Monday, 25 April 2016

Is Brussels dead?

Media coverage in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Brussels have had a crippling effect on the city's economy. But it's only the latest setback for this unloved and underdeveloped city.

There have been reports in the Belgian media that over the past month, as many as 600 cafes, restaurants and hotels have filed for bankruptcy in Brussels. The normal amount is 40 per month.

The reports seem to reaffirm what people in Brussels have seen with their own eyes over the past weeks. Since the terrorist attacks of 22 March, Brussels city centre has been eerily quiet.

I have been mostly in Brussels over the past month rather than in Berlin, and I can confirm that the atmosphere has sometimes resembled a ghost town. At first, people were blaming it on the Easter break. "Brussels would always be empty at this time of year," they insisted. As the weeks wore on, their continued insistence that Easter was the culprit seemed less and less plausible.

It's clear to everyone that the terrorist attacks themselves are not to blame. I was in Paris in December shortly after the attacks there and the atmosphere on the streets was very visibly back to normal. I visited London shortly after the 7/7 attacks, and I remember that the atmosphere was very quickly back to normal there as well. In fact the only comparison I can feel to how things are in Brussels right now is when I was in New York during and after 9/11.

But even New York got back on its feet before too long. So what's going wrong in Brussels? The media coverage, portraying Brussels as a lawless and ungovernable hotbed of terror, certainly hasn't helped. It is no wonder people are cancelling their trips to the European capital, both for business and tourism purposes, given the image of Brussels that is being portrayed to the world.

But it is also true that the city's security measures after the attacks have taken a crippling toll. Today, one month after the attacks, the Maelbeek metro station was reopened. Only a few days ago the Brussels metro system finally started operating in the evening again (until now it has stopped at 7pm the first weeks, and then later 10pm. For the first week after the attacks it did not run at all). There are soldiers patrolling the city with machine guns and armoured vehicles have become a normal part of the city traffic. 

Airport shutdown

Perhaps most damaging, Brussels Zaventem, the country's only major airport, is still barely functional. After being completely shut down for weeks it is now operating at a limited capacity. But the new security measures at the airport has made using it a very unpleasant and time-consuming experience.

I am in Budapest this week attending a conference, and I flew out of Brussels airport on Friday afternoon. Airlines are advising passengers to show up three hours early, and so I dutifully followed instructions. It's a good thing I did, because I waited for 90 minutes just to go through the baggage x-ray screening to get into the building. During that process we had to wait in a sweltering hot tent, hundreds of us crammed in to this tiny space - creating what I imagine is a far more casualty-yielding terrorist target than any space within the airport ever was.

Once I was inside the airport, after following a labyrinthian series of stairways to get to the normal departures area, I had to go through security screening a second time. I barely made my flight, despite the fact that I wasn't even checking in any luggage.

No doubt the situation was particularly bad because it was a Friday afternoon. Friends of mine have been to the airport at other times over the past week and not waited more than 20 minutes at the outside screening area. But in the end it doesn't matter, because you still need to show up with the recommended three hour advance time, in case the line is very bad. There is no indication of how long this system is going to last.

Conference cancellation

A big part of my work in Brussels is moderating conferences, and I've seen them steadily cancelled or scaled back. People don't want to come to Brussels for conferences not only because of what they've seen in the media, but also because they know that using the airport and public transport is going to involve significant extra hassle.

Brussels' ordinarily jam-packed conference schedule was already seeing a significant slowdown since the November lockdown in Brussels following the terrorist attacks. Those of us in the cottage industry of journalist conference moderation have been fretting. Is this the new reality in Brussels? And if so, is this still a viable way to make money?

Empty city centre

There has been a lot of Belgian media coverage over the past two weeks on the phenomenon of empty restaurants and bars in the city centre. Having been out quite a bit over the past weeks I can say this is a bit of an exaggeration. But it is true that the city centre is significantly emptier than it was before.

Many local businesses are blaming a new pedestrian zone for causing people to stay away from the city centre. In July of last year the main boulevard running through Brussels centre, the tawdry and sometimes dangerous Boulevard Anspach, was closed to traffic. In its stead a rather improvised pedestrian boulevard was established, but only by throwing a few odd bits of furniture on the existing pavement. 

