Saturday 3 October 2009

In the Brussels bubble (1)

The third morning of my trip into the Brussels bubble has begun; it is a little grey but still not less promising than the days before.

What should I say, now that the first half of my time here in the self-referential centre of the European Union is over? Should one have an opinion on something like Brussels after so short of a time?

I think yes.

The first thing that comes to my mind is that the eurodistrict seems like the most undemocratic and intransparent place I could imagine. The architecture is either depressingly monolithic or bombastically modern. There is almost no colour and no life (beyond moving suits) in the area.

The street system between the institutions is completely counterintuitive, and to my remembrance there are no signs guiding the way from one institution to the other. The lack of intuitiveness, the lack of logic of why some administrative or political body is where it is, and the depressing architectural system perfectly represent the political system of the Union:

Citizens are supposed to stay out, and the only ones quickly finding their way are the EU insiders and experts.

However, leaving the eurodistrict, Brussels is fascinatingly multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and shines with many different architectural facets.

I've been having one of the best dinners in my life in a Lebanese-Israeli restaurant yesterday. I love the many colours and styles in the metro when driving through the city. It is beautiful to have breakfast in a french-style restaurant with classical jazz music on a quiet morning. It's energising to sense the weekend's vibrations in the student district. Eating a fresh nectarine while walking through provincial streets of Elsene/Ixelles feels like being on holidays.

And I suppose I could prolong the list after today when I'll have done some sightseeing with a friend of mine.

If the political system of the Union was able to breeze in this life outside the eurodistrict - where, by the way, the multi-cultural face of Brussels disappears almost completely - it could become more human, more vibrant, more open to changes and the needs of the society of the 21st century.

In the Brussels bubble, however, there seems to be not much room for this kind of life or political openness - if you don't consider lunches between mostly white, highly educated professionals on the Place Luxembourg in front of the European Parliament an expression of openness and diversity.

PS.: More on the Brussles bubble and the people I've met in some days, after I've come back and have a full picture.


Dick Nieuwenhuis said...

A quick comment on the lack of signposting in the eurodistrict. This is not at all the intention of the institutions but comes from our hostcountry Belgium. And because of them our buildings had no signs on the outside for a long time. Now they are in the 2 local languages (NL&FR) which most of us find ridiculous as English should appear at least (and even DE, being one of our 3 official working languages). The Commission, for example, is asking the Belgian authorities for years to do some about the mish-mash of the eurodistrict. Kallas is serious on this. But he too is lost in the Belgian political junghle for this.

Dick Nieuwenhuis said...

....and I forgot to say that the Twunch with the incrowd of eurobloggers in Brussels and their followers was great! It was a pleasure ar eurocrats to meet and talk to so many of you, especially Julien! Inspires me to continue to Twitter and comment from within "da house".

Erik Wesselius said...

I get the imptression that this was your first visit of the EU Quarter :-) You get used to it after a while, but the architecture in the Leopold Quarter is rather grim indeed. From a bourgeois residential area built in the 19th century it has slowly transformed into the uninspiring grid filled with sooty office buildings that are much too high in comparison to the width of the streets.

Moving around in the EU quarter by feet usually, I particularly dislike the heavy car traffic in the area. There are a few nice green spots however. My favourites are the Leopold Park, the Parque Cinquantenaire and the two Squares (de Meeus and Frère Orban).

Having done guided "lobby tours" in the EU quarter since December 2001 (we also offer a virtual tour, but unfortunately that is quite outdated after four years) I have lost this feeling of disorientation that you describe so well. But you're so right saying that "the depressing architectural system perfectly represents the political system of the Union where citizens are supposed to stay out, and the only ones quickly finding their way are the EU insiders and experts."

I'm glad that Corporate Europe Observatory's office in the new Mundo building is located at the outer edge of the EU quarter, where the Matonge begins: a completely different world and much more lively!

Mathew Lowry said...


Nice metaphor, but dick's right that it's a belgian problem, not an EU one. Brussels is just badly signposted, and don't get me started on the belgian state (if you thought the EU was complex ...).

But that does't make brussels and belgium any less lovely. I really feel very sorry for all those stuck in the bubble - they often don't knpw what they're missing, right next door and around the corner.