22nd Mar 2018


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.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now for a 30 day free trial.

  1. €150 per year
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

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.

Brussels: From a city for cars to a city for people

EUobserver columnist Gareth Harding recently scathed the EU capital: "the city that just doesn't give a damn". Brussels' minister for mobility Pascal Smet replies to him and other unhappy people.

The EU in Limbo

The EU fails to fulfil the role of a nation state or of a supercharged international organisation. The time has come to consider how "less Europe" could save the EU.

Column / Brussels Bytes

EU e-privacy proposal risks breaking 'Internet of Things'

EU policymakers need to clarify that the e-privacy should not apply to most Internet of Things devices. The current proposal require explicit user consent in all cases - which is not practical.

News in Brief

  1. EU will be exempted from tariffs, says US minister
  2. Malmstroem: EU 'hopes' for US tariffs exemption
  3. Parliament must publish 'trilogue' documents, court says
  4. Italy's centre-right set to share top posts with 5-star movement
  5. Brussels condemns tear gas in Kosovo parliament
  6. Finland pays billionaire €400,000 in EU farm subsidies
  7. 44 leaders sign up for Africa free trade area deal
  8. British 'blue' passports to be made in EU

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EUobserverStart a Career in EU Media. Apply Now to Become Our Next Sales Associate
  2. EUobserverHiring - Finance Officer With Accounting Degree or Experience - Apply Now!
  3. ECR GroupAn Opportunity to Help Shape a Better Future for Europe
  4. Counter BalanceControversial Turkish Azerbaijani Gas Pipeline Gets Major EU Loan
  5. World VisionSyria’s Children ‘At Risk of Never Fully Recovering', New Study Finds
  6. Macedonian Human Rights MovementMeets with US Congress Member to Denounce Anti-Macedonian Name Negotiations
  7. Martens CentreEuropean Defence Union: Time to Aim High?
  8. UNESDAWatch UNESDA’s President Toast Its 60th Anniversary Year
  9. AJC Transatlantic InstituteAJC Condemns MEP Ana Gomes’s Anti-Semitic Remark, Calls for Disciplinary Action
  10. EPSUEU Commissioners Deny 9.8 Million Workers Legal Minimum Standards on Information Rights
  11. ACCAAppropriate Risk Management is Crucial for Effective Strategic Leadership
  12. EPSUWill the Circular Economy be an Economy With no Workers?

Latest News

  1. EU summit takes hard look at Russia
  2. Germany casts doubt on Austrian intelligence sharing
  3. EU leaders set for 'stormy debate' on digital tax at summit
  4. EU praises Turkey on migrant deal despite Greek misery
  5. Judicial reforms 'restore balance', Poland tells EU
  6. Whistleblower fears for life as US arrests Malta bank chair
  7. Behind the scenes at Monday's EU talks on Russia
  8. US yet to push on Nord Stream 2 sanctions

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Jewish CongressThe 2018 European Medal of Tolerance Goes to Prince Albert II of Monaco
  2. FiscalNoteGlobal Policy Trends: What to Watch in 2018
  3. Human Rights and Democracy NetworkPromoting Human Rights and Democracy in the Next Eu Multiannual Financial Framework
  4. Mission of China to the EUDigital Cooperation a Priority for China-EU Relations
  5. ECTACompetition must prevail in the quest for telecoms investment
  6. European Friends of ArmeniaTaking Stock of 30 Years of EU Policy on the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: How Can the EU Contribute to Peace?
  7. ILGA EuropeCongratulations Finland!
  8. UNICEFCyclone Season Looms Over 720,000 Rohingya Children in Myanmar & Bangladesh
  9. European Gaming & Betting AssociationEU Court: EU Commission Correct to Issue Guidelines for Online Gambling Services
  10. Mission of China to the EUChina Hopes for More Exchanges With Nordic, Baltic Countries
  11. Macedonian Human Rights MovementCondemns Facebook for Actively Promoting Anti-Macedonian Racism
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersGlobal Seed Vault: Gene Banks Gather to Celebrate 1 Million Seed Collections

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. CECEIndustry Stakeholders Are Ready to Take the Lead in Digital Construction
  2. ILGA EuropeAnkara Ban on LGBTI Events Continues as Turkish Courts Reject NGO Appeals
  3. Aid & Trade LondonJoin Thousands of Stakeholders of the Global Aid Industry at Aid & Trade London
  4. Macedonian Human Rights MovementEuropean Free Alliance Joins MHRMI to End the Anti-Macedonian Name Negotiations
  5. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Tourism Year to Promote Business and Mutual Ties
  6. European Jewish CongressAt “An End to Antisemitism!” Conference, Dr. Kantor Calls for Ambitious Solutions
  7. UNESDAA Year Ago UNESDA Members Pledged to Reduce Added Sugars in Soft Drinks by 10%
  8. International Partnership for Human RightsUzbekistan: Investigate Torture of Journalist
  9. UNICEFExecutive Director's Committment to Tackling Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Children
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersState of the Nordic Region 2018: Facts, Figures and Rankings of the 74 Regions
  11. Mission of China to the EUDigital Economy Shaping China's Future, Over 30% of GDP
  12. Macedonian Human Rights MovementSuing the Governments of Macedonia and Greece for Changing Macedonia's Name