Bart Somers is a Belgian politician who has served as the mayor of Mechelen and is a minister in the Flemish government. He was awarded the 2016 World Mayor Prize in recognition of Mechelen’s success in integrating recent immigrants.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Bart Somers discuss how prioritizing public safety helped Mechelen head off populist extremism, how to build civic structures that create social trust between people of different backgrounds, and how the city was able to cultivate a sense of local identity that is embraced by both recent migrants and longtime residents.
The views expressed are those of the speakers, not those of Persuasion. The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: You became the mayor of Mechelen a good number of years ago. When we discussed it a few months ago in New York, the way you dealt with the situation you found was very interesting to me.
When you became mayor, what was Mechelen like?
Bart Somers: You could say that Mechelen is one of the hundreds of medium-sized or small Western European cities that went through a very big transformation during the 1980s and ‘90s due to migration, which was new to my country. In a short period of time, it went from, let's say, a monocultural city, to a diverse, even super-diverse city. Local politicians at that time didn't know what to do about it. The transformation of the city was, of course, very dramatic. You saw that middle class people left when they could, they didn't like the idea of living in diversity. It was not a good integration process, and the more the middle class left, the more poverty came in. You had a feeling of decline, of negativity. Crime rates were very high. Extreme political parties could easily exploit the situation.
The first time I ran for mayor, in 2000, the extreme right was the biggest political party. People didn't trust each other anymore. They didn't want to cooperate with the city or with new initiatives. There was skepticism and negativity. You saw the same process in many European cities. It was a big challenge, because I came from a political party that was never very strong in Mechelen. But I was a young guy, the “new guy in town,” and I think a lot of voters at that moment said, “We can vote for the extreme right, or we give this guy one last chance to solve the problem.” I knew that the big challenge was how to make a success of the diversity in my city. How can I get it right? I knew that I had to find new approaches. If I were to follow the right-wing path, it would be shaming and blaming people all the time, and that's not what I stand for in life and in politics. And the classical left solutions didn't work either. I had to find a new way, a new path, or maybe a combination of things (through very pragmatic trial and error) to get my city back on track.
Mounk: In my last book, The Great Experiment, I tried to think about the challenges posed by exactly that kind of demographic transformation, which you see at a smaller scale in Mechelen, but you see on a larger scale in Belgium, Germany, France and so many other countries in Europe and beyond, and which is about the transformation of societies that have been, historically, relatively homogeneous and become much more diverse through immigration. I tried to come up with some solutions, but you faced this challenge in a very, very concrete way, in an urban environment.
When you came in, and you were trying to get people to talk to each other more and trying to build some real sense of citizenship, what were your first steps?
Somers: First of all, I had to restore a feeling of security. I had to invest in fighting crime, because my conviction was that if I cannot show that it is a priority to create safe streets, then people will always see the city as a failure and they will blame two groups. They will blame the politicians at City Hall, who are not doing their job, and will look for an extremist alternative: “Maybe we have to give other people a chance and opportunity to do it in their way.” That's a risk for democracy. And secondly, of course, who do we always blame? It will be the “other.” You will never blame yourself. It’s all due to the newcomers in town, the migrants. You open the door for populists to exploit a situation where there are always problems on the street, with gangs and with violence, burglary, and intimidation. I had to tackle that. Out of the box, I did it with more police, I did it with more control. I did it by being more strict. But I also did it with prevention, because only police and the, let's say, repressive approach doesn't work. You have to try to convince people that it's the task of everybody to create a safer city.
Mounk: What does prevention look like? Because I think it's a term that's often invoked, and it sounds great, everybody is in favor of prevention. But what did that concretely look like? And why did that work?
