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Observers watch with interest as President Biden visits Brussels

US President Joe Biden gets down the steps as he leaves his aircraft Air Force One, at the arrival of the President of The United States of America at the military airport in Melsbroek, Steenokkerzeel, Sunday 13 June 2021. US President Biden is in Belgium to attend international summits. BELGA PHOTO POOL DIDIER LEBRUN
06:33 14/06/2021

Joe Biden arrived in Belgium on Sunday ahead of the Nato summit which will take place on Monday and Tuesday. As well as attending the summit, the US president will also meet King Philip during his stay.

What else Biden chooses to do while here remains a closely guarded secret. Observers are already wondering whether he will stick strictly to protocol or – as a few of his predecessors have done in the past – deviate from his programme.

Some American presidents have not hesitated to loosen the shackles of security in a bid to get as close as possible to people and attractions of Brussels.

While it is possible that Joe Biden may choose to indulge a few personal wishes while in Belgium, it is less likely that he will follow Bill Clinton’s example and go jogging in the Bois de la Cambre at 5.30 in the morning.

During his visit in January 1994, Clinton and his presidential entourage stayed at the former Conrad Hotel on Avenue Louise. In fact, the delegation booked 200 of the 269 rooms.

The location was ideal for the 42nd president of the United States who, on the morning of his first full day in the capital, decided to go for an early run in the nearby park.

While Clinton had informed his bodyguards of his plans, as they would be accompanying him on his run, it came as something of a surprise to the Brussels police who had to quickly scramble patrol cars to the hotel when informed to provide an escort to the entrance to the park. "An unforeseen event," as a chief inspector of the Brussels police admitted at the time.

It was not the only time Clinton strayed from the official itinerary and caused his security detail a headache. After visiting the town hall to meet then-mayor Michel Demaret and deliver a speech on the theme of peace and youth, the president decided to go out onto the Grand Place to shake hands with the public before going to the Vieux Saint-Martin restaurant on the Place du Grand Sablon to have a coffee.

He later remembered an antique toy store near the Grand Place which he had visited when he was governor of Arkansas. Back in 1994, the store - La Trottinette – still existed and Clinton went back to the shop on Rue des Eperonniers to buy an old metal toy car, while a friend he was with bought a cardboard mask dating back to the 1920s. “I gave him a small, enamelled brooch, in Belgian colours, which seemed to interest him,” the manager told Le Soir at the time. “He immediately pinned it to the lapel of his jacket."

Before leaving Belgium, Clinton also visited Dinant to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death of local inventor and musician Adolphe Sax. A keen saxophonist, Clinton was given one of the instruments as a gift during his visit to the hometown of the man who created it. Clinton returned to Belgium two more times, in 1996 and 1999.

A few years after Clinton left office, his successor George Bush Jr. visited to attend the Nato summit and meet King Albert in June 2001. The president, accompanied by Laura Bush, took time out of their official schedule to stop at Mary's, an artisanal chocolatier whose main shop is located on Rue Royale. It is said the shop had been recommended to Bush Jr. by his father.

After only three hours advance warning, which the shop’s boss Michel Boey called “highly unusual”, the presidential couple arrived and chatted easily with employees before President Bush tasted some pralines. Staff recalled that President Bush was very interested and asked about their work before admitting he was a supporter of businesses that sold homemade and artisanal products. President Bush and his wife left the shop after buying a box of 66 pralines.

Bush met prime minister Guy Verhofstadt during his visit and presented him with a cycling shirt from American cyclist Lance Armstrong, who had by that time already won two Tours de France.

The president would return to Brussels in 2005 but his second visit would be very different to the first. Bush arrived in a post-9/11 climate, at a time when the US was involved in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the threat of terrorism was high.

Bush and his wife would not enjoy as much freedom as they had done four years earlier and even some of their planned visits were cancelled on security grounds. The heightened security put immense pressure on the Brussels police, but the quality of its work was recognised by the presidential delegation which stated at the time that they were “the best police in the world”.

Other presidents, such as Nixon and Carter, took time to meet the public during their visits to Brussels but did not stray too far from their official duties.

President Obama, during his March 2014 visit, also kept closely to the official itinerary during his one-day visit but was given some latitude. His speech at Bozar at the end of his marathon day of events was attended by some 2,000 people, not all of them dignitaries. Members of the public were also allowed to attend. He immediately endeared himself to the audience by greeting them from the stage of the Great Hall Henry Leboeuf with "bonsoir" and "goeienavond" before telling them that “it is difficult not to like a country known for its chocolates and beers".

Written by Nick Amies


Frank Lee

I took a walk in the city this mornin, going around barricaded streets, barbed wire, police checkpoints. All those presidents and prime ministers see of Brussels is the interior of a posh hotel and the inside of a limousine. Then you wonder why they are so out of touch with the lives of ordinary citizens.

Jun 14, 2021 15:44