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Brussels bids farewell to the UK in a celebration of all things British
There were mutterings of black armbands being worn to the Brexit farewell event Brussels Calling organised by the city of Brussels on Thursday evening.
But as the grey drizzle petered out, an afterwork crowd of sad, albeit jovial Brits and sympathisers assembled in the Grand Place on the eve of the UK’s exit from the EU.
“It’s rather sweet”, said Tim Reynolds, vice chair of the Brussels British Community Association (BBCA), who was pleased to see the large turnout. And how was he feeling about the UK’s departure, three and a half years after the referendum? “I’ve not taken Belgian nationality, but I feel I’m ok at the moment. However, I know lots of people who are steaming, upset and angry.”
As regards the future for Britons or Belgo-Britons, he thought that Belgium had enough to worry about on its own political front. “We merge in and are quite inconspicuous,” pointed out Reynolds.
Another Briton, resident in Belgium for 40 years and in possession of a Belgian passport, welcomed the closure that signaled the UK’s exit on 31 January. He had also found it easier to accept the referendum decision since December’s general election increasing the British government’s majority. “The people have spoken,” he said.
Despite misgivings by many, the Brussels Calling get-together turned out to be a rather charming affair. The medieval facades of the Grand Place were resplendently lit up in red, white and blue, Celtic music entertained passers-by and iconic British symbols such as a red telephone box, black London cab and pipe bands adorned the ancient square.
Two Queen’s Guards statues – topped with bearskin busby hats - suitably flanked the entrance to the City Hall. In its magnificent courtyard, an orderly queue began forming for the evening reception, complete with an open bar and British-themed refreshments. Brussels mayor Philippe Close invited the British community to the prestigious Gothic Hall to celebrate and honour the city’s long friendship with the UK.
There was not room for everyone. As security closed the doors, flag-bearing Brits sought consolation by being swooped on for interviews by the world’s press.
Inside, the mayor welcomed the audience in English, recalling the long history that linked Brussels, Belgium and the UK, from the Battle of Waterloo to the 250,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who died in the fields of Flanders during World War One, “we will forever remember their ultimate sacrifice,” and the Welsh Guards who liberated Brussels in 1944.
He underlined Brussels’ openness to the world, saying it belonged to the people who made up the identity of the city, whatever their national origin. “Our friend John Bull will always find a warm welcome here.”
On a personal note, the rugby fan and former player pointed out that he would be attending the Six Nations France-England game in Paris on Saturday, but promised that he would “be neutral in the matter, just as Belgium has been neutral for a long time in its policies between Great Powers”.
Turning directly to the British ambassador Martin Shearman, Close said: “Long live the friendship that unites Brussels with the United Kingdom."
He concluded: "And if you ask me to comment on current events, I will simply reply by making my own this elementary truth of the Monty Python: "A wise man, one day, says nothing".”
Ambassador Shearman, speaking in English, French and Dutch, thanked the city for celebrating the friendship between Brussels and the UK. He said that the British felt at home after 47 years in the European union.
Having arrived in Brussels in the summer of 2019, he added: “Getting to know the city over those six or seven months has been a real discovery for me. The great historical buildings and monuments such as this town hall and the Grand Place are of course wonderful, and the history of Brussels is rich and fascinating. But Brussels is far more than that. It is a vibrant city full of life, diversity and charm.”
The ambassador also drew on history in stating his belief that the long relationship between the two countries would continue to thrive, recalling that his predecessor Sir Thomas Edmonds had served as a messenger of peace in Belgium on behalf of Elizabeth I.
Welcoming the positive speeches, Glenn Vaughan, advisor to the British Chamber of Commerce in Belgium, thought that mayor Close had adopted the “right tone and message”.
As for the chamber, “we’ve been here for 120 years and we’re looking forward to the next 120 years,” he said.