Somers: There are a few examples—youth workers trying to mobilize, for example, sports clubs. We have a boxing club that brings in young kids who often have difficult backgrounds and teaches them to box. But there are two rules. If you fight on the street, you never enter the club again. And secondly, at the end of the month, you show your school report. If it is not good, you will not practice for a week. The second example is that, during holidays, young people can work for the city for one month and earn some money. And they have to play the older brother or sister at the playground in town, where they have the task of keeping an eye on smaller children and have to explain to them, for example, at 10 o'clock, “Let's be quiet, because people have to sleep. Don't destroy your playground. It's yours. Don't harass people.” And so we did that every year with a few dozen, and Mechelen is 90,000 people. In ten years’ time, it's hundreds. When I speak with them now, they are older (we started 20 years ago), and they are fathers or mothers themselves. They say it was the first time in life that they were given responsibility and they had to think about why those rules are there. And for the small ones, it's the first time they see the city not as a white policeman being rather aggressive to them—it's their neighbor. So that's another example. But, also, let's try to reach out to the parents. If a youngster did something wrong, we bring the youngster to the police headquarters with them. We invite the parents and we explain what happened. We might make a small contract, saying if your kid stays out of trouble for the next six months, it's okay. But let's see what we can do together to keep him on track—maybe it's only trying to give him a hobby, or, let's say, family counseling, to restore the relationship between children and their parents.
We speak about “revolving door” criminals. Young people are caught by police, brought into court, they get a fine, they come out, they start again and nothing changes. It's frustrating for everybody. So what did we do? We identified ten, and we gave them an “uncle policeman.” They had to report to him every week. It was very strict. That was a little bit of “stick,” and also an agreement with the justice system that when they do one small thing wrong, they are brought immediately into court. But at the same time, there was also a carrot. We spoke with those guys: “Can we find a job for you? Can we find a school again for you? Do you have other problems where we can help?” We thought if we can get those back on track, then it has a big impact. And it worked. We had a lot of trial and error. There was a neighborhood where there was not a lot of real crime but there were youngsters hanging out on the street during the night. We came to the neighborhood and we brought parents together and said, “Listen, the police will come in, and then it will be problematic for your kids, so take up your responsibilities.” We provided them with a small place where they could come together as parents, and we asked them to be on the streets during the evening. It was not an easy conversation in the beginning. But we were aware of an experiment in Amsterdam, so we said let's do it here. And the fathers did it. It had an impact. They, of course, didn't do it for only a few months. It was a big effort for them. But it changes the climate.
It was many things that worked, but we were always trying to mobilize society. And it had to be very openly and clearly stated that the police were not there to take a special interest in any group. It's not a group that creates problems, it is always individuals. That was the first important thing for me.
Mounk: What were some of the next steps, after addressing the security problem, to invest in what some people call “a narrative of us.” How did you create a sense of what it is to be a citizen of Mechelen which is not defined in identitarian or communitarian ways and where it's not just about “we, natives” and “you, newcomers.”
Somers: It's not chronological, of course, you do these together. But the second question is, “How do you create a community-in-diversity?” You try to break down segregation. For me, that was a very important thing. I spoke with a lot of rather progressive people, and they said, “Yeah, diversity is a good thing. It enriches your life in a multicultural society. It has advantages.” And I completely agree, but I asked them, “How many people in your direct neighborhood do you know with different backgrounds? In your group of friends? How many people of foreign backgrounds come to your house and you talk with them?” And they had to admit that it was not so much. We lived in a kind of archipelago of monocultural islands. There was not enough contact between people. And if there was contact, it was always, let's say, a kind of symbolic one—after an incident, bring a rabbi and imam and a priest together, saying that what happened is horrible, and that we all have to be friends and we represent communities. That was a very communitarian approach—
Mounk: —I think segregation means something slightly different in the Belgian context. You're not talking about a big part of town where 97% of people are immigrants, but you're saying you have some neighborhoods that are much more mixed. But in the mixed neighborhood, you might have one store, that's where the people who've been there a long time shop, and then a store next door where immigrants and their descendants go. And so you’re sort of moving past each other, a little bit like what I would call the Canadian model of the salad bowl or the mosaic, where the society as a whole is quite diverse, but it's not the individuals who are mixing; it is that these communities are living next to each other.
