This week ending 31st January 2020 has been the final countdown to Brexit. But how best to mark these events? The Mayor of Brussels had the splendid idea of throwing a party to celebrate the longstanding friendship between the citizens of Brussels and the United Kingdom. The invitation was open to anybody, and I was delighted to go along.
The venue was one of the most splendid in the whole of Europe: the Brussels Grand Place. The Mayor had gone to the trouble of arranging a light show in red, white and blue. In the square itself, Belgian marching bands alternated with British folk and dance music.
Belgians have a quirky sense of humour. The Grand Place was decorated with typical British artefacts like red telephone boxes, sentry boxes and a London taxi. And here are two famous London characters who turned up specially for the event: Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes.
Guests were welcomed into the amazing Gothic Hall of the Brussels City Hall, where drinks and sandwiches were served to all comers: members of choirs, business organisations, community groups – hundreds of people representing the 7000 British who live in Brussels.
The Mayor of Brussels, Philippe Close, gave a warm and encouraging speech. He referred to the many ways in which Brussels had been linked with the UK over the centuries. He paid tribute to the 250,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who had been killed in the Ypres region during World War 1. He expressed admiration for the game of rugby which he had played as a youth (you can see he would have been a formidable member of a pack). And he looked forward to continuing cultural, economic and educational links between Brussels and the UK in the future.
At this time, many British people feel sadness, regret and vulnerability. The outreach to our community from the Mayor of Brussels and his staff was remarkable. Actions like this make a difference. They truly help British people in Europe feel we are still welcome and wanted. I was interviewed by TV station RTL in a short piece which you can find here.
The love and warmth towards the UK at this Brussels City event was plain for all to see. It was equally evident in the speech made in the European Parliament on the Withdrawal Agreement by Ursula von der Leyen. She said, with sincerity: ‘We will always love you and we will never be far’.
The EU and its member states regret the UK decision to leave; so do I. But I believe now is the time for the UK to move on from the recent years of division and discord and to seek the best possible partnership with our European friends for the future.