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Bart Somers
Mayor of Mechelen, Belgium
Winner of the 2016 World Mayor Prize

14 February 2017: Bart Somers, the Mayor of Mechelen (population 86,000), Belgium, has been awarded the 2016 World Mayor Prize. Since becoming mayor in 2001, he has transformed a rather neglected city into one of the most desirable places in Belgium. Over the same period, he has achieved that residents of North African origin are recognised and see themselves as full citizens of Mechelen. Mayor Somers frequently reminds everybody in his city that citizenship provides entitlements but also involves obligations.

Bart Somers has been Mayor of Mechelen since 2001. From 2003 to 2004, he was also Minister-President of the Belgian region of Flanders and, since 2014, Bart Somers sits in the Flemish regional parliament for the Flemish Liberals and Democrats (VLD). He is a native of Mechelen and holds a law degree from the Catholic University of Leuven, the country’s oldest academic institution. The Mechelen Mayor has spent most of his professional adult life close to or in politics. In the early nineties, he was deputy editor of the VLD publication ‘Burgerkrant’ (citizens newspaper). Later he became party spokesman and from 2004 to 2009, was party president. From 1994 to 2000, he was also a member of the Mechelen municipal council.

Belgian communities with large Muslim populations came under the spotlight, when it became apparent that many of the perpetrators of the 2015 terrorist attacks in France came from or had connections to Molenbeek, a working class district of Brussels. Per capita, more young Muslim men from Belgium joined the fighting in Syria and Iraq than from any other European country - and many came from Flemish towns and cities between Antwerp and Brussels. There was one exception: Mechelen, a town of some 86,000 people where 20 per cent of residents are Muslims. None of its young Muslims joined ISIS or other jihadist groups in the Middle East.

Long before the flow of refugees from the Middle East and Africa became officially a ‘crisis’ in the summer of 2015, Bart Somers recognised the utmost importance of integration. In an interview with World Mayor, the Mechelen Mayor says “What counts is not your origin, but your future.” With more than 128 different nationalities, Mechelen is one of the most diverse cities in Europe but it is also a city where first and foremost everyone is a citizen of Mechelen. The Mayor, a liberal by conviction and politics, supports personal freedom within a framework of fundamental human values. In the interview - the questions were asked by an international audience - Bart Somers says: “If we consistently, not selectively, put our fundamental principles - I am talking equal opportunities, non-discrimination, in addition to equality between men and women and freedom of speech etc - into practice, then we make the model of rule of law and democracy more appealing, more attractive than extremist alternatives.”

Perhaps unusual for a liberal politician, Bart Somers is tough on crime. Indeed, he has been labelled a law-and-order mayor and given the nickname ‘Mr Zero Tolerance’. Safety and security are essential for people to strive for success and happiness. Mechelen has provided its police force with more resources and has installed more CCTV cameras than any other town in Belgium.

When asked what have immigrants contributed to Mechelen, Mayor Somers replies: “The immigrant does not exist, just as the autochthon does not exist. The 86,000 residents of Mechelen are all unique and all different.”

During the height of the refugee crisis, Mechelen was the only city in Belgium that specifically asked to be allowed to house people fleeing the war zones of the Middle East. While there were people in Mechelen who were opposed to the city asking to house refugees, the Mayor felt that a city that strived for justice and humanism could not look away. The administration offered the Red Cross a piece of land and buildings for a temporary refugee camp. The city also developed a comprehensive programme, including language classes and introductory courses to Belgian society, staffed by volunteers. The Mayor says the opportunity of working together with the newcomers freed Mechelen residents of their fear of refugees. When the refugees left, Mayor Somers thanked them because “they have made our city better and not vice versa.” He continued: “Our shelter initiative cost us some money and caused our administration some efforts, but they were perhaps the best efforts of 2016.”

Bart Somers has written two books: Samen leven - een hoopvolle strategie tegen IS (Living together – a promising strategy against ISIS) and Mechelen - Bouwstenen voor een betere stad (Mechelen - Building blocks for a better city)

Extract from Mayor Somers’ World Mayor essay:
If you ask me for a policy recommendation, I would say that we need a Minister of Society, who is literary responsible for living together, a minister that forges us together into a community based on similar citizenship. A citizenship that does not require that one should take over the preferences of another, but will impose that everyone respects our basic values. Shared citizenship or inclusive society does not exist if we keep living next to each other instead of together. Such a minister of Society needs to connect and to prevent that young people grow up in isolation and alienation of our society as it unfortunately occurs in several European big cities nowadays. Such a minister combats prejudice and requires effort from everyone, by pulling us all out or our comfort zones. Such a policy takes courage. It requires perseverance because prejudices are persistent. MORE

Typical tribute:
European cities that will thrive this century and beyond are those that harness the experience, skills and creativity of both local people and newcomers. Cities that will reject new blood, new ideas, new cultures will wither and become irrelevant in a world that flourishes on global connectivity. Bart Somers, mayor of Mechelen, a medium-sized city in Belgium, has in his 15 years in office shown what inclusivity can achieve. MORE

Further reading:
TRIBUTES | ESSAY | INTERVIEW