October 6, 2015
We remember this famous phrase attributed to Jean Monnet, one of the Founding Fathers of the Union. It is common knowledge that he never said it, but how accurate it is though. So much said in so few words! I do not mean to do any favours for Euractiv which hosts my blog, but I loved the article published by them this weekend entitled “Welcome to Schuman: a no man’s land in the heart of Europe”. Anybody could have written it, as it depicts our daily life: a Rond-Point Schuman lacking soul or landmark, buildings lacking any urban planning, cars, traffic jams, construction works…nothing evoking the grandeur of the EU, its ambitions, its past or even its future. Only its present: mediocre, bureaucratic, divided.
In a book published in 2010 – ‘Comitology: Hijacking European Power?’ – I raised this issue myself. I wrote: “Architecture symbolises power. Look at Washington, Moscow, Paris and London…the Capitol, the Red Square, the Elysée Palace, 10 Downing Street. All of these exude power, evoking the respect that the citizen naturally owes to power. In Brussels, the European District is deplorable, but what’s worse is that nobody has ever really got upset about it or has tried to make it better. The term ‘Brusselisation’ has made its way into the dictionary, meaning the spoiling of residential buildings by turning them into office spaces. That says it all really!”
From the window of my office on Square de Meeûs, considered the best location in the European district, I have an excellent view of the former DG Research building, now renovated and occupied by the civil servants of the European Parliament. What do I see there? Bottle banks, a bike garage and some neglected plants. And don’t get me started on the reception inside! It’s as if this building was just any building. But it’s not just any building, because it houses the European Parliament – the representative of the EU citizens. Would we see dirty bottles and bicycles in front of the administrative premises of the French Assemblée nationale or the US Congress?
The sacred dimension of the public sphere
Every time I walk around the European quarter I regret the fact that no authority, whether EU (the Commission, the Parliament), national (the European Council), regional (the Wallonia-Brussels region) or local (the Ixelles and Etterbeek Communes) is concerned about the sacred dimension that a public sphere takes on when it houses the legislators. It infuriates me that the Rond-Point Schuman is literally void of any European symbol. With all this construction work going on for weeks, months and years, I see nothing but indifference to the respect that the public sphere demands. The district is badly run, but this is not a district like any other. It is the showcase displaying the European Union; its image.
Admittedly, occasional efforts to improve should be noted: for example, the construction of new high-quality buildings with nice designs, but without any overall planning or urban spirit. As long as the various levels of power fail to realise all this, bad habits will persist and the European quarter will remain as it is (or get even worse)! At the same time as certain wish to see the European Parliament moved from Strasbourg to Brussels, we learn that the chamber and offices of the EP in Brussels, built at great expense less than 20 years ago, are dilapidated and therefore set for almost total reconstruction.
The very same “kind souls” believe that making MEPs travel to Strasbourg for plenary sessions creates unbearable pollution and CO2 emissions, while for me, the European quarter is a symbol of the worst neighbourhood problems: noise, dirtiness, traffic jams – in short, inefficiency. Any institutional reform, any decision on their location will have to be part of a comprehensive reflection on issues of governance, balance of power and the very conception of the European quarter. At the end of the day, what do we prefer: a district that piles up offices or a district that is a nice place to live? I am sorry to say it, but this is the real problem before us.