Somers: Exactly. For example, we had a lot of people coming from Morocco. They created their own sport and youth clubs, their own society, and there was not a lot of contact between people with different backgrounds in daily life. Then you get two negative things. First of all, you get a kind of identitarian approach, because you are closed up in a certain way in that community, and, at a certain moment, that community starts defining themselves in contrast with the rest, and so you get pressure for people to stick to that group. You may not “collaborate” with others, or you betray your way of life and your values. But the more important thing is that at a certain moment, leaders of those so-called communities—I say “so-called communities” because the diversity within those communities is extreme, because they are all individuals with different capacities, ideas, and convictions—they come to City Hall and they ask to speak with the mayor. Assyrian, Christian Turks came to me and a leader of theirs—the so-called, self-defined leader—said, “I need a community house, because we want to bring our people together to keep our language alive and keep our traditions alive.” And it's a very difficult thing for a mayor to say no, at that time, because you're immediately thinking, “If I can do that, they will trust me. They will be happy with me. And maybe, next time, they will all vote for me.” You start thinking that it is a flock, and he is the shepherd, and he will tell them what to do. In the beginning, I thought maybe I had to do it, because if they have just arrived in Mechelen, they don't have their place yet.
But when I started talking with people there, they said, “We don't need that—we need a job, we need good education. We want to learn your language, the language of Belgium, as soon as possible, because we want to have a future here.” If you follow that communitarian approach, of course, that guy that comes to you as the leader starts to become a middleman between City Hall and citizens, and you get a policy that doesn't function very well. This person will always say, “I'm against that kind of segregated society. I am against living apart. I want to bring people together.” But his real interest is keeping them separate, because then he has power. Then he is an important guy. But nobody elected him.
I will give you another example. We had an American youth club in Mechelen. It started in the 1970s, and the idea behind it was a very good idea. It was, “Let's give people a kind of pride of who they are as youngsters, where they come from, so that they understand their background and their culture.” I think that's a very good thing. But what happened in the youth group in time, of course, was that it became only, in fact, for Moroccans—so, only boys, no girls. There was a big poster of a mosque because they say every Moroccan is a Muslim. There was no alcohol because Moroccans don't drink alcohol. There was only Arabic music because Muslims only like to hear Arabic music. When there was a Muslim feast, a Muslim event, they organized it there. So people feel very good there, they feel very good at home, maybe also very good at the mosque. But when they walk to town, it's a strange town.
And it's also a caricature. Let's say I create a Belgian youth club. Do you have to put a church poster there, because we're all Christians? Do we have to drink beer all the time, because we are beer drinkers? It's not true. When I became mayor, I had a challenge: I had 130 nationalities. Do we have to create a street full of youth clubs for the Russians, the Romanians, the Turks? No. I had to change the youth club. It has to be open for all young people, but with respect for diversity, and teach them that the differences in religion and in backgrounds are not a problem, because one of our many identities is the same: citizens of Mechelen. Let's invest in that.
Mounk: What's striking to me is that there are three different models you can think about in terms of integration. One is the melting pot—that we should all ultimately be the same; that we create a new culture together, and perhaps that resulting culture will bear the influence of the original culture, but in the end, we are all just individual citizens of Mechelen, and our origins are not very important at all. And that, as you're pointing out, is too simplistic—it's important to know where you come from. Then it's easy to jump to the second model that you described, where you have a Moroccan youth club, this youth club and that youth club, and you end up having these brokers of communities who say, “I am the leader of a community,” even though they might not be elected. Those people may not actually have that legitimacy, right? The people in that community may actually dislike them. But from the outside, they look like they're the leader of the community and they get resources and power within that community. With that model, you really don't get that sense of common feeling, because you're really defined as a part of this community, and so if you're from a different community, they may not even be open to coming into contact with you. And the third model—that I think we should aim for—is this hybrid identity, where people continue to be influenced by where they are from, where they can be proud of that, and where they can see some of that reflected in the city, but they will also start to make those connections and start to have a genuine identity as a citizen of Mechelen.
What to you was a sign that citizens, who perhaps earlier did not have that feeling of belonging, were starting to take on that identity? That they were still rooted in their origins, but they also started to make those connections, and started to say, “Yes, I'm actually proud of being from Mechelen,” and so on?
