Michael Gray: Life goes on in Brussels, despite the fear

Belgian security
BESIDE the McDonald’s and Pizza Hut, two gun wielding soldiers patrol in full camouflage gear among the strolling shoppers. Over their shoulders a young woman sings with electric guitar accompaniment. It’s an open air gig in the centre of Brussels’ Bourse Beursplein square.

The backdrop is the city’s stock exchange building, which is still marked with the human chalk storm that followed the March attacks. Thirty-five people died when three bombs were set off in the metro system and city airport. Today is the morning after the attack in Nice, yet life goes on. All sides of the exchange are inscribed with hopeful messages, remnants of an outpouring of social solidarity. “All you need is love.” “Stay strong.” “We love Belgium.” CND peace signs. “I am not afraid. Ryan, a Scottish Belgian.” “ISIS is no Islam.” The messages continue high up towards the old statues perched on its plinths.

With another day, another location is added to the list above a makeshift shrine on the building’s main steps: “Orlando, Baghdad, Istanbul, Nice.” Underneath a man lies on the ground curled up in a flimsy blanket.

In one square you have the diverse mixture of life. A wee boy cascades around the scene on a pair of rollerblades. Cyclists criss-cross. Tourists pose. Then, amid the increased competition for attention, a sound system kicks into gear and one after another a parade of dancers appear from within the crowd. Soon there are almost fifty theatre performers dancing away, alongside a few confused but enthusiastic passers-by who try to mimic the routine.

The entire promenade – previously the congested centre of Brussels’ transport network – has been blocked off to traffic for security reasons. The regular sight of armed men is also a reminder of how the state has responded to public security fears.

In contrast, the streets once monopolised by cars have been reclaimed by these weird eruptions of performers and social gatherings.

Permanent ping-pong tables have been erected along the road. Tree trunks and makeshift three-level benches now provide space for people to stop, think, and drink in the summer sun. It demonstrates how people and places adapt in fearful circumstances.

Brussels, of course, is a capital of Europe. Another square, Place de Luxembourg, sits beside its political nexus – the European Parliament. After a week’s meetings, the area is flooded by young suited interns on Thursday evenings. Having visited Holyrood and Westminster, I can see similarities. Ambitious 20-somethings chat seriously in the street’s bars.

All they want to talk to me about is Brexit and Scottish independence like I’m a typecast extra due to my accent and hair colour. Enjoying a debate, I oblige. The French and the Germans are friendly. And the Irish. I met a group from the Labour Party who were suffering something of an identity crisis, and weren’t sure if the UK union was worth defending any more.

Gabbing away alongside us all was an American businessman – in town for the TTIP trade talks. For him, and I expect for many international business observers like him, Scotland’s future is merely a matter of cold hard cash. Deficits, currencies, trade flows, share prices, competitive advantages…he wanted to know them all to overcome his natural scepticism towards any form of political change.

The reality of the world is that those who control financial capital often have as much power over our democracies as the people who live in our capitals and towns. Both have to be engaged with. Given the difficulties all governments have had in achieving that since the 2008 financial crash, I don’t think my few words over Belgian beer will have quite answered those questions.


Not happy with UK decisions? You know the answer…

I REMEMBER optimistic friends who thought by now the UK, governed by Ed Miliband, safely cradled within the EU, would be considering a move towards scaling back Trident nuclear weapons. After yesterday’s vote to unilaterally renew the UK’s weapons of mass destruction, those expectations have proved fanciful.

While much attention is placed on the unexpected upheaval of Brexit, I would suggest there have now been three significant democratic injustices forced upon the people of Scotland in just 14 months.

The Tory majority, the Brexit vote, and now Trident renewal have all swiftly followed one another with no sign of that “partnership of equals” promised to Scotland during the independence referendum.

I don’t criticise anyone who had high hopes of UK reform just two years ago. Few people could have ever predicted exactly the sharp disintegration of Westminster stability. But now that it’s happened the democratic case for Scottish independence is undoubtedly stronger than ever.

Brexit is but one significant example of this. For votes in Scotland to count in decision- making on economy, Europe or peace, we need to have constitutional sovereignty in our own hands.

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