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'Failed state' Belgium aims to rebrand two months after attacks

In the wake of the Brussels attacks, Belgium is suffering an image problem. A new government media campaign hopes to change that - but will it be enough? Martin Kuebler reports.

In the two months since the Brussels attacks, the reputation of Belgium has taken a beating. The alleged security lapses by the federal government and revelations that most of the attackers - not only in Brussels but also in the Paris attacks last November - had ties to the notorious Brussels district of Molenbeek has sorely tarnished the country's image.

Since March, the sight of military patrols on the streets of the Belgian capital and travel chaos caused by the month-long closure of the airport and public transportation restrictions have led many tourists to avoid Brussels, with some reports quoting a 40 percent drop in hotel business. A series of strikes at the newly reopened airport in April and early May didn't help matters either.

Prison warders launched a strike more than a week ago which originally scheduled to last 24 hours. From Today on soldiers will be deployed for humanitarian missions in Walloon and Brussels prisons to assist the federal police and the Red Cross. BELGA PHOTO FILIP DE SMET |

The Belgian army has stepped in to maintain security in prisons in Brussels and Wallonia

Another strike, now in its fourth week, has seen prison staff in Brussels and the French-speaking south walk off the job, with the army again being called in to maintain security. Deteriorating conditions in Belgium's overcrowded jails have drawn criticism from Europe's top human rights institution.

Meanwhile, a much-touted plan by Brussels Mayor Yvan Mayeur to transform a sizeable chunk of the city center into one of Europe's largest pedestrian zones has faltered, faced with political wrangling and opposition from businesses worried about the economic impact of extensive construction.

Added to all that are the multiple closures of key road tunnels after years of decay and crumbling concrete, which has added even more traffic to already congested streets. "Urgent repairs" in some of the tunnels in Belgium's economic center are expected to last until the end of the year.

With these and numerous other serious setbacks, critics at home and abroad have taken to referring to Belgium as a "failed state." It's a charge that Prime Minister Charles Michel strongly denied in the weeks after the attacks, all the while acknowledging that "we have a lot of work to do."

Focus on the positive

One of those tasks appears to be a rebranding exercise. On Friday, Michel's coalition government announced the launch of a 4-million-euro ($4.5 million) public relations effort to "enhance the image of Belgium." A two-year advertising campaign, provisionally known as "Positive Belgium" and due to be launched in October, will "address the concerns of the tourism and business sectors" - in other words, soothe the worries of anxious investors and tourists and play up everything good that Belgium has to offer.

A spokesman for the prime minister's office told DW that the campaign is still in its early stages, and that details have yet to be finalized. He did mention, however, that government officials would be promoting Belgium's interests abroad and that major international events - like the Olympics and the Tour de France, which rolled through Belgium last summer - could be involved.

Though apparently national in scope, much of the campaign will no doubt be devoted to rehabilitating the image of Brussels, as Denis Dubrulle of the advertising agency Federate points out.

"Most foreigners associate Belgium with Brussels," he told DW. "So to fix the country's image, you first need to fix the image of Brussels."

As creative director, Dubrulle says his Brussels-based agency might be interested in taking part in the campaign - but only if it goes beyond pretty pictures and slick promotional videos.

"It's really about gaining trust again, for tourists but also for investors," he said, adding that the campaign should include a long-term vision of where the country should go, and show that Brussels is a city that's safe for its residents, tourists and international investors, one that's "stronger after the attacks."

"The more concrete the actions are, the better," he said. As examples, Dubrulle pointed to tourist-targeted social media campaigns by other agencies - among them #diningforbrussels or #sprouttobebrussels - that aim to get people talking about Brussels without mentioning the attacks, "to show that we're still alive."

"All these things help, just to show that we're still here and there's still a lot people who are happy to be here."

Independence for Brussels?

But there are those who think Belgium's problems go deeper than a simple image problem. In an open letter in the French-language daily "Le Soir" last week, three prominent Belgian CEOs said the country's linguistic divide and its "complicated, irrational political structure," where "no one is really responsible, but [every project] can easily be blocked" is also partially to blame.

Illustration picture shows traffic signs on the first day the new traffic plan for the pedestrian zone is in effect, on Monday 29 June 2015, in the Brussels city center. BELGA PHOTO SISKA GREMMELPREZ

A major pedestrian zone planned for downtown Brussels has been slow to start

The CEOs held up the sorry state of Brussels, with its 19 districts, six police zones and multiple levels of government - which have led to drawn-out squabbling over the pedestrian zone and the tunnels, among other issues - as a prime example which "shames our country."

So instead of simply rebranding Brussels and hoping for the best, should the Belgian capital clear out the political hurdles and go its own way? It's an attractive idea but not necessarily the right solution, at least according to Jean-Luc Crucke, a member of Prime Minister Michel's centrist Mouvement Reformateur party.

Along with his party colleague Pierre-Yves Jeholet, Crucke has proposed that Belgium be reorganized into four distinct regions - French, Flemish, German and an "emancipated" Brussels Capital Region, freed from its current ties to the francophone Federation Wallonia-Brussels. Under their proposal, the reimagined communities would "clarify and simplify" political responsibilities and "keep the country together," rather than divide it further.

"There's absolutely no reason why Brussels should not have the same rights and responsibilities as the Flemish and Wallonia regions," Crucke, the vice president of the Parliament of Wallonia, told DW. "Such is the case in Germany, in Switzerland, and there's no reason why we can't do that here."

In terms of rebranding Brussels, Crucke thinks much needs to be done to show that the capital knows where it's going and where its strengths lie, which he believes are multiculturalism and multilingualism.

"Brussels is not just the capital of Belgium, it's also the capital of Europe," he said. "It's not in anyone's interest that the center of Europe remains stagnant."

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