Vilvoorde is a city in Flanders.
It’s not a big place. In fact with 40,000 residents it’s barely a city at all. Most foreigners, passing on the train into Brussels from the airport, would if they noticed it at all presume it a suburb of the Belgian capital. Much as I did myself before I actually got to know people who lived there and before they actually invited me to dinner there.
And before I became aware of the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV) question: the then seemingly intractable linguistic, political and constitutional impasse at the heart of the crisis of identity that all but paralysed the Government of Belgium following the elections of 2007.
All the more surprising then that it’s where this story starts.
The mayor of Vilvoorde today is Hans Bonte. A thoughtful, engaging, articulate and persuasive politician and a man whose patient understanding of individuals and institutions has been put to good use in recent years dissuading his more impressionable young citizens from travelling to Syria to join Daesh. While helping those who have returned and wish to reintegrate to do so.
And ensuring that those who don’t bring us no harm.
Across the Atlantic, Abdi Wasarmi has been busy doing much the same. Abdi is a Somalian born city councillor in Minneapolis and a politician cut from very similar cloth to Hans. Good men both. Dedicated to securing the peace, security and wellbeing of their citizens. Politics is nothing if it is not local after all and working politicians are always so much more useful that the career variety.
Last night they shared a platform at an event called appropriately ‘What Works’.
They were joined by Jan Jambon, Belgium’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister Of The Interior and by Tibor Navracsics, European Commissioner For Education, Culture, Youth and Sport.
The Minister Of the Interior was reassuringly impressive on the detail and disarmingly frank about the problem and its causes and remedies.
For a time Belgium had the largest number of foreign Daesh recruits per capita. Though of the four hundred Belgians who traveled to Syria only two hundred now remain (one hundred have since returned and the other hundred are dead).
Recruitment has fallen from fifteen a month to just five and better intelligence on those returning led to the thwarting of the Verviers plot although sadly not of the murders at Brussels’ Jewish Museum or the Thalys attack.
Interestingly when questioned on potential Dash sympathies among Syrian refugees now being settled here The Minister cited powerful evidence to the contrary. Refugees unsurprisingly are keen to escape terrorism not to embrace it.
No-one has left Vilvoorde for Syria in over a year now. Though a problem remains in Brussels. Where six police departments and nineteen mayors serving a population of just 1.2 million (New York seems to manage well with just one of each for 8.4 million people) poses what might at best be described as a challenge to effective intelligence.
While at the same time illustrating that there’s local and then there’s absurd.
The European Commissioner arrived late. European Commissioners always arrive late. They are busy people. Whose jobs require them to leave behind the local and often instead to embrace the absurd.
Perhaps it would be too easy a laugh to wonder what a European Commissioner was doing at an event called ‘What Works’ in the first place. Or to suggest that perhaps his assistant had misread the invitation by adding a question mark. But in truth Mr.Navracsics had nothing much to say.
He made his entrance. He offered a few truisms about sport and community cohesion. He promised ‘more EU funds’ from the magic money tree. And he nodded sagely and stroked his chin while Jan and Hans and Abdi talked about WhatsApp and how difficult PS4 is to decrypt.
And about how best to form and to express a counter offer to extremism.
And that’s where the evening became really interesting. And when I began to ponder the issues it raised.
The most effective counter offer to extremist religion and extremist politics it seems is often one of individual opportunity. The Mayor of Vilvoorde candidly admitted that in his work with their families, friends and contemporaries no aspect of an individual’s life is off limits. Better education is likely to be part of it but better relationships and better sex may well be too.
And while individual wellbeing must anchor the offer, it must also carry with it some reasonable chance of a meaningful stake in the collective future of society.
Vilvoorde, for example, has actively lobbied for and established a resettlement centre for Syrian refugees in the city in order to better engage all of its citizens in making a positive, constructive and peaceful contribution to the wellbeing of others.
All of which begs the question that when we talk of extremism in religion and politics why do we not also recognise the forces of extremist finance, or extremist tech? Extremist climate change or extremist resource depletion?
And before i’m accused of disappearing up some Marxist blind alley (the evening was organised by Politico and sponsored by J. P. Morgan Chase by the way and yes, I was perfectly happy to sip their champagne and nibble their canapés) surely I can’t be alone in already working with industries for whom the decoupling of growth from increased material consumption is no longer ‘sustainability greenwash’ but an essential prerequisite for their, and our, very survival?
