Portrait: Laurent Thieule – Director, Committee of the Regions, EU
Name: Laruent Thieule
Profession: Director, Committee of the Regions, EU
“In Belgium we’re totally divided . . . the national football team is the only unifying point in the whole country.”
‘One of the hardest-working people you’ll meet’ I was told as I was taken through security at the Committee of the Regions building on Belliard. My guide was talking about Laurent Thieule, who kindly took a few moments out of his day to speak to Brussels Express.
Mr Thieule, could you begin by telling us a little about your professional journey?
I had been working in France, which is my native country, until the age of 40, and then I came to Brussels a bit randomly because I had the opportunity to join the Committee of the Regions during its infancy in 1994, so 25 years ago. We left France and I said to my wife, who is Belgian, we’re coming back to your home country! She told me she wasn’t so happy – she thought I wouldn’t like the way of life, the rain, the big contrast with Montpellier. But we came here with the whole family and we had our third child at the end of the year.
I don’t live in the city; I live out in Wezembeek-Oppem, out of Brussels near the airport, and I only come into the city for working.
In terms of my career, I started working in Paris in the Assemblée Nationale and stayed for three years and then I joined the Languedoc Roussillon Regional Assembly, and I was Head of the Cabinet of the President of the Region for 18 years. I was very committed to sporting events and was CEO of the 1993 Mediterranean Games.
What were your first impressions of Brussels?
The first time I came through Brussels was in a taxi from the airport and passing the Cinquantenaire Arc de Triomphe, I thought, ‘This is a nice city; I like it.’ Then you arrive on Rue de la Loi where the traffic is so busy and then Belliard, which is even more polluted – the most polluted street in Europe – so I was very shocked. Immediately, I saw there was a contrast of architecture and urbanism from one neighbourhood to the other. I had an impression of huge chaos, with a lot of building work going on, a lot of traffic. Compared to Paris and London, here nothing feels designed and the urban concept does not exist. But the chaos is very human and very diverse, and I like this diversity.
I’m the owner of a vineyard in the south of France, in the village where my father was Mayor for 30 years and I have strong family roots. So, I decided to buy a vineyard with my family. I go back there to take care of the harvest. I like to have a link to my native village. I feel more French than Belgian, and more French than European I have to say. There’s now a plane route with Ryan Air to Montpellier, so I go back every month, because my mother and siblings still live there and I have the land to take care of. I’m not homesick, because I can go back there often, but I do feel more French than Belgian.
Even after all this time? What is it, you think, that makes you feel French rather than Belgian?
I suppose French schools, French education, French history. The French heroes we have. For me Napoleon is a hero (I’m sorry about that!). Générale de Gaulle is a hero. The beauty of the country, the culture, the French language – it’s a beautiful language to listen to, to read, to speak . . . and it’s one of the founding countries for democracy in the world. The Declaration of Human Rights. So this is in my blood, my DNA. Kylian Mbappé is another hero of mine. When we won the World Cup in Russia, I was in the stadium and I cried during the Marseillaise! It was great. We felt really French and proud to be there.
However I try not to compare and I don’t feel homesick. In my football club they call me Le Francais. They like my accent when I speak French. When I go to the north of the country where people speak Flemish, the first thing I say is ‘Sorry, I don’t speak Flemish because je suis francais.’ They accept this and don’t mind speaking French to me. Many Flemish people go to the south of France on holiday, so they accept it. Often they don’t accept speaking French with other Belgian people, but when you explain that you’re French, they are tolerant and will share some words with you in the language of Moliere.
My main concern when I came to Brussels was to be integrated in my new city, because I think that people like me – civil servants, migrants, people coming from the outside – they have to make the effort to be integrated. Successful integration is a two-way effort. People welcome you, but you have to make the most effort to be integrated. My wife found a job at Kraainem Primary School when we arrived, and I immediately went to register in Kraainem Football Club, and now I’ve been the President of the Club for ten years.
All my friends are native Belgians. I belong to a cycling association and I’m President of the football club and so I’ve done my best since day one to share the city and way of life with Belgian people. In other words, I have no private relationships with European civil servants. I see them all day, every day, all the year, but I think if you want to integrate successfully you have to share your time, your passions, your family with the people living in the city. So I did my best to be accepted as an integrated newcomer.
Your relationship with the football club there has been quite phenomenal. Very successful.