Local businesses have complained that the plan failed to clean up the boulevard along with the pedestrianisation, making the new pedestrian zone feel just as uneasy as the old traffic street but with the added advantage that you can't feel safe travelling through it in the security of your car. They have complained that the city did not concurrently set up parking areas for people coming in the Brussels to go to bars and restaurants, and consequently people are just staying away. 

The businesses feel so strongly about it that one well-known restaurant refused to serve the Brussels mayor (amusingly named Mr. Mayeur), in protest over the pedestrianisation.

It is indisputable that the pedestrianisation was poorly executed (but who living in this city would have expected it to be well-implemented?). Whether or not it is to blame for the economic crisis now gripping Brussels is hard to gage, because it came only a few months before the Brussels lockdown that so badly damaged the city's reputation both within and outside Belgium.

Chronic problems

Many in the city feel that the recent events have only highlighted Brussels' flaws as an overlooked part of the Belgian governing apparatus, a bastard stepchild caught in the tug-of-war between Flemings in the North and Walloons in the South. 

Infrastructure investment in the city has been chronically lacking (Belgium spends the least amount on such investment of any European country). Petty crime in the city has been a consistent problem, traffic gridlock is the worst of any city in Europe, and opening a maintaining a business in the city has been a headache of Kafka-esque proportions. And yet the national government, preoccupied the 'cold civil war' between the country's two communities, has done nothing. 

Why has Brussels been so damaged by its attacks when other cities like Paris, London or Madrid were not? Those cities were far more resilient. Brussels has been a rotting disaster for so long, it took only two explosions to bring it to its knees.

Many in Brussels are feeling defensive about the way their city and their country are being portrayed in the media. But defensiveness isn't going to solve the very urgent problem being experienced right now. The economic crisis is real, not imagined. We are now a month after the attacks, long enough to imagine that this has done some real permanent damage from which Brussels may not recover. That could have serious implications for the city's status as the de-facto capital of Europe and a centre of international business. A Brussels without conferences is hard to imagine.

After spending more time than I was expecting in Brussels over the past two months, I'm heading to Berlin in a week and plan to stay mostly there for the next several months. To be honest, and I can only speak from my own experience here, Brussels is a place right now that I would rather avoid. 

Judging by the statistics released this week, I'm not alone.

8 comments:

Fabien said...

“There have been reports in the Belgian media that over the past month, as many as 600 cafes, restaurants and hotels have filed for bankruptcy in Brussels. The normal amount is 40 per month.”
How are other cities doing? Is it a European structural crises

“The reports seem to reaffirm what people in Brussels have seen with their own eyes over the past weeks. Since the terrorist attacks of 22 March, Brussels city centre has been eerily quiet.”
People have biases, seeing with their own eyes isn't an objective

“I have been mostly in Brussels over the past month rather than in Berlin, and I can confirm that the atmosphere has sometimes resembled a ghost town. “
Well you can but I have been to several events, actually nearly every evening, just as often as before the attacks so clearly you are not necessarily frequenting the right part of town. Again, this is subjective.

“people were blaming it on the Easter break. "Brussels would always be empty at this time of year," they insisted. “
Who is “they” and how significant is it? Do “they” have a realistic view of the entire area and if so how?

“It's clear to everyone that the terrorist attacks themselves are not to blame.”
Really?

“The media coverage, portraying Brussels as a lawless and ungovernable hotbed of terror, certainly hasn't helped. It is no wonder people are cancelling their trips to the European capital, both for business and tourism purposes, given the image of Brussels that is being portrayed to the world.”
As you will say in the next article, with transport in disarray for logical security reason, how could people not reconsider their trip? The simplest explanation is logistic, why try to invent other motives?

“There are soldiers patrolling the city with machine guns and armoured vehicles have become a normal part of the city traffic.”
Unfortunately this has been the case for more than a year now, yes there is an increase but nothing that significant.

“Brussels Zaventem, the country's only major airport, is still barely functional.”
Is it? What do you call barely functional? What's the percentage of lights expected during this period of the year? What's the percentage re-routed to other airport?

