The New Normal: Interview with Mechelen Mayor Bart Somers

June 21st, 2017

Mechelen Mayor Bart Somers is interviewed by an international audience for the World Mayor Project 2016

The World Mayor Project 2016 invited participants to put questions to Mechelen Mayor Bart Somers, winner of the 2016 World Mayor Prize. From the questions received, a representative selection was forwarded to the mayor. He replies below with candour and thoughtfulness.


Question: While you are a strong believer in and defender of an inclusive society, some other mayors seem to prefer to polarise. When and how did you decide that working together is the only way forward?

Mayor Somers replies: In his famous book ‘If mayors ruled the world’ Benjamin Barber explained the difference between local politics and national politics. One of the differences is that politicians in parliaments are mainly concerned with ideology and contradictions, while local politicians more often work pragmatic and seek how to connect people. That’s why Barber says that the local level is the main political level of the 21st century. Because in a global and fragmented world, that no longer operates hierarchical and in which knowledge and power are spread all over, horizontal networks and connecting factors prevail.

For instance: in parliament we can discuss sewerage systems for weeks. In a city these sewers just have to work. In parliament one can keep talking on integration concepts, great abstract principles; in a city one has to ensure that people get along together, respect each other in daily life. So probably, function creates the human being.

But there is more. Everyone doing politics without historical knowledge is like a ship without a compass. The past has shown how dangerous it is to turn people against each other. to create an external enemy and preach fear of the other. Again and again we see the temptation of that hostile thought lurk around the corner. Especially in difficult times, a mayor must be brave, defend human values ??and not admit that cheap populism.

Polarizing against people is political weakness, even more it is inhumane and does not help society nor the city. This insight I’ve been carrying along for quite a while, now and always, has been the core of my political beliefs.

Question: The Mechelen model of integrating people from different cultures and religions by combining toughness with tenderness is often used to counter populist, rightwing arguments. Do you think your kind of liberalism can win over voters who toy with the idea of voting for populist parties?

Mayor Somers replies: I don’t question myself whether my approach can overcome populism. I refuse to ask that question, because this is not about tactics. It’s about fundamental principles. It is my duty – not only as a politician but as a citizen above all – to fight for a humane city and against the lure of populism. The worst thing you can do is compromise with extremists and populists. Defend your principles, human and fundamental values on which our society rests. Rightly, it is said that we need to defend the equality of men and women, the rule of law, the separation of religion and state, freedom of speech. We should not compromise on that. Right-wing politicians often forget to mention some other fundamental principles of our society. For me one of the most fundamental ones – that makes our system dynamic and successful – is this: what counts is not your origin, but your future. That everyone, regardless of origin, parents or religion will have the same opportunities in society. This dream we can offer everyone: roll up your sleeves, work hard and you could win a better future for yourself and your children. But discrimination and racism make it hard, for some even impossible. The populists, who shout out loud about defending Western values, just destroy the very essence of our Western society.

Yes, I believe in the chances of such a consistent approach. It is new, does not belong to a classic left-right axis. It offers people a government that takes their demand for security seriously, invests in it and not abandons them. That applies also to people who don’t live in disadvantaged neighborhoods. If people, sensitive to that issue, perceive that their mayor really tackles safety issues, they become more open minded toward fellow citizens. Vice versa a consistent policy committed to equal chances, non-discrimination, avoiding ghettos, living in diversity, ensures that people can enjoy complete citizenship. That creates a stronger sense of responsibility and commitment. Such an empathetic and fair policy strengthens the credibility of our human law.

Question: During the height of the refugee crisis in 2015, some countries and cities in Europe have shown much greater willingness to accept people fleeing from Syria than others. What kind of co-operation have you received / would you like to receive from governments and others towns and cities? Perhaps even from the EU?

Mayor Somers replies: In Belgium, the federal government is responsible for the shelter of refugees. Last year it urgently had to provide additional capacity because of the large influx. Therefore the government used vacant army barracks and other large (government-owned) buildings. Mechelen was not in the list. Nevertheless, we specifically requested to be allowed to give shelter to some of the refugees. Of course, there were people in Mechelen that didn’t think this was a good idea, but a city that strives for justice and humanism should not look away. So we offered a piece of land and buildings so the Red Cross could organise a refugee camp in Mechelen for a year.

To assist refugees we developed a very intensive programme. Reception classes from day one for children so they could learn our language and could visit a normal school as soon as possible. We organized volunteering for asylum seekers in order to integrate them in our society. We set up a network of committed Mechelen residents who organized activities for them to help them integrate in our city. We organized open days for the neighborhood, and so on. Everything went without a single incident. In the end I thanked the refugees, because they have made our city better and not vice versa. They helped some of my fellow citizens to overcome their reservations and created an atmosphere of solidarity.