Yes. The thing I’m most proud of at the football club is the diversity of the people. We have 350 kids, of more than 42 nationalities, so it’s a big multi-cultural platform which creates strong social capital. We decided four years ago in 2015 to launch an initiative welcoming young refugees to the club. Three days a week, for the last four years, we’ve been welcoming a group of young refugees, all minors, unaccompanied asylum-seekers. We pick them up in the refugee centre in Woluwe-Saint-Pierre on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday evenings. They do some French or English courses and then they play football in teams with the young kids from our club. They have dinner and we take them back to their centre. It’s a big integration success. Over the four years, we’ve welcomed around 2000 unaccompanied minors. We’re supported by the European Commission, Erasmus+ Programme, by the UEFA Foundation for Children, and by other foundations and private companies, so it’s a huge programme. It’s a European Pilot Project and this is one of my greatest achievements since coming to Brussels. I’m very proud of it, because we’ve shown that integration is possible with a diverse community. Diversity adds value and is not an obstacle.
Will you go back to France when you retire?
I don’t know. In two years I will be old enough to stay at home every morning. I think I will share my life between Brussels and my village because my roots are still there. My children are here and they are 29, 27, and 24 years old and they’re having new families of their own, so I think my wife would like to stay here for the grandchildren. Luckily with Ryan Air, we have a chance to share our life between the south of France and Brussels.
But regarding the European Institutions – just one word on this, because I’ve always worked in political assemblies: the Assemblée Nationale, then the Regional Assembly in the south of France, and now the European institutions – I like and appreciate working for politicians. They don’t all have a great reputation, but I have to say that elected local people are very useful for maintaining democracy, for maintaining social cohesion, for maintaining integration solutions. When they are criticized, I have to say that the big, big majority of politicians are honest, are not corrupt and are committed to a sense of democracy and citizenship which is great and useful for the European Union, the member states and regional assemblies.
If you were Mayor in Brussels or in charge of the Brussels Capital Region, what would your first action be?
Mobility. Mobility has become a mess for people commuting in and out of Brussels. We need to facilitate cycling and collective transport. The burning issue is mobility in Brussels. We have the hugest traffic jams in Europe and this is not acceptable. Ever since I came to Brussels, there’s been talk about the TER, the inter-regional train, but it’s a dream; they’ve been discussing and discussing it for years. For people coming to Brussels from outside, it’s a nightmare every day and this is not great. When you go to the north of Europe – to Copenhagen, Amsterdam, or Stockholm, you have 37% of the population riding bicycles to work. This is the solution. But here, if you take a bicycle to Rue de la Loi, it’s a big risk, you could be killed by a car at any time of day. The big issue is mobility in Brussels. I would put a lot of public investment into restoring the pistes cyclables, the avenues and giving harmony to pedestrians. Also, more park-and-rides at the metro stations, so you could park your car and take the metro if you live in the surrounding neighbourhoods, which is not the case at the moment. It’s a huge caseload for the President of Brussels Capital.
What has your attention in the news at the moment?
I don’t read anything about Brexit any more. Every day I read Le Monde and Le Soir, and L’Equipe because I’m a football fan. I’ve been keenly following how Macron has tried to manage the gilets jaunes situation in France and his organisation of the grand debat and citizen dialogues. I think it’s a great experiment in participative democracy, but we’re still waiting to see what policies he commits to. It’s important because, in Belgium, the government have done a lot of financial reform which was very profitable for the country. In France, there hasn’t been enough courage to do the same. If we want to reform the country, and France is a very difficult place to reform because the French are very conservative, we need a strong President. Macron must show that he has the political will to change things, which was the case of the Charles Michel government here. The problem in Belgium is that the political situation is never stable and we can sometimes go months without having a majority government, and this penalises us a lot. It delays the process of reforming this country. It’s a pity because the people in the north of Flanders are keen on change and giving more freedom to companies and more flexibility to the labour market, in order to reform the employment situation in Belgium. Some people are ready to change, but the government must be stable and ready to act.
Would you draw any other comparisons between France and Belgium, or Montpellier in particular and Brussels?
Brussels’s specificity is its diversity. I’ve never seen such a diverse city. It’s really multi-cultural. When you go from one street to another, the cultural context changes and this is a richness, an added-value for the municipality. I’ve found the Mayor, Philippe Close, very clever. He says diversity adds value for building up new social cohesion.
In the south of France, we have a big majority of cities where the Front National dominates political life. In my village, 65% of voters voted Marine Le Pen in the second round of the presidential election. You cannot imagine! In a lot of cities, this is the case. Macron was seen as a new political wave, but he has some difficulty because people are out in the street. As I said, to reform the French is a challenge, because there are people who have privileges who want to keep their privileges. They don’t want to work more, until they’re older. They want to keep their car. They want to keep everything they have and they don’t want to share and to be part of the process of reform.
