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Belgien "Trump not welcome" Marsch durch Brüssel | "Anti-Trump" aber "Pro-America"
Image: DW/M. Christoph

Trump's Brussels visit - a tale of two sides of the city

Teri Schultz
May 25, 2017

US President Donald Trump is meeting NATO and EU leaders in Brussels after his arrival was marked by 9,000 people marching through the city with "Trump not welcome" placards. Memorials are to be unveiled.


Brussels: Trump opponents stage noisy protest

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will unveil a monument composed of part of the Berlin Wall on Thursday, while Trump will unveil a piece of one of the World Trade Center buildings that were destroyed on September 11, 2001, leading to the NATO alliance's only declaration of Article 5, the mutual defense clause.

- NATO will join anti-'Islamic State' coalition

- Trump budget would make UN peacekeeping 'simply impossible'

Donald Trump once labeled Brussels a "hellhole" while on the election campaign trail. On one side of Brussels at NATO headquarters, utmost care has been taken to make sure, as one ambassador put it, "nothing gets mucked up" in the few hours the US president is present. Meanwhile, in the heart of Brussels, thousands of people expended maximum effort to make sure his stay was filled with sights and sounds of opposition to his policies and beliefs.

The "Trump Not Welcome" movement was launched on the campus of Ghent University by a group of students who expected to be able to gather a few hundred of their classmates together to march "for peace and against military adventures, for the preservation of our planet and the environment, for the respect for human rights of all humans, for the struggle against sexism, racism and discrimination."

But once it was on Facebook, organizer Bakou Mertens said, the event took on a life of its own. Suddenly he and his handful of friends were drawn into connecting some 70 NGOs on issues ranging from climate change to pension reform to women's rights. Mertens says people who've never been socially engaged before contacted him to say Trump's policies, plus fears European leaders are heading in similar directions, compelled them to march.

The placard refers to a painting by Belgian surrealist artist Rene Magritte as it shows 'This is not a president'Image: DW/M. Christoph

Marchers say stakes just too high to stay home

By the time the march started on Wednesday evening, more than 20,000 people had signaled interest on Facebook. Official estimates ranged from 6,000 to 9,000 protesters. Among them, a huge range of issues and virtually every demographic were represented. Ten-year-old Inka Spannagle was with her mom and little brother wearing a "Stop Trump: Save the Planet" button. Asked why she felt the need to protest Trump, the youngster said bluntly: "He hates women and he wants to build a wall with Mexico."  Her 7-year-old brother added that he was afraid the US president "would do more bad stuff." Their mother, Jits Gysen, said she wanted European politicians to see there was a groundswell of dissatisfaction with such politics and a need to change course from populist politicians.

Trump: money rules the world

Mertens said Trump is both a curse and a blessing for human rights activists. "He's really doing bad stuff for example for women, for migrants, for gay people, for the environment, for social security and so on," he told DW. But "in those bad situations, we have to use his divisive discourse and his controversial discourse to build a new discourse, a new society. It brings people together against his policies and it brings people together from all kinds of social movements. And that's really interesting to see and we have to use that, and that's what we're doing here in Brussels."

Amnesty Statues of Liberty

Iverna McGowan, the head of Amnesty International's EU office, explained that her organization chose to dress 100 marchers as Statues of Liberty in the hopes that, as a New Yorker, Trump would be impressed by the vision and therefore more amenable to its message.

"[The statue] was initially a gift from Europe to the United States," she points out. "The poem that's embedded on the Statue of Liberty - 'Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses' - actually symbolizes the United States' founding values. So we find these dozens of statues very powerful and very symbolic in that nature reminds President Trump of what the United States is founded on and what it should stand for, standing up for international values."

Lights for Rights feminists

Earlier in the week, Tanja Gohlert, co-founder of the Lights for Rights feminist group, gathered together supporters to make the protest more personal for heads of state and government who would be visiting NATO for the handover of the long-awaited new headquarters building.  

Belgien Brüssel -
Tanja Gohlert writes a personal note to President Donald Trump to go along with a handknitted "pussy hat," a symbol of feminist dissatisfaction with his policies and behavior. Each of the 28 NATO leaders received a hat and a note. Image: DW/T. Schulz

Gohlert wanted to send more than a message to all those leaders in attendance - she sent them each one of the pink knitted hats that have come to represent an anti-Trump, pro-women sentiment.  Each comes with a handwritten note along with it, urging the leader to keep women at the forefront of their policies. Gohlert told DW she wants them to remember that "when it comes to security, it's not just about weapons but human security as well, and development. Taking money from family-planning services does not help security."

NATO to step up to anti-IS plate

NATO leaders are due to take steps Thursday they believe will help secure their nations. With the bomb attack in Manchester casting a shadow over their meeting, they are expected to agree to improve the ratio of financial burden-sharing so that the US contribution is not so disproportionately high. They are also expected to approve the alliance's joining the coalition fighting against the so-called "Islamic State" group in a package of new counterterrorism initiatives

France opposed that move until late Wednesday over a reluctance to increase the amount of its financial contributions to the common NATO funding. It is not clear how those objections have been overcome, but all 28 ambassadors were able to give their go-ahead on both issues to pass it up to the leaders.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg dismissed all the gossip about having to make the meeting and its speeches shorter for a man with a short attention span. Stoltenberg likes short meetings himself. He famously brought in a timer to keep debates moving along. 

While European allies say they would like to hear Trump explicitly recommit the US to the mutual defense clause, the secretary general is sanguine about Trump's commitment, pointing to the just-released US budget proposal. 

"I welcome yesterday's US budget proposal to significantly further increase the US presence in Europe with more troops, infrastructure and exercises," Stoltenberg said at a briefing, interpreting that as a "strong sign of US continued commitment to NATO and to European security."

Trump himself sent out a tweet thanking Brussels for what he called the "warm welcome" he had been given.

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