17th Mar 2018


Brussels: An EU capital in the making

  • The European Commission headquarters (Photo: EUobserver)

It is possible to go to the European quarter in Brussels and think: how on earth did this happen?

Why are there two motorways running between the European Commission headquarters and the European Parliament? Did city planners set out to make such a utilitarian, soulless place? And, at the weekend, where is everyone?

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  • The notorious Rue de la Loi (Photo: EUobserver)

Finally, after some reflection, how did Brussels become the EU capital anyway?

The brief answer to the last question is: by accident. And, as is the nature with uncertainty, short-termism thrived. Old town houses were torn down to make place for the mushrooming EU buildings. Property speculators bought up neighbourhoods expressly to let them fall into disrepair. Town planners turned a blind eye. Nobody had a grand plan.

The result gave architects a new term: "Brusselisation."


"It means: 'exactly what not to do.' It means you have a nice Art Nouveau building but you need to build another building so you just knock it down," says Carlo Luyckx, head of the Brussels-Europe liaison office.

Marco Schmitt of the Association du Quartier Leopold, a residents' group from the EU quarter, said "the EU buildings are very badly integrated into the district. And very removed from the public."

"Unfortunately they reflect the impressions citizens have of the EU being distant and incomprehensible,"he added.

He noted that locals from the quarter filed official complaints when the European Parliament was being built as well as the recent "House of History" near it just to "change the mentality, and the way decisions were taken in European quarter."

On top of this urban mismanagement comes Brussels thoroughly complex position in the Belgian political landscape.

It is both a distinct region and a capital city. It is situated in Dutch-speaking Flanders, but is a predominantly French-speaking city.

And then there is its almost incomprehensible governance structure. This small metropolis of around 1 million people is divided into 19 municipalities - essentially one-time villages seeing no compelling reason to co-operate with one another. The city has a mayor and 10 deputy mayors. The municipalities also have mayors. And deputy mayors.

The fragile nature of the Belgium state lends yet another layer of complexity.

It is often said that the only thing that is keeping the French-speaking south and the Dutch-speaking north of the country together - despite a strong separatist movement in Flanders - is that no one can figure out what to do with Brussels.

Fuelling the imagination

Professor Eric Corijn, from the Free University of Brussels, believes that Brussels' lack of self identity could help it to become the capital of the EU, not just in the de facto way that it is now, but also in a more fundamental way.

"The city is very multi-lingual and very diverse. In that sense it has a unique position in regards to other world cities," he said.

He notes that whereas London, Paris and Amsterdam are great, multicultural cities they are rooted in being the central city in a national state. So Brussels' "weakness" as a national city could make it easier to become a "city of European-ness."

It still needs to work on "fuelling the imagination."

What is missing, for Corijn, is a "great university, a great museum, the parades, the concentration of artists. In that sense, Brussels is not the capital of Europe."

But urban planners are working - albeit slowly - on this aspect. In 2008, they and the EU authorities agreed the Urban Project Loi.

A new European Commission building is to be built by 2022 that is more pleasant to look at, greener and with more open spaces than the current ones.

Past mistakes are being, if not fixed, then softened.

The notorious Rue de la Loi, one of the duo of urban motorways in the quarter that delivers a snarling, beeping cacophony of commuters into Brussels every morning - has since been reduced to slightly more bearable four lanes. Cyclists now have their own path.

The 250,000 m2 European Parliament, which saw dozens of local buildings destroyed to make way for its opening and was nicknamed the "Caprice of the Gods" for the way it came about, is now more integrated.

The unattractive concrete space in front of it is being used for cultural events. The "parlementarium" and the forthcoming "House of Europe" give the interested something to look at other than just the outside of the parliament.

Meanwhile, buildings in the EU quarter are more likely to be bought for residential use than to be made into office blocs.

By 2015, a train link is supposed to link the EU quarter to the airport while the Rond point Schuman, a busy round-about that marks the heart of the district, is to get a face-lift.

"It is all about thinking about the quarter in a less functional way," says Ann de Canniere, from ADT the agency in charge of developing the area.

She notes that the EU institutions are much more involved than they were before realising their image in Brussels itself is tied up with their building policy.

But part of turning Brussels into a vibrant capital of the EU is making sure the around 40,000 EU staff are also integrated.

Since 2008, Corijn has been teaching a special master class to explain all things Belgian to eurocrats. About 300 people have been through the courses which cover multi-lingualism, governance and decision-making.

"One of the elements is to mobilise the Europeans living in Brussels to make them feel more affinity with Brussels," he said.

"Most of the expats think they are only here for a few months or a few years. But in reality, most of them stay in Brussels even after their pension," he added.

A city for the ages?

Corijn admits it is an uphill struggle to turn Brussels into the real capital of Europe because the EU itself has an image problem.

It is associated with being untransparent and bureaucratic. National ministers go home and blame Brussels for unpopular decisions, affecting the city's international reputation.

Nevertheless, Luyckx, whose office's remit is partly about making Bruxellois have a sense of belonging to the EU capital, feels that the city's residents are "much more positive" about having the EU in their midst.

And this even though it happened only by default, after the six founding members could not agree on a capital and decided Brussels would do for the time being. This ambivalent situation continued until 1992 when the EU leaders for the first time formally said Brussels should be a seat of the European parliament.

But such non-committal beginnings need not dictate the future. At least according to some.

"If you look at history of the planets, the cities that people continue to talk about for 1000s of years afterwards have always been cities where people of many different cultures came together," said Luyckx.

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2013 Regions & Cities Magazine.

Click here to read previous editions of our Regions & Cities magazine.

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