Seven. Several Belgian cities are vying for the title of “European Capital of Culture 2030”. But the fierce battle spoils the relations between the two candidates.
Axel Ronse, Kortrijk alderman for Culture (N-VA), can’t laugh about it. Since 2019, he has been doing everything he can to make Kortrijk the chosen one for the title of European Capital of Culture 2030. Bruges then shoots the pigeons by also presenting himself as a candidate on December 23rd. Not that such a thing is forbidden. But Ronse would have liked to present Kortrijk as a candidate for unity in West Flanders, with a cultural program on “happiness in work and mental well-being”. In an angry open letter, he asked Bruges to withdraw his candidacy, because “the platform that Kortrijk could have would also benefit Bruges.” In doing so, he credits Bruges with a “sleeping picture” (despite its “strong cultural players”) and anticipates a waste of resources, since “Europe is not inclined to call the same city over again”. Because Bruges was already the Capital of Culture in 2002. When asked, Ronse explained that he had discussed this with a Bruges alderman of culture two years ago, “and now they deny any conversation ever took place.”
Even if it doesn’t work, you’ve taken steps toward the city you want, even after 2030.
Piet Forgier, Leuven Director of Culture
Bruges Mayor Dirk de Vaux (CD&V) reacts curtly. It’s strange that Ronse is so angry against Bruges. He is a native of Bruges himself. Because he did not earn a spot on the N-VA roster here, he transferred to Kortrijk. But mainly: Where does Bruges’ sudden desire to compete again come from? De Vaux: “Because many people, at the Flemish and federal level, have told us that they would be surprised if Bruges, the city of culture par excellence, did not participate.” About Ronse’s request for a West Flemish contingent, he replied belligerently: “I have inquired with several actors and authorities in Bruges, and no one remembers that Axel Ronse had any contact over the past two years.” Ronse: “The mayor is lying and I can prove it. It’s all very petty and childish. I wrote a constructive open letter and got a huge blow in return. It’s a pity that a city like Bruges has to deal with a mayor who is so rambunctious.
We could see the quarrel as temporary foam on the waves, were it not for the fact that it says something about the changing concept behind the European Capital of Culture. First of all, this time, unlike the previous ones, he is very busy in the list of contenders. Just count: Kortrijk, Bruges, Ghent, Leuven, Turnhout, Brussels and Liège. Ostend and Hasselt considered taking part, but withdrew. At the end of 2025, a European jury will select the most convincing project proposal. Last time, in 2015, the jury didn’t have much to choose from, because there was only one nominee: Bergen. This was for a non-cultural reason. After Antwerp (1993), Brussels (2000) and Bruges (2002), it was clear that it should become a Walloon city. Moreover, the then Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo (PS) was the mayor of Mons.
Conclusion number two: the laureate no longer needs to be a cultural diva. “Have you ever heard of Kaunas and Novi Sad?” asks Caitlin Voss. She teaches Tourism and Leisure Management at the PXL University of Applied Sciences in Limburg. Kaunas (Lithuania) and Novi Sad (Serbia) were the cultural capitals in 2022, “and famous unknowns to most foreigners.” They are also not on major traffic hubs. If you want to go there, you have to make an effort. A bit like Kortrijk, yeah. And if the title was an opportunity to show off your gems or to build new ones (think Bruges Concertgebouw, Magdalenazaal, Ito Suite) – that has changed, too. The European jury is now even more enchanted by a city that shows a futuristic view of culture and society. Caitlin Voss: “It’s no longer about attracting as many tourists as possible.”
From the bottom
Catherine Laporte, Director of the Ghent Design Museum, contributed to Bruges in 2002 and is now supporting the Ghent candidacy. She knows better than anyone that “this isn’t a beauty pageant anymore.” The jury considers how the city innovatively raises current issues. Laporte bluntly mentions “climate, poverty, diversity, and migration”. Ghent believes that the best ideas come from below, and this has led to a great democratic ritual (which is also something the European jury appreciates: support and participation): four hundred key figures, authorities and organizations, and citizens of neighborhoods and sub-districts were questioned. Municipalities can say what they do in discussion sessions. All this led to a report submitted to the “Future Thinkers in Ghent”. “Everyone was allowed to sign up for this,” says Sami Sagir (Open VLD), a member of the local council of culture in Ghent. “There were 193 applicants, of whom thirty remain.” They created an inclusive concept, from which we remember that “Ghent – the free cultural outlet” is the motto, diversity is the common thread and water is the connecting element. Of course you don’t have a cultural program with that. That will be left to a technical coordinator who has not yet been appointed.
Lovin also opts for an “everyone can think along” approach. According to Director of Culture Piet Forger, the city can be proud of a tradition of generous collaboration between cultural organisations, a “defining Leuven model” that now also includes the city council, knowledge institutions, civil society and the business world. Allowed to dream away from programming, Forger thinks of Bosk, last summer in Leeuwarden, as an example: “A mobile forest, animated by hundreds of participants, turned streets and squares into green oases, with the motto ‘If trees can walk, we can change’.” Bosk envisioned a possible future and was supported – literally too – by townspeople, villagers, foundations, associations and businesses. “A good example of what it’s all about,” says Forger.
Beyond the Walls
The impression is created that the concept of “culture” in the “European Capital of Culture” is gradually adopting a social rather than an artistic-aesthetic interpretation. “It certainly is,” says Jan Goossens, who coordinates the Brussels-region candidacy. We will not turn 2030 into an arts festival. We’d rather be a lever to change the city, with culture as the engine. He believes that Brussels desperately needs such an approach. It may be the capital of Europe, but it remains primarily an administrative center. We believe it should also be a capital of inspiring ideas for living together. If it were up to him, these ideas would be “democratic, sustainable, solidarity, and non-colonial.”
For the benefit of those who find all this just an idea, can he name a project that fits that vision? Brussels has the French-language Foire du Livre, and Flanders has a book fair where nobody knows where. This is typical fragmentation: everyone in their own corner. We believe that Brussels, Belgium and Europe will benefit greatly from the European Book Fair. Why should it be held in Frankfurt? Why was the ambition not to bring them to Brussels? ‘
Goossens knows that the jury appreciates initiatives that extend beyond the city walls. That is why we cooperate with a Flemish city and Walloon partner. Can he reveal which one? I still have to be discreet about Flemish, for Wallonia there is a connection with Charleroi. Part of the activities can take place in the partner city, especially for the disciplines in which you excel. For Charleroi, this is all about comics, games and the Charleroi Danse Festival.
It remained, of course, that it was Brussels’ turn in 2000 – plus juries rarely choose national capitals anymore. The only exception is Luxembourg City. But that was also from 2007 before. Goossens: “It’s not that it’s been this way for so long that it can’t change.”
Seven requests are pending. Is this a good example of free competition or lost time for six cities? Because there is only one city to be crowned. Forged: The Seven is no exception. Other countries also have five to ten entries. What’s special is that a small country like Belgium suddenly has a lot. But I don’t think it’s a waste. On the contrary. Even if you don’t succeed, you have taken steps towards the city you want, even after 2030. This effort is never wasted. Wanting to be the European Capital of Culture is not about showing how great you are, but about how much better you can become. It is not about promoting the city, but about promoting the values you believe in.