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The hatchet man: Jean Quatremer interviewed

15:28 24/05/2013
Pity the foreigner who has the gall to criticise Brussels, however objectively, however noble his motives. This is exactly what happened last month when Jean Quatremer, Libération’s European affairs correspondent, wrote a two-page article called Bruxelles Pas Belle, in which he settles a few scores with the city which has been his main workplace for two decades. His assessment of the European capital’s shortcomings in the fields of architecture, cleanliness and town planning took no prisoners, nor did his position on Brussels’ European stature. The reaction was immediate, causing a tidal wave of reactions on Twitter and Facebook, as well as in the Belgian media and at the Brussels regional government, where a crisis meeting was called. While many internet users were quick to praise Quatremer’s candidness, others took great pleasure in pointing out to the Frenchman that if he didn’t like it here, he knew where the door was.

Loath though we are to blow our own trumpet, we at The Bulletin remembered that, back in the early 1970s, we called for a “citizen picnic” on the –not-yet-pedestrianised Grand Place, the purpose of which was to show the authorities how out of touch they were in allowing this glorious square to be used as a car park. It goes to show that an outsider’s view can be more influential than an insider’s analysis. We decided to have a chat with this man who had, too, dared to tell Brussels that, well, not everything was all right.

Did you expect such a deluge of passionate reactions to your article?

I wasn’t not expecting it. Firstly, no one likes being criticised by an outsider, let alone a foreigner. Moreover, I come from another journalistic culture. In French-speaking Belgium, journalists are extremely cautious, to the extent that sometimes they actually kill a story by not reporting it too much. All the facts and figures in my Libération piece are to be found in the Belgian press. But to present these facts from a certain angle in a hard-hitting style is something you wouldn’t have in French-speaking Belgian media. There is no culture of aggressive, provocative journalism here. The blander the article, the better.

Did the fact that you’re French make it worse?

It played a major part. I’m not sure that a similar article published in, say, the Guardian or the New York Times would have had the same effect. Maybe in Flanders. Whereas the Flemish, thanks to their language skills, are open to many international media, French-speakers are, by default, tuned to French media. But to many French-speaking Belgians, the French are automatically arrogant and domineering. This is a classic complex that one country often has towards a “big brother”.

There were few lukewarm reactions to your article: half the people applauded your irreverence, while the other half thought you were out to ‘get’ Brussels…

The split was closer to 80-20, I would say. The 80% consisted of people who said to me “Finally! Someone has at last dared to say something without pussyfooting.” Then there was 10% polite criticism, and 10% insults. The majority of insults came from politicians and from the French-speaking media. This was rather weird; it was like the elite had felt it was being questioned and criticised. It was as if highlighting the lack of architectural cohesion in a city called into question the ability of its elected politicians. Maybe it does – their kneejerk reactions would suggest that it is a sore point. That some of the reactions were unexpectedly violent – one politician even insulted me on Twitter – is because my article was perceived as an attack on the general competence of the ruling elite.

Still, saying that “Brussels doesn’t deserve Europe” is a bit harsh, maybe?

No it isn’t. Look – take Brussels Midi. I’m not even going to discuss its aesthetic merits, especially compared to St Pancras, but seriously: it says Brussels-Midi in French and Dutch, but nowhere does it say that Brussels is the Capital of Europe. Where are the billboards, the signs proudly proclaiming “Welcome to the Capital of Europe”?! Try to spot one European flag before you get to the European quarter – you won’t. Brussels, which owes so much to Europe, basically doesn’t care about Europe. Take the train to Strasbourg, and you will see European flags everywhere, the city proudly boasting that it’s one of its capitals.

Another example: Brussels’ European quarter straddles three communes. No one ever thought to create a new commune of the Brussels Region, consisting solely of the European district, which could have, among other things, guaranteed architectural cohesion. Instead, you have absurd situations like the maintenance of the Leopold Park, which is the remit of three communes. Europe isn’t thought through, let alone integrated in Brussels – worse, it is willingly ignored. One Brussels politician called me, on Twitter, an “arrogant Eurocrat”. For a start, I’m not a Eurocrat, I’m a journalist – I don’t think he quite grasped that – but, worse, he basically insulted 300,000 of his constituents. That’s insane. I mean, if that’s how you really feel about 300,000 people who contribute to the city you’re in charge of, then put your money where your mouth is and demand the immediate departure of all European institutions! I’m sure there are plenty of suitable cities who would happily host the EU. While Strasbourg cannot absorb 300,000 people, Bonn, for example, which has in the past offered its services, would jump at the opportunity. I wouldn’t be against it at all. The most telling example of the general attitude towards Brussels here is the number of people who still refer to it as the Common Market – an expression that has been obsolete since the 1970s!

Maybe, to a lot of Brussels natives, Europe has negative connotations, such as property speculation and expropriations?

But who is responsible for the so-called ‘Brusselisation’ of the city, with its expropriations and the property speculation? The Belgian authorities – that’s who! It’s often forgotten that it was the Belgian government who commissioned the building of thousands of square metres of office space, claiming it would attract international companies, when in fact the authorities were preparing their bid to host the European institutions. They also talked, famously, of a huge congress arena, when in fact they wanted to build the main seat of European Parliament. So all this urban destruction is an unholy alliance of business and political interests. And the innocent Brussels population, rather than blaming Europe for all its ills, should have directed its wrath at the real culprits. What happened in Brussels would never have happened anywhere else in Europe.

Are there any redeeming features to this city?

What I like most about Brussels is its multiculturalism. You walk around Brussels and you see all these different nationalities and you think, “This is the face of the Europe of tomorrow, the Europe how it was dreamed.” Life is also easier here than in Paris, or in London, and cheaper too (although it’s less and less the case), which makes for a better quality of life. And, again, I want to stress that there are areas of Brussels that have been miraculously saved from urban rot or property speculation – even though, unfortunately, it is often 100 metres from a monstrosity.

Another thing I particularly like about Brussels is the general kindness of people, and the fact that people are more likely to smile than in, say, Paris, for instance.

So basically it’s not pure hatred – you want to kick Brussels up the backside and shake up its citizens…

That’s exactly it! People of Brussels, say something, do something, rebel! Again, let me give you one example: the badly paved roads of Brussels, with those curved paving stones that often come loose – they are a nightmare to walk on, and sometimes even a hazard. Choosing those particular paving stones, known as Chinese ones, was clearly the decision of politicians who don’t like to walk, and prefer being chauffeured around town with their parliamentary plates. Brussels is a city in need of heavy cosmetic surgery, not just a Botox jab. (in French)

Written by PM Doutreligne