Somers: I'm a very strong believer in the third model. People have a lot of identities. I am a citizen of Mechelen, and of Belgium. I'm European. I’m a father. I don't like soccer. I like to read books. Every one of those identities links me to other people. And identity always does the same thing: it creates a group of your own, and it creates a distance from others. The strange thing is that you always jump from one identity to another one: if I'm in New York, I can say I'm a European; when I'm in Berlin, I will say I'm Belgian; when I'm in Brussels, I will say I'm Flemish. That's the way we do it, and we always look for the small difference. You're always looking for what separates you. But at the same time, it also gives you the possibility to connect. Moroccans are the biggest share of migrants in my city. But if I see the other person only as a Moroccan and nothing else, it will be impossible to make links, because we will be in two separate worlds. But if I can see him as a neighbor, as a father, as somebody who also likes to read, maybe as the same profession as me, I get linked. I tried to create that model in town.
The first time that I felt we made a real difference was during the difficult years of ISIS, when a lot of young people out of Europe joined ISIS and they were taken away in a kind of radicalization process. The biggest group of youngsters who joined ISIS were, by percentage, from Belgium. But from my town, nobody did. And if you ask why, it has to do with the fact that people trusted City Hall as something that embraced them, that made them part of society. When they saw signs of youngsters getting radicalized, they felt they could come to town, to me, to the police, because they knew we didn't see them as enemies. I also used that opportunity to say that we protected our kids from totalitarian thinking. They all became our kids. When the terrorist attack on Brussels happened, I went to the biggest mosque in Mechelen. They were afraid of the society’s reaction. It was a horrible attack at the airport. It was a terrorist attack. People died there. It's only 20 kilometers from Mechelen. Many people of Mechelen also worked at the airports. “What will be the reaction against the Muslims? Will there be pogroms? Will they want to throw us out? Will they shame and blame us on the streets?” I went there as mayor and I said, “Listen very carefully. I am your mayor. You are my citizens. You are twice a victim: once, like everyone else, afraid of getting killed by terrorists, afraid of that totalitarian regime. But secondly, you're also a victim because you're a Muslim, because those guys abused your religious identity to do horrible things, and now you feel you have to excuse yourself for something you have not done. So I'm at your side.” Of course, it was a very emotional moment. But those moments in the life of a city change the view of people towards their city. It becomes much more their city at that moment. They see that they are protected by it. They feel they are seen 100% as citizens.
I’m a 17th-generation citizen of Mechelen, since 1520. Father-to-son, five hundred years in Mechelen. But I also say I'm a first-generation citizen of a multicultural Mechelen, so I also have to integrate into that new reality. I also have to make an effort. It's not only people who are new in society or living only two generations in Mechelen that have to make an effort to be part of society.
Mounk: I'm convinced by most of what you say, but I have one source of mild skepticism, which comes from the strength of what you talk about. A lot of your stories sound like, “We found this guy who's going to open the boxing gym, and at the beginning, I was skeptical, but we gave him a chance, and it worked out,” or “This particular part of town was troubled, we went and found the parents, and we said, can you go and be present in the square?”—that is all very convincing, but it seems to be dependent on two things. One is the scale of your town. This feels much more doable, certainly for the mayor, in a town of 90,000 people, then it would be in a town of two or 10 million, right? The second is that it just takes somebody of vision, conviction, charisma and leadership to make that happen.
There are hundreds of towns like Mechelen across Europe and across other kinds of democracies, and there are cities that are much larger than that—from Paris, to New York, to Berlin, to London, and so on. If people are listening to this from those places, how can they emulate this model? Because we're not going to find hundreds of young, charismatic, really dynamic mayors in every town in Europe. We’ll be lucky in some of them. And we’ll be less lucky in some others. How do we scale this?
Somers: At the moment, I'm a minister of the Flemish government. It's a region with 6.6 million inhabitants. A lot of it is urbanized. I made a contract with 20 cities to install remedies that were devised in Mechelen to bring them also to those cities. Because it's true what you say, every city is different. And of course, we are a rather small city. You cannot compare us with Berlin, Amsterdam or Brussels.
But at the same time, people don't live in Berlin—they live in Neukölln. They live in a part of the city. They live in a neighborhood, where there are schools, shops, clubs and streets. And it's there that you change the reality. It's true that a bigger scale gives other challenges. But I am convinced that the remedies we tried and the programs we invented can be inspirational for working in that direction. It's also a conceptual way of looking at your town: are you prepared to invest your money in more concrete meeting places between people with different backgrounds? Are you prepared to invest in a public domain that really gives people the feeling that they belong and that you can get in contact with people from other backgrounds, who have other ideas, and that you can be free there?
