Belgium Uncomplicated: 'I am against cancel culture'

Belgium Uncomplicated: 'I am against cancel culture'
Brussels mayor Philippe Close

Belgian politics is at first glance an indecipherable labyrinth of different levels of governments and laws. But it does not have to be this way! Check back in regularly with The Brussels Times as we try to shine some light on matters.

In an attempt to help the uninitiated navigate such a complex system, we will be speaking regularly with politicians from the regional, national and European level. They will give us a taste of what they do and how their small piece fits into the bigger jigsaw puzzle that is Belgium. If there is a particular topic you would like us to put to those in power, get in touch!

Brussels Mayor Philippe Close has been in the job for five years. In his office on the Grand Place, the rugby-loving mayor explains what he thinks has changed in the Belgian capital during the pandemic, what his office is doing to help Ukrainian refugees and why freedom of speech is not a blank cheque for protestors to trash the city.

Ukrainian refugees continue to arrive in Western Europe due to Russia’s invasion of their country. What is your office doing to help with this crisis?

The first thing we've done is to organise a place to register those refugees. The Brussels Expo is one of those places and thankfully I am actually the chairman of the Expo's board, as it is managed by the city. We proposed to the federal government to use the Expo as a sort of Staten Island for Ukrainian refugees. We are also working with the region to find people places to stay and helping people with education, as many people who are arriving have children that need to go to school. 

Covid is the other crisis happening in the world. What do you think has changed most over the last two years? 

First of all, the feeling of solidarity, I think that has been really remarkable. Most people accepted the strict measures that we all needed, which our health service required. But there are also inequality challenges that have become worse. How we use public spaces has also changed. Those decisions are, first of all, not against cars, it's about finding a space where people who don't have their own space can go. Public gardens, for example, are for people who don't have their own garden.

What is the mayor's role in the debate over Belgium's colonial past?

I am against cancel culture but I think you need to recognise your responsibilities. To say that Leopold II was not the king of Belgium is totally ridiculous of course, but the recognition of our role in the assassination of Congo's first prime minister is also really important. It's why I decided along with the members of my council to dedicate a square to Patrice Lumumba at the entry to the Matongé neighbourhood. It is symbolic and recognises his special role.

When it comes to the statues of Leopold II, doing something for the Congolese people, for the diaspora in front or in the area around the statue, linked to the history of Belgium and Congo, is very important. I am all for a society that builds something for the future and doesn’t cancel the past. It's dangerous when you go down that road. When you're tasked with managing a city of 184 nationalities, you really need nuance and I'm always very careful with the cancel culture. 

What is your working relationship with other mayors in other countries, with Paris and Amsterdam, as well as London? It’s only two hours away by Eurostar but has Brexit changed the dynamic?

We are in contact with Anne Hidalgo in Paris, Femke Halsema in Amsterdam, Sadiq Khan in London. But the problem with London is indeed Brexit. So it is more and more difficult to maintain this link, especially when there is some event that the European Commission is organising, for example. But the UK left the EU, not Europe. It is important to show that UK citizens are very welcome in Brussels. Indeed, a lot of them choose to take Belgian nationality. This whole issue is very interesting, as I think that it is less and less about the relationship between states and more and more about the relationship between and with cities, citizens and culture.

Brussels residents for the most part seem to welcome initiatives such as the zone 30, more electric car charging and so on. But a lot of people also seem frustrated that these progressive ideas are undermined by a lack of enforcement of the rules. What can you do to help there?

It's really important to respect the rules. Indeed, in Belgium, the mayor is also chief of the police. Unfortunately, I think that we are sometimes more Latin than German in that regard! The best thing to do is make sure that the new generation is mindful about this information. They are much more ready to change than older generations, the pandemic proved that. Regarding the 30km/h zone, at the beginning there was this big storm of critics. Three months after it was introduced, who was talking about it? No one, because the point of this decision is to improve road safety, reduce injuries and deaths. Most people understand and respect that now. 

Brussels has seen a lot of protests in recent months, with many focusing on the government’s Covid health measures. Some have turned violent. You recently banned the so-called ‘freedom convoy’ from coming into the city. How was that decision made?

First of all, we are capital of freedom of speech. It's a very, very, very rare occurrence that I decide to say no to a demonstration. But in the Constitution it is very clear: you need to ask permission. We have more than 1,000 demonstrations every year here, most of which are not about Belgium. It's always a balance between the public order and freedom of speech. Protests with very strong messages are not a problem. But if you come here to break the city, then it's a problem. You will have a problem with me, with the police.

Take the anti-vax protests as an example: it's normal that people say no to or disagree with something, it's a democracy. I have no problem with the large part of the people who take part in that as they respect the rules of the demonstration. I don't share their views but it is not my responsibility to say that. The minority of people who decide to come here, to smash up buildings in the European quarter, to fight with the police, they will always have a problem with me.

You've been mayor since 2017. What do you consider your biggest success in your time in office or the thing you're proud of most?

I don't think too much about successes, maybe I'll do that when I'm retired! What I've tried to do though is propose to the inhabitants of Brussels a project for the city. The two most important things for me are education and health. The City of Brussels has one of the biggest networks of schools in Belgium and it is also one of the biggest management areas for hospitals. This project also involves the idea of a ten minute city and making sure that neighbourhoods have everything they need within a close proximity.

What we essentially are trying to do is make Brussels more attractive. More and more people decide to live in Brussels. Since the beginning of my mandate, more than 12,000 people have decided to live in the city; that's in just four years.

We have become one of the most international cities in the world with 184 nationalities, second only to Dubai. More and more people, especially expats, have decided to live in the centre and I am convinced that they have done so because they like the city, they have a special feeling about it. There are so many nationalities but I want to say to these people that first of all, you are an inhabitant of Brussels. My biggest success as mayor would be if all these international people would feel that themselves, feel like an inhabitant of this city rather than just someone who is just staying short-term.

Would you say that Brussels has become more welcoming under your watch?

Unfortunately, due to COVID, we haven't been able to organise some kind of reception. Firstly, I want to organise a welcome event for all those people that have decided to make the city their home, now that the pandemic is hopefully ending. Secondly, when it comes to registering, we know that we have a lot of problems - not for EU citizens - but for other citizens it is not very easy, because there are a lot of administrative problems to solve. Thirdly, what is very important for me is to convince everyone to vote. I am the first to file a proposition with the regional parliament saying that inhabitants should be able to vote in the regional elections. At the moment, it is just municipal elections. If people are able to vote at that level, it means they can change the future of their city.

Another important thing is this sort of confrontation between Belgians and the people who work for the European institutions in the city. We call them eurocrats, but that is not very positive. There is this feeling that there are walls between them and the rest of the city's inhabitants, between where they live, work, shop and so on. But we are one, as far as I am concerned. Part of the reason why Brussels is known all around the world is because it is the capital of 500 million European citizens. That is an asset for Brussels, having the seat of the EU here. World leaders like President Joe Biden come here for summits, it is all very important for the city's economy. It puts us on the map.

How does your role interact with other mayors? When I said to colleagues I was going to interview the mayor of Brussels, they said ‘which one?’!

There is only one: me! In the Constitution, there's only one capital and that is Brussels. But I am all about collaboration. In Belgium, the first thing you learn is that if you want to reach a goal, you need to cooperate. If you don't understand that and if you only try to fight with other people, it simply doesn't work. 


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