Our cooperation with the Red Cross and the federal government was successful. I believed that as a city we should not only demand, but also contribute. Our shelter initiative cost us some money and the city administration put a lot of effort into it, but perhaps these were the best efforts of 2016.

Question: Your administration initiated the ambitious Mechelen Power Plan for the reception and integration of refugees, an initiative that has been copied by other communities in Belgium. What role should and/or can towns and cities play in what is, after all, a very international problem?

Mayor Somers replies: European cities alone obviously can’t resolve the conflict in the Middle East. However, cities can engage and contribute to alleviate the barbarism by taking seriously our international and human obligations. We need to provide people fleeing war zones with safety and shelter. We need to carefully organise shelter, we need to deal with the understandable concern and fears of our citizens and thus turn their resistance into empathy. That way a city can make a difference.

Mechelen is a very diverse city with more than 138 nationalities. If we manage to turn this living together into success, where people look at each other as fellow citizens, then we offer people a perspective. If we consistently, not selectively, enforce our fundamental principles – I am talking equal opportunities, non-discrimination, in addition to equality between men and women and freedom of speech etc … into practice, then we make the model of rule of law and democracy more appealing, more attractive then extremist alternatives.

During the past few years, no less than 5,000 young Europeans left their homes to fight in the bloody conflict in the Middle East. If we succeed, as a city, to involve our young people in our society, if we prevent them from fighting in foreign conflicts, if we can convince them of our values so that they renounce totalitarian thinking, then there is less violence there and here. Leading by example.

Question : What have immigrants contributed to Mechelen?

Mayor Somers replies: The immigrant as such does not exist, just as the autochthon does not exist. Some 86,000 people live in Mechelen and they are all unique and all different. There are people with a migration background who have lived in Mechelen for only a few year, while others have lived here for generations. They were born and raised here by parents who were often born here too.

Some enjoyed a university education, others uneducated and everything in between. Some go to the mosque every day, others never set foot inside and everything in between. Mechelen today is a very diverse city. The whole world lives here with us. That makes things sometimes complex, makes occasional misunderstandings and resentment, but at the same time it also creates new dynamics, new insights and thus more freedom for each of us. We have to make new arrangements, new equilibria emerge. But that’s just inherent in a society based on freedom. In the world of ISIS (Islamic State) everything should remain the same for 1500 years. In an open society nothing is vested. I often tell that the group that has changed our society, our customs and habits the most, is not migrants but women.

They demanded their full place in society, based on our fundamental rights. Workers also did, gays did. Time and again groups get up claiming their freedom and equality. At first we often experience it threatening. Because we play a zero-sum game: what they get, we lose. But afterwards the freedom of us all turns out to have increased. And we are more consistent regarding our fundamental principles, we are stronger as a society. Now the same debate goes on amongst people with migration background. Again fierce emotions emerge. Not every question is simple. But we are all going to have to move a little on the couch we sit on and give place for even this group. Ultimately, we all have to integrate into the new reality of the 21st century, which is a diverse society.

So to answer your question: an immigrant doctor heals the sick, the deputy director of a school raises our children, the nurse washes our elderly, another one picks up my trash, has a good restaurant with world cuisine, is a police officer, professor of economics, excellent football player, trainer at a boxing club, television host, but most of all this immigrant is a mother or father who raises his children with love, or an adult dreaming of a better future, and sometimes he’ll be someone who makes a mistake, makes too little effort to get a degree, not doing his job as he should, committing crime. In short they are like any other, with positive and negative sides. But Mechelen is their home, their city.

Question: Do you think the Mechelen model of integrating newcomers is only possible in smaller cities like yours or could it also be successfully applied by large cities?

Mayor Somers replies: I don’t think the size of a city is critical to this approach. It does require a sustained effort and great commitment. Addressing slum areas is important because if criminals rule neighborhoods, if drug dealers become role models and police becomes enemy, if schools and parks look squalid and shabby, if the law of jungle fights down the rule of law, then how can young people and people who grow up in such areas connect with society? Where crime reigns extremism follows. It’s like breeding ground for recruiting future terrorists.

A city consisting of ghettos – colored and white – where people do not live together in diversity, but side by side in mono-cultural enclaves, creates alienation and envy: why do they get a park and we don’t? Why is police checking here and not with them. Suppose city government just talks to so-called community leaders, it sidelines itself. A city must have connections with all its citizens, must go directly into dialogue, encourage diversity, combating deprivation. Based on clear rules but they can leave no one behind.

This is a model for big cities. Even more, I think it’s the only model that can mold diversity into a sustainable value.

Question: How can the City of Mechelen maintain a welcoming culture while at the same time ensuring that the risk of terrorism is kept low?

