Saturday

21st Oct 2017

Opinion

Brussels: The city that just doesn't give a damn

  • The Schuman roundabout and the Justus Lipsius building (r) on 15 October, the day of a European Council. (Photo: EUobserver)

It is 15 October and you are a junior diplomat attending an EU summit for the first time. You arrive at the Gare du Midi and try to hail an Uber taxi, as you do in most other cities. A message pops up informing you that Uber taxis are banned in Brussels.

So you decide to get the metro. You jump on line 2 and change at Arts-Loi – which also happens to be called Kunst-Wet. There is construction work going on at this station, as there has been for four years, but after a few false turns down makeshift stairwells with bannisters held together with duct tape, you manage to find the right platform to take you to Schuman - the station at the heart of the EU district.

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Two stops later and you are there. Or at least you think you are. For what you see is nothing short of an open-plan building site. The escalators are installed but not working. Lights flop from sockets like dead fish eyes. And live electric wires of all colours dangle from ceilings, straddle walkways and sprout from unfinished walls like exhibits in an edgy art show.

You arrive outside the Council of the EU’s Justus Lipsius building just before police shut down the station for the rest of the day. In front of you bulldozers are tearing up the road in front of the Council.

There is an acrid smell of hot tar, mixed with the stench of traffic fumes from the four-lane highway that is the Rue de la Loi. You notice a sculpture to celebrate the European Year of the Environment in 1987. You don’t know whether this is real or ironic.

You glance up through the driving rain at the Stalinist monstrosity that houses the EU’s most powerful institution, weave your way past barbed wire security checks, walk over a mud-spattered red carpet, flash your pass and you’re in.

Welcome to Brussels - the city that doesn’t give a damn how it is run and home to EU institutions that don’t give a hoot what you think.

Welcome to Brussels - the world capital of law-making and law-breaking, where pavements are car parks, speed limits entirely optional and health and safety rules about as respected as in Bangladeshi sweatshops.

Welcome to Brussels – the global headquarters of hypocrisy, where symposia on sustainable cities are held in buildings with 1,000-place car parks, where calls for budget cuts and flexible labour forces are made by well-paid bureaucrats with jobs for life and where the world’s tightest air pollution laws are passed in the most congested country on earth.

Does anyone care?

It is unlikely anyone in the Brussels regional government worries about the image this urban car-crash in the heart of Europe conveys.

After all, the tens of thousands of people who work in and around the EU organisations are a captive audience. Because as long as the main EU bodies are based in Brussels, their jobs will remain tied to the city most would prefer not to live in. And as long as these mainly non-Belgians cannot vote in regional and national elections, no politician need fret about what they think of the patchy public transport, the shoddy streets or the poor service doled out by local officials.

It is also unlikely that anyone in the EU institutions cares much.

European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas clearly doesn’t. On Saturday he tweeted a picture of the executive body’s Berlaymont HQ under leaden skies, with a grubby, soot-stained roundabout in the foreground and with a giant banner declaring ‘Leaders Meeting Western Balkans Route’ draped down the side of the building like a Soviet-era propaganda prop.

It is this kind of casual disregard for what people think, along with endless images of self-important men getting in and out of cars in front of drab buildings and EU flags, that reinforces the impression that Brussels is grey, distant, boring and bureaucratic.

This matters, because for many people, Brussels is shorthand for the European Union, so if people have a negative image of Brussels they will have a negative image of the EU – and vice versa.

It also matters because although EU officials have no choice where to live, many of the people who feed off the institutions – consultants, advisers, translators – can vote with their feet and live in places with better weather, service and public transport. And many are doing just that.

Sprucing up Brussels

So what can be done to spruce up the EU quarter and give the people who work there more of a stake in their adopted city and the Europeans who visit there more of a sense of pride in their would-be capital?

For a start, the EU area urgently needs an open space that showcases the incredible beauty, diversity and complexity of Europe through dance performances, music concerts, photo exhibits and food, beer and wine tastings.

No sterile debates about ‘whither Europe?’. No worthless propaganda extolling the Union’s virtues and no flowcharts explaining the mechanics of EU decision-making. Just a space for reflection, conversation and occasional inspiration – with fast wifi and free coffee of course. Google can pay for it.

Secondly, non-Belgian residents of Brussels, who make up a large chunk of the population, should be given the right to vote in regional elections. This would give them a powerful voice at the polling booth and prevent the city being misruled by a small clique of recycled Belgian politicians.

Thirdly, EU officials should start practicing what they preach to others – removing parking spaces under offices in an area well served by public transport and insisting on new buildings that project openness and humanity rather than squat, intimidating bunkers like the Justus Lipsius or the European External Action Service’s dreary HQ.

After decades of neglect, the EU area of this chaotic but intriguing city is starting to improve. More flats in the area mean more people, shops and services. Some of the new buildings, such as the Aloft hotel complex, are hip, playful and colourful – three words not usually used to describe the district. And there will soon be a direct train link connecting Schuman station to the airport.

But there is still a lot more work to be done before Brussels deserves its self-appointed status as ‘capital of Europe’ and becomes a city that rewards the people who live and work there and inspires those who come to visit.

Gareth Harding is Managing Director of Clear Europe, a communications company. He also runs the Missouri School of Journalism's Brussels Programme. Follow him on Twitter @garethharding.

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