In the UK meanwhile, as well as in Greece and in Spain, suicide rates, and male suicide rates especially, continue to increase either steadily or dramatically depending on how you interpret the statistics.
And though I would hesitate to make any connection between the desire of a young man in Birmingham to take his own life and a young man in Vilvoorde to take the lives of others, or vice versa, the tragedy of both clearly occurs in the vacuum left by the absence of any attractive counter offer.
So let me also add extremist illl heath, both mental and physical, to the list. And in doing so maybe also look to extreme tech enabled extreme social media to perhaps leaven its diet of ever more mindfulness with a little less thoughtlessness.
And add also to that reasonable chance of a meaningful stake in the collective future of our society the need for an equal voice in how that society is shaped and what it might look like.
Some hours before this in the same room I had, by chance, listened to David Cameron describe what the future of Europe might look like. And what that might mean for its individuals and its institutions.
It was no great surprise to me that, like Hans and Abdi, he chose to frame his counter offer to extreme europe in terms of the peace and security, and by implication the wellbeing, of his citizens.
He is not a man I generally find myself in agreement with about much but listening to him articulate its four elements I was pleasantly surprised to find little to question and a lot to hope for.
That the single market and the singe currency are complimentary and not coincident is simply a statement of fact. An inconvenient fact perhaps for Europe’s last remaining federalists but a fact nonetheless. Someone somewhere just needs to write it down on a piece of paper and sign it.
That the single market needs to be more competitive and less regulated is Wagner played fortissimo to Mr.Junker’s ears. And exactly and specifically what Frans Timmermans, his impressive, energetic and able First Vice President, has been told to get on with. And pronto.
‘It is the bureaucrats and the lobbyists who will be the losers, the environment and the transparency of government will gain’. I’ve even heard him say it myself. Albeit in a voice that sounds uncomfortably like Sean Connery in ‘The Hunt For Red October’.
So no more sealed olive oil containers and definitions of chocolate then. And fewer dodgy diesel engines too please. Yes I know that’s a bit more complicated but in principle at least let today’s toddlers trump tomorrow’s polar bears. Please.
Oh, and just to finally nail the Marxist blind alley thing once and for all, yes we do live in a market. And not only because people who trade with each other do generally tend think twice before killing each other.
All of which brings us at last to ‘ever closer union’ and freedom of movement.
Freedom of movement does not and never has implied or guaranteed freedom of residency. From the recent experience of a Romanian neighbour I know for a fact that Brussels’ nineteen communes (headed by their nineteen mayors) can, and regularly do, refuse residency to EU citizens without proof of both work and accommodation in their commune.
Britain’s particular problem here is entirely of its own making. Without compulsory identity cards, which the British are culturally opposed to and have repeatedly rejected, in practice it is impossible to deny anybody who makes it to Dover residency pretty much anywhere in the UK.
That the comparative resilience of its economy in recent years is due at least in part to low wages being supplemented by in-work benefits compounds the problem.
So while the ability of a Lithuanian agricultural worker in Peterborough, for example, to repatriate their child tax credits back to their children in Panevezys may have always been completely legal it may not now seem, to Cameron’s citizens at least, entirely reasonable.
Time perhaps for a counter offer. Although not necessarily one that need threaten ‘ever closer union among the peoples of Europe’ if I may quote the preamble to the 1957 Treaty Of Rome in full.
Note here please that it is ‘the peoples’ and not ‘the countries’ or ‘the economies’ or even ‘the currencies’ of Europe. And note too that these words were retained in the preamble of the Maastricht treaty in 1992 at the insistence of John Major (then, like Cameron now, Britain’s Conservative PM) in preference to a much more overtly federalist form of words then tabled as their replacement.
In other words ‘ever closer union’ means only what you want it to mean. Move along now. Nothing to see.
But rather than, pardon the pun, take my word for it why not read instead the opinion of the European Council in June 2014: ‘the concept embraces different paths of integration for different countries, allowing those that want to deepen integration to move ahead, while respecting the wish of those who do not want to deepen any further’.
It’s no coincidence I think that John Major first cut his teeth in politics as a local mayor in London. Like Hans Bonte and Abdi Wasarmi in fact he still has something of that patient understanding of individuals and institutions about him. So let’s just hope he still also has Cameron’s ear.
Because having absorbed an awful lot of politics these last few days I have a growing feeling that more than ever now our peace, our security and our wellbeing lies not to the right or to the left (though perhaps that’s best left for another post) but instead in following the sign marked ‘Autres Directions’
In politics as in life, after all, what works is nothing if not local.