Mayor Somers replies: The answer has already been given above. In the fight against terror there is much talk about high-tech policing, about bulletproof vests and heavy weapons, soldiers in the streets and tougher punishment. I have no doubt that all of this is useful and much of it is necessary. But the most effective policy against terrorism is prevention. Prevent people from radicalization. This is what cities do better than any other government. With an inclusive approach, stronger citizenship, creating trust. So an open city that respects everyone and doesn’t tread people as suspects because they have a different background is a keystone in a genuine security policy. A policy that doesn’t show off, but actually binds people to our model of society. This model moves people to defend “their” city against radicalization, even if they or their parents were born elsewhere.

Question: Immigrants in Mechelen often talk about ‘living their values’. Can different groups of people live according to their own values and still be part of the same community? How do you handle disagreements between different local communities?

Mayor Somers replies: Of course, they can. Someone once wrote, “liberalism is not a way of life, it is tolerating different ways of life.” And you can safely replace liberalism with Western democracy if you ask me. Our society is based on individual freedom. And there is no freedom without diversity and vice versa. Both are sides of the same coin.

The past few months we have heard many paradoxical statements. There were people pleading to restrict our freedom of speech in order to defend the same freedom of speech. The ‘burquini’ debate is another example. Some wanted to ban this thing, because it proves that you are not free. Such reasoning is the beginning of totalitarian thinking, “if you do not like me, you are not free.” So according to those people women can only go to the beach in bikini or monokini. Otherwise, you are not free and you are being suppressed. A strange paradox: these people want to punish the oppressed woman, not the ones supposed to oppress her.

You see, some people abuse basics for people to limit their freedom. In our society fortunately there is freedom of belief and you can make your own choices in your private life, follow your own values.

We do have clear agreements on which we don’t give in, like men and women being equal and equivalent, like we must respect the law and like holy books being subject to the law. That freedom of expression exists. Those rights can make sure that everyone can be free.

Living together in diversity is possible if we do not fall into the trap of IS for instance by making human beings one-dimensional. Ahmed is more than just Muslim. He is also a father, his son plays soccer and he is proud of him. He was mechanic and he knows a lot about cars, he lives in my street. We may have different opinions about faith but we still have a lot to talk about soccer and cars and we can both fight for safer streets. By strongly focusing on the Mechelen-feeling, by being proud as citizen one can break through this communitarianism that often locks people into one dimension of themselves.

Question: What do you understand by ‘multicultural citizenship’ and does the concept actually exist?

Mayor Somers replies: I believe in a free society. But who says freedom, says difference. The right to make different choices, to have other preferences, different beliefs. Freedom and diversity are inextricably linked. Two sides of the same coin. No diversity without freedom, no freedom without diversity. The Turkish writer Mustafa Akyol once said, “liberalism is not a way of life, it is tolerating different ways of life.”

Today we live in an era of great diversity. In my town with 86,000 inhabitants, 138 different nationalities live together. “Multicultural citizenship” is about looking at differences as an enrichment, as the product of our freedom. People with different beliefs, different customs offer us alternatives, make us think about our own ideas and customs. They sometimes influence us, sometimes hey reinforce our own views. Such citizenship appreciates the diversity of freedom. At the same time a city only functions if there are common rules to organize this society. For me those rules first of all aim to ensure everyone’s freedom.

Equality between men and women, freedom of expression, the rule of law, non-discrimination – because the freedom of one ends where the freedom of another begins. It’s up to the government to monitor this en to us all to accept it. If cultural or ideological patterns or beliefs fight this, they can be imposed on others. We may not give in on that. At the same time we must not abuse these basic principles as a weapon against others, which often happens today. These foundations of our society are meant to emancipate people, not to stigmatize them.

A workable multicultural citizenship needs something more than these shared basic values. The city should be more than just an archipelago of mono-cultural islands. For a city with only white and colored areas is not a city that lives in diversity, it’s a city that lives in apartheid. Where envy is quickly floating above. Why do they get a park en we don’t? Together at school, in sports, at work, on the streets, makes us live with each other instead of next to each other. Thus diversity becomes more than something weird that turns us suspicious; it becomes part of our life that enriches us.

Question: How, as a Liberal, do you reconcile liberal individualism with the concept of ‘shared citizenship’?

Mayor Somers replies: For me, liberalism is no selfishness. I believe in the Emanuel Kant adage: “Du kannst, denn du sollst”. Freedom is not doing your enthusiasm, it brings to each of us a moral assignment: to seek for the good, to use your own talents for yourself en society. As a liberal, I look at man as a social being, who is freely able to act morally. By defending the freedom of others, I defend my one. That way, if I can offer someone the opportunity to develop his talents, I become stronger myself.

* The interview has been edited and condensed.

Source: Reprinted with permission from the World Mayor Project 2016 by the London-based City Mayors Foundation, February 14, 2017.


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