In Belgium, the main characteristic of the capital city is diversity, and the characteristic of the country is that we have two countries. We’re totally divided. Flanders is another country. When you go from one village at the border of Flanders into a Wallonian village, it’s a new country. You don’t speak the same language, you don’t have the same music, or the same actors on the TV. It’s totally different. When confederalist fans, like NVA (New Flemish Alliance) say we have to move to a confederal system, I understand their vision but it’s not my story; it’s the story of the Belgian people. They have to decide themselves about their future. But for now, we’re two different countries with a border, not with different laws or different social security, but the national football team is the only unifying point in the whole country! If social security were regionalised, that would totally be the end of the Belgian story of one linked country, because the only link between the people is this solidarity between the north and the south.
You often hear about people in Flanders complaining that they subsidise Wallonia. Is that sense of social solidarity breaking down?
It’s just about maintained by the federal system of social security. If we change and regionalise social security, we’ll divide the country definitively. Solidarity will be killed. I can understand the Flemish mentality is totally different to those in the south, because some in the south are too ‘assisted’. In the north, when you see the companies which are created, the jobs they create, the dynamism of the people – even the farmers are different to the south. When you look at the big farms in the north of this country, they’re different to the small farms with a few cows you have in Wallonia which are helped by the Common Agricultural Policy from Brussels. There’s a cultural mentality of being ‘assisted’ by the regional and federal government and by the European Union. This is the typical situation in the south of the country. The south of the country is not capable by itself of facing political and economic challenges.
Do you have any anecdotes or experiences of Belgian surrealism?
I had a sport experience, in cyclo-cross – cross-country cycling – where they cycle across fields and up and down. It’s a spectacular Belgian sport, a national sport, and there’s a Belgian championship here. Once I went to a village near Brussels, called Vossem, and there was a cyclo-cross circuit there. At one point, in a flat field they’d put a tent, with two bars either side – and the cyclists were riding through the middle of the tent! The people, the fans, were drinking beers and watching the cyclists riding in between the two bars. That was totally surrealistic!
What advice would you give to people coming to Brussels in the future?
I meet a lot of kids in my football club, and here in my office; people looking for jobs. My advice is: never regret what you do. Be mobile. The world is huge. Go out, far from your parents’ cocoon, and discover the world. And don’t regret what you do. If you decide to come to Brussels, it’s a brilliant idea, don’t look back to your past but project yourself into the future. The future is always brilliant if you accept that mobility is the key issue for the new generation. I advise people coming into the labour market to open their eyes and see the opportunities they have outside of their house, outside of their city, out of their country. That’s the advice I would give. Never regret what you do. Life is short, but never regret.
Good advice! Some quickfire final questions: do you have any favourite shops in Brussels?
I never go shopping! I go shopping when my wife obliges me to buy trousers for the beginning of winter. It takes me a quarter of an hour to buy three pairs of trousers or a suit. I never go shopping. I like some places – more bars than shops. I know a small bar in a village – you should go there – in the small village of Vossem near Tervuren. You have the Church, and behind the Church is a bar where you can get a beer for less than one euro! It’s the cheapest bar in Europe I think! The name is In Den Congo, because the Congo was a former Belgian colony. There are posters of Tintin in the Congo. It’s great. It’s a very strange place, where everything – beer, coca cola, orange juice – is one euro or less. It’s where I used to go for a beer every Saturday morning after my cycle ride.
That’s a great tip! Does that mean that beer is your favourite Belgian specialty?
Absolutely. When I first came to Brussels, I never drank beer, but now I can drink beer just like any Belgian friend of mine. This goes back to what I said at the start of our conversation. You have to make the effort to be integrated. If you drink pastis in Belgium, people won’t understand, so please, drink beer and fit in with the people welcoming you!
And yet, there seems a lot more variety in the way people drink here than in the UK. I’ve seen workmen, labourers, in their work trousers with tool pockets, come into bars in Belgium and order a bottle of sparkling white wine to drink between them. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that in the UK because there’s a silly assumption that white wine is a ‘woman’s drink’.
I drink white wine because I produce white wine in my vineyard in my village. But in Belgium it depends on the clientele of the bar. In my football club we drink a lot of beer. Last Saturday we had a full day of matches and we drank 2000 beers in one day!
2000 beers! For how many people?
Hundreds of people. At the end of the day I went to the kitchen, and they’d sold over 2000 beers. And I was one of them!
What’s your best memory of Brussels?
The birth of my third kid, Pauline. She was born in December 1994 in the Hôpital Saint-Luc. The birth of a child is always the best moment of your life.
Any personal wishes linked to the city?
The city must not change from a sociological point of view. Diversity is the main asset of Brussels, but transportation should be improved.
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