After France took the decision to withdraw from NATO’s integrated military structure in February 1966, the fifteen Alliance members set up seven working groups to consider the consequences of this, including the question of where NATO’s military headquarters, Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), should be relocated.
The grapevine began buzzing on 4 April, after the meeting of the Foreign Ministers of Benelux (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) since one of these countries was concerned by the move. The other NATO member countries were less centrally located, besides which Belgium had 25,000 m2 of premises to offer. In a letter dated 3 May 1966, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe at the time, General Lemnitzer, informed the NATO Secretary General, Manlio Brosio that in his opinion the only appropriate place to relocate NATO’s military headquarters was Belgium and, more specifically, the Brussels region. One month later, on 6 June, the final report of the task force on SHAPE’s relocation was circulated; it confirmed that the Brussels region had been chosen.
So a solution had been found for the military part of NATO, but what about its political branch – would the North Atlantic Council stay in Paris? After all, France was only pulling out of NATO’s integrated military structure.
Around that same time “The Times” made a sensational announcement: “London will be the Alliance’s new headquarters.” The statement only concerned the North Atlantic Council and nothing ever came of it.
General Lemnitzer was also in favour of moving SHAPE and the North Atlantic Council simultaneously. The reasoning that the political and military headquarters should be grouped together, which had been used in 1952 to move NATO’s political headquarters from London to Paris so that it was closer to SHAPE, still applied. Belgium was eager to play host to the North Atlantic Council, and could only conceive of having SHAPE on its national territory if it became the Council’s headquarters too. And even then, a deal on where to locate SHAPE and the North Atlantic Council was still needed.
For SHAPE, a number of proposals were made: the city of Termonde (an urban site and too far from Brussels), the area north of Charleroi (next to a populous industrial region, but with an airfield and good public transport lines), and the Chièvres/Mons-Casteau area (also with an airfield, but with public transport lines that could stand to be improved). The latter was the Belgians’ preference because of the availability of free government land, which meant substantial savings for the country. But in July, Paris expressed reservations about the choice of this site – it was too far from Brussels, considering that General Lemnitzer had specifically said that SHAPE should be located “in the Brussels region”.
General Lemnitzer nevertheless agreed to visit the area, which he did on 1st August. Afterward he fired off a letter to Secretary General Manlio Brosio urging Belgium to propose another site located no more than 25–30 km from Brussels, as this was more in line with what he had originally said. He even suggested building a temporary site for SHAPE near the capital, in Evere.
For a few weeks each party stood its ground, hoping that the other side would give in, but in the end the Organization took up Belgium’s offer to host SHAPE in Mons-Casteau. In exchange, Belgium committed to building a highway between Mons and Brussels, which would make communication with the capital easier. The SHAPE building went up six and a half months later, on 31 March 1967.
For the North Atlantic Council, the first option was to use the tower of the Porte de Namur along with another building near the Sablon to house some conference rooms, but this proposal was rejected after Secretary General Manlio Brosio’s visit because of the dangers of operating a site in a busy commercial district of Brussels.
The second option was a two-part solution: use a temporary site in Evere on a 25-hectare military plot, and then five years later erect a permanent building on the Heysel plateau, the site of the 1958 World’s Fair. The funny thing is that the permanent headquarters of the North Atlantic Council was to be on the very same spot where the French pavilion had been in the World’s Fair!
Works started on the temporary site in Evere on 17 November 1966, under the direction of two Belgian-German-Dutch joint ventures.
During construction, one of the major difficulties was digging the foundations, because the plot was on the site of a former World War II military airport and its runways, built by the Luftwaffe for use by its bombers, were made of indestructible concrete. Regardless of that, Belgium met its commitments and the building went up in record time, just as SHAPE’s headquarters had. It had taken just twenty-nine weeks to get the North Atlantic Council’s temporary site ready for its employees.
But most Parisian officials were not exactly thrilled at the idea of leaving Paris for Brussels. The salary scales in Belgium were much lower than in France, and at a time of full employment, most decided to stay in France.
The move from Porte Dauphine, NATO’s headquarters since 1952, to the Brussels headquarters – nicknamed “Little Siberia” by some because it was austere – took place over three weeks between 6 October and 22 October. Trucks shuttled back and forth continuously, transporting 4700 m3 of office equipment from the Paris office to the Belgian capital. The French film producer Gérard Oury even used NATO’s move as the inspiration for his comedy “Le Cerveau” (“The Brain”, 1969).
The new site was inaugurated on 16 October 1967, in the presence of the NATO Secretary General, Manlio Brosio, and the Belgian Prime Minister, Paul Vanden Boeynants, under typical drizzling skies and on a lawn rolled out the day before.
The work of the Council of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would be taken forward in new premises, where ultramodern equipment had been provided for its first meeting on the Brussels site, on 23 October 1967.
In anticipation of the future move of the permanent headquarters to the Heysel plateau, some forward-looking officials had decided to rent or buy accommodations in that area of the city. Unfortunately for them, the plan for that move was abandoned and the temporary site in Evere continued to be used until 2017. NATO inaugurated its new permanent Headquarters on 25 May 2017, at a special meeting in Brussels. The new Headquarters is located opposite the 1967 site, on the former Haren airfield. The inauguration was attended by King Philippe of Belgium, the Heads of State of the 28 NATO member countries, as well as the Prime Minister of Montenegro, which joined the Alliance on 5 June 2017.