Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The city is fighting both terrorists at home and a fading image abroad.
Should Brussels residents dig in and stay home indefinitely or should they grit their teeth, keep calm, and carry on?
The Belgian capital is now in its fourth day of what could become the longest big city anti-terrorist lockdown in history. Following the continuing flight of Paris attacker and former Brussels resident Salah Abdeslam, the city could remain on alert level four, the highest possible, until at least Monday. Given this unprecedented situation, it’s no wonder that there’s some debate in the city over how to react.
On one hand, Brussels is under extremely tight security control. Its metro system is closed, while buses are running a beleaguered service thanks to a glut of understandably nervous drivers calling in sick. All courts and many shopping malls remain closed, requiring emergency welfare money for temporarily unemployed workers, and security at the city’s Royal Palace has tightened. There’s even talk of creating safe rooms in schools for students to flee to in emergencies.
On the other hand, things are running more smoothly than you might expect. Schools will re-open tomorrow, albeit under heavy guard. Trains and flights are arriving as usual, while in the absence of a metro service—to be gradually re-opened from Wednesday onwards—taxis have carried record passenger numbers to fill a downtown that is subdued but far from empty.
Meanwhile, Belgians holed up at home have decided to look on the bright side by sharing cat memes that have since made their way around the world. It’s as if the city is sitting on the fence between high alert and business as usual, justifiably unable to decide just yet which way it should jump.
As the lockdown rumbles on, some cracks in the political united front are starting to show. City Mayor Yvan Mayeur has criticized the restrictions sharply as being like an “Islamist regime,” according to news reports. “If we shut the schools, forbid culture, business, if we forbid people to live, to have fun, to divert themselves, go and have a drink, eat a bit, down a glass on a terrace … If we forbid all that, what regime are we living under?”
Other figures are suggesting that, in some ways, the state of alert should actually be stepped up. It was Education Minister Joëlle Milquet who suggested creating safe rooms in Belgian schools. Predictably she was shot down by Mayeur, who damned the plan as a sign of hysteria. Milquet then shot back that she was surprised at Mayeur’s reaction, because the safe room suggestion had come from his own city’s police force.
Elsewhere, the country is also getting anxious about Belgium’s growing (albeit possibly fleeting) international image as a dysfunctional terrorist nest. An example of how widely this reputation has spread in a jittery Europe is a story doing the rounds of two Brussels holiday-makers investigated at gunpoint as possible terrorists by Spanish police. The reason for their suspicions: the pair’s Belgian number plates.
The foreign minister has vowed to correct this image abroad, especially in France, where comment has been notably harsh. Meanwhile, Brussels businesses are worrying what effect the terror threat will have on international tourism and investment. As things stand, it’s not yet guaranteed that Brussels famous Christmas Market, which normally gets up to 1.5 million visitors annually, will go ahead this year. If it does, visitor numbers may still drop sharply.
Belgians are also questioning the image of the city the world is receiving, one that doesn’t necessarily align with their own experience. They have a point. This week, a Dutch TV program described Brussels’ Boulevard Anspach as “like the Gaza Strip”—empty at a time when, so the presenter said, its four lanes would usually be packed with cars. The truth, however, is that Boulevard Anspach was empty of vehicles for another reason. It was pedestrianized in 2012.