Although Brussels is widely known as the capital of Europe, it also holds the distinction as the world’s second most cosmopolitan city in the world, right after Dubai. We are a global city, and we take that responsibility seriously.
Our capital is unique in its public space and architecture, its policy and politics, its cuisine, its art and, most importantly, its people. I have seen Brussels change tremendously over the years. As a politician, I have been lucky enough to launch several positive changes across the city.
When I try to imagine how Brussels will look in the future, I think of what will benefit people in the long run. In my previous mandate, I helped redesign public spaces so there is more room to walk, to meet, to bike, for kids to play, and for everyone to just live pleasantly. It was in this spirit that I encouraged dialogue on the decolonisation of public spaces in Brussels.
This is not a new topic. Every so often, there is a debate on the notorious equestrian statue of King Leopold II near the Royal Palace. Indeed, there are hundreds of monuments, statues and symbols across the city and the country.
In 2020, after years of talking, it was time for a serene debate on the city’s colonial past. As State Secretary for Urbanism and Heritage, I proposed that the Brussels government should set up a working group to help our community face its horrible colonial past once and for all. Indeed, I wanted to go further. I wanted to make the public space and the symbols in it more pleasant for the people of Brussels – the Brusselers – and visitors.
Decolonisation is a touchy subject for many people, so it was very important to have a well-balanced and diverse working group. With the help of cabinet advisors and administration officials, we managed to do that. We issued an open call through the urban.brussels portal so any person with an interest in the matter could apply. The administration selected the candidates in September 2020 and the working group on the decolonisation of public space had its first meeting at the end of November 2020.
There are 20 people in the working group, representing different ages, cultural backgrounds, academic and artistic expertise. As for their working methods, I made it clear that they should decide for themselves how they wanted to see their meetings and their report through to its conclusion in December 2021. The group is autonomous: each proposal in the final report should be considered fully and executed as completely as possible by the Brussels government.
This will be a challenge. Some monuments, statues and buildings are not the property of the Brussels government. This is the case for the Lever House next to the Congress Column, which belongs to the Wallonia-Brussels Federation. The equestrian statue of Leopold II, sculpted by Thomas Vinçotte, was funded by many contributors: there are over 20 pages in the Brussels city archives on the ownership, with more than 10 names on each page. The maintenance of the statue is done by the Brussels city authorities when there are paint or graffiti marks on it every so often.
The decolonisation of the public spaces in Brussels is just one of many steps in the process of building a more, inclusive society in Brussels – as well as in Belgium as a nation. We still have a long way to go. One key area is education: we need to take a long, hard look at how Belgium’s colonial history is taught at schools. Children are our future: we must teach them our history, good and bad.
As for our colonial legacy, we need to confront it and learn the lessons that still resonate today. That is what this decolonisation means. Only by looking honestly and openly at the past can we build a better society for everyone.