Creating a space for citizens to flourish

Author (Person)
Series Title
Series Details Vol.7, No.33, 13.9.01, p21
Publication Date 13/09/2001
Content Type

Date: 13/09/01

By Johanne Poirier

BRUSSELS is the world champion of capitals. This intricate, complex, heterogeneous city-region is the capital of Belgium, Flanders, the French Community and, in spite of some political nuances and reticences, the European Union. One of the least palatable and attractive hats which Brussels harbours, however, is that of the villephare of Europe. 'Chapeau Europa', the grandiose spectacle launching the Belgian presidency illustrated both the potential and the pitfalls of the vision of Brussels as a European capital. While it must have been impressive to watch from the City Hall's balcony, and fun to watch for the 5,000 or so lucky persons who were allowed on the Grand Place, the rest of the population was not invited to the party: forced to watch it on TV or on a hardly visible screen in a car-surrounded Mont des Arts. No sense of a common happening here...left out.

This is how most people feel towards Europe in general, and towards Brussels as its capital in particular - left out of those foreboding buildings, cold, inaccessible, without parks or public spaces. Left out of the construction of Europe. Eurocrats living in Brussels feel left out of most of Belgian life.

Bruxellois feel left out of this new project promoted by technocrats, which brings rich foreigners, who send their children to the British or European schools and escape as soon as possible. The construction of Europe rests on new walls segregating the people who live in the city that houses the major institutions - quite the contrary to what a capital should be.

The capital of Europe should not be a private party, let alone a boring and ugly office complex writ large. The capital of Europe should be a meeting spot. A fulcrum of cultures. A place of creativity and exchange. While institutions and fun rarely mix, they should not be antidotes to one another.

Brussels is a multicultural city par excellence. Yet, the possibilities of mixing, mingling, and simply learning about this rich citizenry are far too limited. In this context, I would like to invoke one project which could symbolize an open and multicultural vision of Brussels as the capital of Europe. What's missing is a showpiece for Europe, and a meeting place for those who constitute it.

A window as well as an antenna. A European Forum to celebrate the coming together of the people who live in Europe, and in Brussels in particular. A Forum to celebrate the diversity or their culture and history and to facilitate their interaction. I'm thinking BIG. I'm thinking matter and mind. I'm thinking of a great - and finally accessible - physical space, as a support for a creative space. Not a pile of concrete. A European market place. A European-size real and virtual Grand Place.

The place should be pleasant, extremely convivial, open. A place to which people are attracted, whether they feel like strolling, drinking, reading, talking or learning. It would include a public European library to which all member states, regions, as well as any other donor, can donate materials. A decent international mediathèque, with films in all languages which you can watch there or borrow.

I'm thinking of a space for kids of all origins to meet, play together, do theatre, crafts, learn their own language or that of their neighbour. Dance together. I'm thinking creative involvement. There is no need to replace la Monnaie or Palais des Beaux-Arts. There is a need for access to less institutionalised European culture.

A place to present touring companies, to reflect the diversity of Europe, but mostly a space to promote common creative projects. I'm thinking rehearsal halls for choirs that would allow locals and Euro-citizens to literally join their voices.

I'm thinking bookstores and news-agents open from morning to night, offering Europe to people who come in to accompany their kids to a creative workshop. A permanent - and adapted - 'Couleur Café'. This is the vision - not a cultural shopping mall, but an ambitious cultural and social forum.

I'm thinking space for non-profit organisations who can cater both to Bruxellois de souche and to newcomers. Where environmentalists from across the continent can share ideas. Where human rights groups can provide information. Where people can get out of their respective paroisses...

And of course, this would be the perfect place to present and discuss 'Europe'. Interactive exhibitions on Europe's accomplishment and challenges. Didactic and citizen-oriented programmes. A place where citizens can get information about what's going on, and where they can share ideas and questions about this huge construction scheme from which they feel left out. A place to learn and a place to contribute. A home for the European Ombudsman. A place which could provide a window to the successive European presidencies.

A space for such a forum should be accessible: close to the centre, or a subway. It could be a mixture of living quarters, businesses, non-profit organisations and mostly public space. It needs a park, a garden, a terrasse in the summer. While it would comprise a library and a mediathèque, it should be a gregarious place. Tours et Taxis?

And why not, as Belgium and Europe reflect on a permanent home for European summits, share the space, which would otherwise only be used a few days every two months ? This way, the most formal aspects of the European Union would not seem to take place on a different planet.

A civil society which could then borrow a book about Denmark, rent a Finnish film, take Hungarian lessons, seek information about various visions of European social policy and order a Belgian beer. A congenial roof to take down the invisible walls which prevent the constitution of a European citizenship.

A forum for the capital of Europe.

  • Québécoise Johanne, 39, has lived in Brussels for four years. A comparative constitutional lawyer, she enjoys drinking beer and hunting flea markets.

A runner-up in the European Voice 'Brussels: a Capital for Europe' essay contest.

Subject Categories
Countries / Regions