Brexit) border controls, perhaps we might look again at those little flags on our municipal ‘Croeso’ signs – signs that our here is connected to somewhere else, and by more than supply chains or cheap flights.
"We’re thinking of you", my friends wrote from Brittany. I’m thinking of them, too. And sending Welsh cakes.
On the 19th of August, Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins will be speaking as part of an online ‘Café Europa’ panel discussion on Twinning to Rebuild European Connections, hosted by the Hampshire European Movement.