To give you one example of how it can roll out, in Mechelen we created a program where newcomers in town get a buddy and the buddy spends forty hours together with that newcomer, one hour a week. He can practice his Dutch, the language we speak, but at the same time they can speak about the city. He can explain, for example, that when a man and a woman see each other on the street and they give each other a kiss, that that's not an invitation to have sex. That's the way we greet in our country. What does it mean, as a parent, if you have a kid at school in Flanders, in Belgium? What do they have to do as a parent? We brought people like that together. The University of Leuven examined the impact. They said, if you have one person outside of your ethnic, cultural peer group in your daily life, your chances on the labor market and housing market double, because you get a network that helps you to integrate faster. We did it in Mechelen. Now it's a law in Belgium. Every year we have 10,000 buddies, all volunteers, and it's not only interesting for the newcomer, it's also enriching for the people of our society. They change their views on the city and the people who live there.
I even had right-wing conservatives who asked to do that volunteer work for newcomers. They said, “I want to explain to them that they have to respect our values, our society. They have to learn our language.” You can start with that kind of ideology. But what happens? You sit down and have tea. You ask the guy, “How do you feel?” and he will tell you that he feels lonely, that he misses his parents, that he had to run away, that he's a political refugee, that he sees a lot of discrimination and racism. And you get friendship. After those 40 hours we have them at City Hall and give them a kind of reception and thank them both for the good work. But they stay in touch! They become friends. They see each other at Christmas, and maybe at another moment they invite each other into their homes, and their kids become friends. That's a simple example of what you can roll out. We do it now in Flanders (it’s a “great experiment”), but they are also going to do it in the Netherlands, now, too.
Mounk: Let me ask you a final question. When you look at the national level, policy matters a lot, but so too does rhetoric, and how national leaders talk about their country, its future and the role of diversity within that.
What do you recommend to people, whether they are running to be the Chancellor of Germany, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, or President of the United States? What do you think are some pitfalls that you've seen people fall into, and what do you wish that leaders would emphasize and talk about more?
Somers: That is the $10 million question. We live in an era of populism, where people always try to create fear and a feeling of decline, and to strengthen that feeling. And in a certain way, when people are afraid of losing—if they're afraid that the future will not be bright but dark—you can draw them away from the fundamental basis of an open, Western society. They will try to give up “freedom for security.” One of the populists’ strongest weapons is identitarian thinking—us against them. That we are threatened. The “great replacement” stories. “We have to protect our traditions.”
They forget that the most important tradition of the West is change. That's the biggest tradition ever. I always ask, “Do you know who changed our traditions the most?” It's not migrants. It was women. They changed all our traditions at the moment when they asked to go to work and have the right to vote.
What you have to do is try to create perspective but not in an irrational or naive way. It starts with recognizing that diversity is work. It requires effort. But try to emphasize that there is a positive perspective. Left-wing and right-wing politicians agree on one thing: role models are bad. For right-wing politicians, it contradicts their story that migrants and people with different backgrounds are a problem. They always say, “Yeah, you found one, but what about all the others?” But the left-wing politicians do the same, because they say that role models undermine the story that our society is racist and structurally unjust—it’s very paternalistic and sends a negative message. But role models give perspective. They give hope. They fight prejudices.
A democratic politician that tries to make a success of an inclusive society needs to give perspective. At this moment, with the energy crisis, the climate crisis, the way populists are abusing social media, it's a tough fight. But we have to fight. Because if we fight for diversity, and for open-mindedness towards people with other backgrounds, for their right place in society, we are, in fact, fighting for ourselves and the values we stand on. That's what we have to try to do, and every country and every context is different. But at the end of the day, you cannot have freedom without diversity, and you cannot have diversity without freedom. They are linked. If you are a politician that believes in a liberal society, your fight for diversity is a very important one. But never be naive. Never make it into a fairy tale. It's a difficult thing. It's not a walk through the park. But it can be done.
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Podcast production by John T. Williams and Brendan Ruberry. Podcast cover image by Joe O’Shea.
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