How much do you care about problems in other European cities?

Ask a 25-year old Belgian living in Brussels whether she approves of the European Union and any of the programs she’s aware of such as Erasmus. Ask the same question to a 65-year old living in the Flemish or Walloon countryside. Repeat the exercise in Western and Eastern Germany, in Poland, Hungary and Greece. In the Czech Republic, where only a few years ago the spirit of championing the European Union was at its highest.

Why are populist and nationalist parties gaining ground in several European countries? Why do certain segments of the population continue to feel disenfranchised? Is a fiscal union the only way to have a truly unified Europe? These are questions that have been asked time and again since the Greek and Portuguese crisis, UK’s referendum, elections in Austria, the Netherlands, France and Germany, among others.

Many cultural entities are aware of the risks and challenges that lie ahead for Europe in 2019: the 29th of March, (Brexit with no deal, extension to reach an agreement, another referendum in the UK); the outcome of the European elections on the 23rd – 26th of May. The inter-dependencies and possible implications are beyond any pundit’s cheap wisdom.

The Goethe Institute is one of such entities, concerned with active steps to look for answers, alternatives to what could otherwise be a gloomy outcome for the current European model. With this in mind, the Goethe Institute launched FREIRAUM (Free Space), a project to assess the state of freedom in Europe’s cities. What are the issues that come up when residents, sociologists and creative artists think about the concept of “freedom” in very local terms? What problems are observable in a city? By swapping questions across Europe, 42 Goethe Institutes and their partners in the arts and civil society (theaters, universities, associations) across Europe are developing creative answers for one another.



The 42 locations were paired randomly (called tandems), then had their questions swapped. “So now Thessaloniki is now working with Carlisle, an anti-Mafia association in Rome is getting to know an art and science centre in Nicosia, and a Brussels theatre is collaborating with a Warsaw NGO that advocates against filter bubbles and echo chambers on the Internet,” said Brussels-based project director at the Goethe Institute, Cristina Nord.


On Saturday January 25th, The Big Conversation on safety and freedom will take place in downtown Brussels at Beurschouwbourg, the local art and cultural center with which the Goethe Institute partnered. Thirteen “discussion” tables will be arranged with one opinion-maker leading and moderating the conversations.

One of the opinion makers, Pé Verhoeven, was kind enough to have a conversation with me about about the topics he will be addressing on the 25th (citizens’ role on safe neighborhoods) but with a wider perspective, including questions from some of the other discussion tables, as well as from other cities (tandems).


Pé Verhoeven
Pé Verhoeven


Mauricio Ruiz: What exactly will these groups identify and notify about? Is there a risk of in-group Versus out-group, where the out-group could be the target of any kind of profiling?

Pé Verhoeven: Whenever there is something suspicious going on in our street, or when there is a clear breach of laws, members of the WhatsApp group will notify each other so that we are all informed and may act if necessary (for instance contact the police).

All people who are living in the street can become a member for free but no one is obliged to join. People who don’t have WhatsApp will have to rely on others for the information.

MR: (From Katarzyna Szymielewicz’s topic – Online privacy & safe internet): Could the state have access to these exchanges (via WhatsApp and other technologies?)

As I am the administrator of the WhatsApp group, we make sure the addresses and numbers are not shared with anyone else outside the group. The state cannot access the info at all as WhatsApp is scrambled. I can only imagine that in case of urgency, e.g. to find out the sequence of a certain event, we would share some information if that would help to identify a breach of law.

MR: (From the Danish tandem question): How can a city ensure social diversity and harmonious coexistence? Why is there a need for “Vigilanti groups” in the first place? Is safety the responsibility of a city’s governing institutions? Whose is it?

On the first point, I think there is no direct link between social diversity/coexistence and safety. It concerns other matters.

However, safety is a delicate issue. Yes, the city should ensure a basic level of safety in keeping law and order. But as I think that after food/water and health, safety scores high as a primary need, citizens themselves should also look after their safety and security whenever they can (think of e.g. good locks on the doors and windows).

The WhatsApp group in question doesn’t consider itself as a vigilante initiative. There is also no ‘traditional’ neighbourhood watch as we are just keeping each other informed in case of necessity. We work under strict rules: we signal, alert, ‘app’ and respond if necessary. Up till now (in the last two years) the app has been used twice to address an issue: once when there was a theft of bicycles in the street (and the police was informed and could stop the culprits), and another time when there was a burglary in the street and people were told to be careful.