Nigel Farage and I have one thing in common: We both hate Brussels.
It’s fair to say that the anti-EU campaigner hasn’t really warmed to the place despite spending the last eighteen years there.
For him and for other eurosceptics it will always be seen as the heart of darkness, the capital of the vile and dictatorial European empire where continental hegemons connive with Lucifer to undermine national autonomy by stealth, eating away at Britain’s autonomy inch by painful inch by passing laws straightening our bananas and insisting that they be sold by the kilo and not by the pound.
I say inch by painful inch, I mean of course centimetre by painful centimetre. No matter: Farage will be moving out soon.
My dislike of Brussels is more generic. I hate the crowds of people, the dirt and the bad drivers. I find the whole place confusing. More than that, I hate the idea that to see Brussels is to see Belgium. I dislike Brussels because I dislike most capital cities. Overpriced, overcrowded and overrated, they never represent the essence of the countries they preside over. Brussels does Belgium a huge disservice.
But of I couldn’t write about planet Britain’s exit from the alien empire without journeying at least once to its evil heart. No account of the UK’s bid to separate itself from the European cosmos can be complete without a ride through the EU’s version of the Death Star space station.
My timing is good. Tomorrow, the self-styled Jedi Knights of Brexit –Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox will fly in guns blazing in their X-wing starfighters for the start of the Brexit negotiations. They may find that expectations and reality belong to two different galaxies.
For now, it’s the weekend in Belgium’s capital and I have designed a walking tour for us which I hope will be an informative and instructive introduction to what is definitely not Belgium’s finest city.
That most cities in Belgium are nicer than Brussels can be attributed to one simple fact: Brussels is the capital, the others are not. Somebody had to take the job on and Brussels drew the short straw.
Belgium is a young country. It has existed only since 1830 and it is federal by nature. Within its narrow borders there are three regions, ten provinces and three official languages –and so whichever city became the capital had a lot of accommodating to do.
Brussels was the winner and so a host of government and royal buildings were erected as large parts of the medieval town were destroyed to make way. As such, if you’re looking for great Flemish architecture then you should look somewhere else.
The Main Square is pretty attractive however, and the tourists flock there in their thousands. We’ll be seeing that later on — along with the Manneken Pis fountain which has become the city’s mascot — but first we need to take the metro to the outskirts and the district of Laeken, home of the King of Belgium.
Laeken is a strange place and his majesty probably doesn’t shop locally. Laeken is one of Brussels’ shabbier suburbs. I’m sitting here on the Market Square having lunch and looking out on a street bazaar selling exotic fruits and cheap textiles in every ethnic style imaginable. The shoppers are wearing neon, sportswear, headscarves or a combination of the above.
Two blocks from here in the middle of a park sealed off to the public sits the monarch in his castle. The Château of Laeken is not ten minutes’ walk from the market. The obvious British parallel is Kensington, where the same borough houses royal palaces and decaying tower blocks.
In the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, many Londoners have been asking how it is that there can be such inequalities within such a small physical space and the only answer I can give is that it’s the same here. Nowhere more than in capital cities do the rich and poor live cheek by jowl like this.
Nowadays Belgians have harmonised themselves with their monarch and vice versa but this was not always the case. Much of the current château was redesigned by Leopold II (1835-1909), almost certainly Belgium’s least favourite king.
He didn’t like the Belgians very much. Upon ascending the throne he declared that Belgium was a “small country” full of “small people”. Communication was not his strong point. Then, as now, Belgians spoke either French, German or “Flemish” (now more commonly refered to as Dutch). Leopold refused to learn Flemish because it was “lower class”. How the neighbours must have loved him.
I’m reminded of Bad King Leopold because I’ve picked up a book about one of his most notorious pet projects. Having decided fairly quickly that he didn’t like his subjects and their demands for democracy, he decided to create a state of his own far away from his little country where he could do what he liked.
When Henry Morgan Stanley emerged at the mouth of the Congo river minus boats, porters and the other members of his trans-African expedition, the king saw his chance and a deal was done. The Belgian Congo was born. Several million lost lives and forced enslavements later, the world is still dealing with the consequences.
Now the Democratic Republic of Congo and formerly Zaire, the slave trade was a big earner in Leopold’s day and he was the sole beneficiary. Records are blurry, but it seems likely that the death toll was similar to that of Hitler’s Holocaust.
