Before leaving from Brussels, I met Quentin Martens who co-founded Plan B. This initiative, led by young French-speakers and Dutch-speakers, has several aims: learn to know each other better, interact, broaden perspectives and imagine together a future for Belgium. While drinking a mint tea, Quentin told me about his encounters, but also about European culture, cooperation and the strength of symbols. He also explained to me how important it is to tell stories in order to better imagine and dream Europe.
Portraits of Europe: Where did you grow up ?
Quentin Martens: I grew up five minutes away from the border, in Wezembeek-Oppem, a municipality with language facilities. This little municipality belongs to Flanders. The majority of its inhabitants are French-speakers, but they have a minority status on an administrative level. This did not change anything to my life, except the fact that there were a few Flemish couples in my street to who we talked from time to time, and that I had to kindly ask in Flemish to be spoken to in French when I had to deal with administrative services.
I went to school in Boitsfort, a municipality located in the Brussels region. Like one inhabitant of Brussels out of two, I have been a scout. When I was 18, I travelled to Honduras to work with street children, who were like my cub scouts... When I came back, six months later, I studied sociology and a bit of philosophy. I studied later “humanitarian aid” and “solving international conflicts”. All in all, I studied in five different countries: Belgium, France, Sweden, Canada and Poland.
PoE: Where does the idea of Plan B come from ?
QM: A bit more than three years ago, I was working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in order to prepare the Belgian presidence of the Council of European Union. I travelled alone on the routes of Compostela. When I came back, the Belgian government fell. We were going to have the key to the presidence of European Union, it was really embarassing... In Belgium, every party is pro-European. But is is not possible to highlight great values of European unification and federalism and to fight at the same time, or at least to be unable to talk with respect to each other.
I realised that I would never want that Belgium stops to exist, because it would mean that the cultural aspect of Europe would die at the same time. Belgium can imagine new ways to exist, but it cannot fail in its way of living its otherness...
I wrote then a white card to explain that “Being Belgian means needing the other to define oneself”. We were four to sign it: me – as a Belgian from Brussels – , a Flemish Belgian, a Walloon Belgian and a German-speaking Belgian. The text was published in the Flemish newspaper De Standaard and in the French-speaking newspaper La Libre Belgique. It was translated in several languages. It was an invitation to gather instead of running away from each other. It is always possible to find reasons to split: they are easier to use, but they are also way less numerous than the reasons that bring us together.
At the same time, we realised that we, the “Erasmus generation”, know people all around Europe, but not on the other side of the linguistic border. As most of Belgians, I did not have any friend who spoke the other language before starting my working life. Because our educative systems, our universities, our media, our cultural references and the places where we go out are all different.
The idea of Plan B was to create a meeting place, a place to build bridges between us. At the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, I had a Dutch-speaking colleague, Ewout, with who I had a really good relationship. We both brought friends along, and that is how the group started.
PoE: And what is it exactly ?
QM: At the beginning, we were about fifteen young people, and we wrote a little charter to define our values and aims. Today, we are about thirty young people aged between 25 and 30 years old, French-speakers and Dutch-Speakers, some of us bilingual.
There was a long necessary phase to learn knowing each other and speaking to each other. For example, Flemish people prefer that we call them “Flemish”, but that we call their language “Dutch”. All these subtleties... We discuss about our opinion on Belgium, about our common symbols. We are still learning to know each other today.
We meet twice a month, and we organise private meetings with politicians, for example with former ministers. We are between ten and thirty people, at the place of one of us, drinking a bottle of wine. We also organise conferences on different topics, always in the two languages. For example, we had a conference about founding myths of Belgium. We also had one about the role played by media in current misunderstandings, with the editors-in-chief of Le Soir and De Standaard.
We also organised a debate between the presidents of ten political youth associations (linked to five French-speaking and five Dutch-speaking parties). It was the first time that they met. One year after the crisis due to the lack of government, it was a strong symbol.
This kind of meeting place is not common in Belgium. With two other youth groups (Les Rapporteurs and Shame, the group that led the demonstrations in 2010), we organised a petition on the platform “Be4Democracy”, to ask the creation of a federal electoral district. We got more than 27 000 signatures, and the support of 150 cultural, economical and political figures.
PoE: How do you think that one can trigger citizens interest on Europe ?
QM: My dream would be to make a movie about Jean Monnet and another film, a fiction movie about Europe. Europe is made of people and of values. Of characters that embody the values of generosity, sharing, love, care for one another, listening, humility...
We have such a short memory... I was lucky to know my four grandparents. It gives an extraordinary strength to know the story of your great-grandparents, of your grandparents, of your parents and your own story. It locates you in time and in space, and this is something that your everyday life does not do.
Europe is 50 years old and today it is not really embodied. Does Europe still dream about itself ? We need people to tell us stories: stories for children, slovenian or portuguese stories... Everything goes through transmission. I wanted to organise a poetry contest for European civil servants, so that they would speak to their hearts... This is the reason why I want to make a fiction movie about Europe: we need to tell the love story that moves us, not something that informs us.
For more information, visit the website of Plan B