“But the new security measures at the airport has made using it a very unpleasant and time-consuming experience.”
Yes and again unfortunately I don't know where you have experienced any pleasant international airport boarding but I still have to enjoy that, anywhere.

“People don't want to come to Brussels for conferences not only because of what they've seen in the media, but also because they know that using the airport and public transport is going to involve significant extra hassle.”
What people are you referring to? Is it you and several strangers you talked to during a business dinner or is it a representative and sufficiently large segment of a population?

“it is true that the city centre is significantly emptier than it was before.”
Is it? Does it feel emptier or are there numbers to show that's the case and that it's directly linked to specific events rather than, once again, a larger economical trend?

“Whether or not it is to blame for the economic crisis now gripping Brussels is hard to gage, because it came only a few months before the Brussels lockdown that so badly damaged the city's reputation both within and outside Belgium.”
So if the conclusion is that we don't know what is the main driving factor (economical, security or urban planning) how can we even start to imagine what the future will be?

“Why has Brussels been so damaged by its attacks when other cities like Paris, London or Madrid were not? Those cities were far more resilient. Brussels has been a rotting disaster for so long, it took only two explosions to bring it to its knees.”
A nice dramatic style but does it mean for Brussels to be on its knees? Is that an aesthetics judgement or some economical or sociological indicator?

larree said...

I am one of those residents who are feeling defensive about how the city is being portrayed in the media, but I was in grudging agreement with much of what you wrote until the phrase "Brussels has been a rotting disaster for so long, it took only two explosions to bring it to its knees".

First, I cannot understand how anyone who has lived in Brussels for as long as six years can seriously dismiss it as a "rotting disaster". Dirty, poorly maintained, congested, with underfunded and inefficient public services, surely. But calling it a "rotting disaster" is just absurd hyperbole. The city consistently rates highly among international surveys, including the latest Mercer Quality of Living Rankings published in February 2016 (before the terrorist attacks but after the opening of the pedestrian zone and the November security lockdown) where it ranks 21st out of 260 cities - trailing Berlin at 13th but ahead of other German cities (Stuttgart, Nurnberg, Leipzig), well above Paris (37th), London (39th), Madrid (52nd), and every one of the 17 American cities included in the survey.

Second, how can you compare how London and Madrid recovered from bombings which took place 11 and 12 years ago, and how Paris has recovered from attacks on a café and a concert hall, to how Brussels is coping with explosions which destroyed the airport departure hall barely one month ago? Any difference you may perceive as a jetsetting expat has nothing to do with resilience, and everything to do with the impact on international travel (which was practically none in the case of Madrid, London and Paris).

By the way, can you guess which city this Wikipedia entry refers to? (hint: it's not the rotting disaster)

"In the investigations carried out after the to find out what went wrong in the security services, many individual negligences and miscoordinations between different branches of the police were found. The group dealing with Islamist extremists was very small and in spite of having carried out some surveillances, they were unable to stop the bombings."

Tomasz said...

Sadly, as a resident of Brussels, I need to agree 100%... But I think the recovery process will be seen in a long perspective and hopefully will help improve the local derelict services as well...

Anna said...

I cannot disagree, and I especially like the comment about resilience.

Toby said...

Good post, Dave. Just one quibble. Surely as a 'Murrican you should know that the gear the soldiers are carrying with them are assault rifles and not machine guns? Just sayin'.

Terry said...

I flew back in last night (still have some Kafkaesque paperwork to do to leave) and have to admit I found the city eerily quiet too, very few people on the metro or street. As much as I love Brussels I fear you're right, without tourism or the institutions functioning at full capacity I can't see how the city can economically survive.

Oohlala! said...

Some valid points. But let's not forget that London, Madrid and Paris have long experience of living with the threat and the aftermath of terror attacks and so have police & security services to reflect that experience. As far as I know, this was a first for Brussels. No surprise that it came as a body blow to a city a tenth the size of those others.

dale said...

With the exception of the airport, I'd say things are pretty much back to normal for those who live here. Brussels is back to its regular joli-laid self, minus the conference crowd.

Just dont fly.