Little has been written about it because history has obscured it with more recent tragedies and pushed Africa down its list of priorities. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is the best-known work on the subject, a novella which takes us down the river into the blank spaces of the jungle. Mainstream history books have by and large left the subject alone.
I dread to think what Leopold would be thinking if he were sat he right now looking out at all the black faces on the streets before me. His dream of “civilizing” the Africans — forcing them into servitude and selling them at a profit — has come full circle. Now Africa has come to him.
He really wasn’t a nice man — even his wife hated him from the moment she set eyes on him. I doubt he would even leave the house if he were alive today. As Conrad put it: “We live as we dream –alone.”
I am drifting off into thought about inequality and injustice when a man with a can of beer in his hand and his wordly belongings in a shopping trolley comes rattling down the street, shouting abuse at one and all. Time to move on. Next stop: Sint-Jans Molenbeek.
Molenbeek is a name you may have heard before and for entirely the wrong reasons. In 2015 it shot to infamy following the Paris terror attacks as three of the plotters came from here. Residents were also involved in the Brussels attacks, police investigations into safe havens for jihadists are ongoing, the press have since labelled it “Europe’s capital of Islamic extremism” and a police no-go zone and I really shouldn’t be here.
It doesn’t feel dangerous in any way, not in the daylight on a sunny Saturday afternoon. I even see the occasional police car. But neither does it feel as if you’re in Europe.
Few women on the streets have their heads uncovered, and many men have gone for the unusual combination of thobe gowns and plastic beach sandals. Plastic is as big a theme as Islam here: everywhere kids sit round on plastic garden chairs, on every corner shops knock out cheap household goods. Everywhere you look there is something to sell: halal butchers, Moroccan greengrocers with boxes of fruit spilling out onto the streets, five euro synthetics and mobile phones. Even the car mechanic has a stand selling vegetables and big plastic bottles of water.
It all looks pretty harmonious actually. Residents often talk of Molenbeek as a happy place despite its problems and most of the people are smiling as they go about their daily business. For all that this is often talked about as an Arab enclave the only language I hear is French. The streets are full of lively discussion and plastic garden chairs.
The locals call the place “little Manchester” — not so much because of the red-brick which is so common in the well-worn appartment blocks but as a reference to area’s traditional role as a canal port. With all the chatter it reminds me of Coronation Street in a strange way.
These days, the port has been moved and the jobs have gone. Like so many places it is euphemistically referred to as a “former working class” suburb. Now — with unemployment at 40% — the truth is that it’s just poor.
The scale of it is unnerving. Around 100,000 people live in an area which it has taken me three-quarters of an hour to cross on foot. There are windows everywhere and so everywhere you are being watched –not because people are suspicious but because every window looks out onto the street and into another window. Nobody lives alone in Molenbeek.
It is claustrophobic. Balconies hang into the streets and washing hangs from every available free space. I haven’t seen so many clothes hanging out into the street since I was in Monaco. There too, people live on top of one another: it’s funny how city living affects the habits of rich and poor alike. The difference is that nobody leaves Molenbeek in the winter to head for the Alps.
The problem shows no sign of stopping. The population has grown by a fifth in the last ten years and looks set to keep growing. Migrants who came here a couple of generations ago haven’t found their way out of here and more are coming.
The little remaining space is being used to build more flats. I have found one of the rare bars in the quarter and am looking at a new tower block under construction, rising from the site of an old warehouse. I feel dubious, given the news from London last week. Time to go.
Our walk takes us over the bridge, past the European Parliament and into the centre of the city. I am reflecting that the last white Belgian I saw was drinking beer and carrying his belongings in a supermarket trolley some hours before — and that situation is unlikely to change now. The main square is thronging with coach parties clutching bags of beer and chocolates.
The side streets devoted entirely to the sale and consumption of the said items, plus lace shops, T-shirt shops, waffle shops and dubious looking Italian restaurants offering 3-course set menus for thirteen euros. The only language I hear is English of varying quality.
I take a picture of the Manneken Pis statue, or rather a picture of other people taking a picture of the Manneken Pis statue. A coach party from China has all but obscured it from view.
The street is blocked with groups from Sydney and Sunderland, all holding paper plates stacked high with carbohydrates and goo. It could be chips and sauce, it could be waffles and Nutella. All I know is that nobody is looking where they are going and I fear getting splatted with a paper plate.
Once more I feel claustrophobic. There must a way out.
I breathe easy when I see the sign for the central station.
Capital cities. What was in Joseph Conrad said?
“The horror. The horror.”