Bart Somers is an anomaly: A well-liked mayor of international standing, who built his reputation on promoting diversity. Somers told EURACTIV Slovakia the secrets of his success, and why tolerance is a positive social value.
Bart Somers is the mayor of Mechelen, in Flanders, and is president of ALDE in the European Committee of the Regions.
Somers was interviewed by EURACTIV.sk’s Editor-in-Chief Zuzana Gabrizova.
What kind of town is Mechelen?
My city counts 86,000 inhabitants of 138 different nationalities. One out of three kids born in Mechelen has a foreign background, and one out of five is Muslim.
We are the second most Moroccan city of Flanders. We have Syrians and Armenians. We have people from Eastern Europe, from the Balkans, from Africa, from Latin America. Now Indians are coming. It is a super diverse city.
What is special about it is that fifteen years ago it had a very bad reputation. Mechelen was a very dirty city, with a lot of criminality, a lot of polarisation. 30% of the city supported extreme right parties.
Now Mechelen is a reference for a lot of cities in Belgium and in neighbouring countries. It is a clean, pleasant, safe and open city. The extreme right has lost ground.
How much support has it lost?
Now, they have less than 10%. In 2003-2004 it was 33%. Criminality is down, polarisation too. The best figure to show that is that out of Brussels, nearly 200 people left to fight in Syria with Daesh, from Antwerp nearly 100 people left, from a city that is 12 kilometres away, 28 people. Out of my town, nobody left.
We have 15,000 Muslims, most of them from Morocco, which is the most vulnerable group to be affected and radicalised by Daesh.
What happened during those 15 years?
I started as a mayor in 2001. We did things that are out of the box, pragmatically and voluntarily.
What was the issue that you first tackled?
The security issue. If people are afraid, if neighbourhoods are run by drug dealers and kids grow up in dirty streets and schools, without a park to play, where the role model is the bad guy, where police are seen as an enemy and where the rule of the jungle is in effect, you cannot expect people to become real citizens and embrace the values of the society, respect the society. People will never have open minds for diversity if they live in neighbourhoods where they are scared.
What are the other pillars of your approach?
An inclusive society. We needed a new narrative in the city. Usually, people say that those who come from elsewhere are welcome, but they have to adapt, they have to become part of our society. But how do you say that to someone from the third generation whose parents are born in Mechelen, who speaks Dutch at home? He is Muslim, but he is part of the society. It is his city as well. What I started saying was that we all have to adapt to the new reality of diversity. We have to see each other as the citizens of the same city.
How do you accomplish that?
Two years ago, we remembered mass migration to Belgium, which started in 1964 from Morocco as a source of cheap labour. We celebrated it. We put 128 photos of citizens of Mechelen with different backgrounds, all the nationalities at the moment and said that this is who we are. Diversity is not a problem, it is an asset.
After the bombing in Zaventem [Brussels airport, in 2016], I went to the mosque and I spoke before the Friday sermon, saying that it is important that I am here, because you are double victims. As a citizen, because you are afraid of the terrorists, but secondly as a Muslim, because those terrorists make something very horrible and barbaric of your religious identity.
I said that I do not like it. You are citizens of this city and I will not accept it if somebody attacks you. That strengthens the bond between the people and their city.
Have you struggled with ghettos?
We have a strict anti-ghetto policy. No white ghettos either. If people are separated physically they are also separated mentally. I invested in preventing ghettos, invested in poor neighbourhoods, we made streets and parks so that it was attractive to middle-class people to go back there. If a middle-class child is doing their homework after school, the parents invite the other poorer child inside to do the homework together with their child. It creates upward social mobility.
In sports clubs, in schools, we always apply an anti-ghetto policy. If there is a school with no white kids, where white parents are reluctant to put their child, I try to encourage 15 middle-class, white parents to send their kids there so that there is a critical mass which encourages others to follow. If there is an elite white school, I push them to try harder to bring in children with other backgrounds.
What you are describing is an everyday personal.
Every day, for fifteen years. The important thing is never to make the mistake of group think.
Can you elaborate?
The old left says: those are Muslims/migrants and they are victims. The old right says those are Muslims/ migrants and they are the problem. They problematize people because they are part of a group. I have never seen a group on the street of my city. I only see human beings.
All of them have a lot of identities. They are Belgian, Moroccan, Muslim, they like football, have kids at school, they are a husband or wife. If we reduce them to one identity, that is exactly what Daesh wants us to do. Only Muslims and non-Muslims. In my city, we are 86,000 different individuals.
The narrative in Eastern Europe about migrants is very much about the need to defend “European values.” From what you see in Mechelen, do you feel those are under attack?
Fundamental western values have sometimes been a more sensitive issue in Eastern Europe. It is the case with diversity. We have to protect our values. I am very much in favour of those.
We need to build our society on our western values – the equality of men and women, the freedom of speech, democracy, the rule of law. We need them all. But what is one of the most important western value? What is the core? That is the promise we make to everybody that if you do your best if you work hard, if you use your talents, you will have a better life and so will your kids.
What destroys this western dream? Discrimination and racism. It’s an irrational thing that blocks the people on the bottom of the social ladder. Discrimination and racism is anti-western thinking. The idea of non-discrimination is a core western concept.
You have drafted an opinion for the EU’s Committee of the Regions on the prevention of radicalization. What about deradicalisation? Is there a best practice?
It is very difficult. It costs a lot of money and time, success is never guaranteed. Being radicalised is like a drug. Secondly, if the number grows, it becomes very difficult to control them using police instruments. We should prevent it. Only one level can do it: the local. You need to create citizenship. It is not a religious fight, it is an ideological fight for the hearts and minds of the young people. Have a narrative, an inclusive approach. Fight discrimination; be coherent in your values.
In my city, there are also people radicalising, but their parents come to me or to the police at a very early stage saying that their son has weird ideas. They come because they trust us. Most of the time these guys do not even go to mosque. They drink alcohol, have fun with women. They usually have identity problems.
But you can hardly have this kind of a constructive approach at the local level if the national narrative is completely opposite and hostile.
That is a difficulty. We have that in Belgium partly as well. But the climate in my town is crucial. An open attitude to diversity is a part of the proud identity of Mechelen. We are proud that nobody left our town for Syria. We did it together.
Freedom and diversity are the two sides of the same coin. If you are coherent with your values and in fighting discrimination, then people will willingly choose this form of society.