Europe needs a capital city with a difference

Author (Person)
Series Title
Series Details Vol.7, No.33, 13.9.01, p19
Publication Date 13/09/2001
Content Type

Date: 13/09/01

By Robert Geyer

EUROPE needs a capital like a tree needs a chainsaw. Trying to force Brussels to be seen as and act like a traditional national capital for Europe would be absurd and dangerous to the European project.

What Europe needs is a non-traditional "un-capital" that reflects the complex, contradictory and human reality of Europe rather than an impossible, centralising and threatening vision based on a deluded attempt to duplicate an aggressive period of European history.

Why is a capital for Europe so absurd and dangerous? A quick glance at the history of the development of national capitals demonstrates that their evolution was not particularly glorious and more often repressive.

They were mostly built by non-democratic monarchies and dictatorships whose primary purposes were the centralisation of national power, repression of regional and cultural variations and the imposition of domineering regimes of national unification.

During the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, like colonies and dominions, the traditional national capital with its powerful state institutions, neo-classical art and architecture and massive size (only large cities could be capitals) was a central symbol of national strength and power. Its importance was demonstrated by its military value. The capture or defence of a national capital was a, if not the, prime military objective.

Similarly, the art and architecture of national capitals often exhibits the most blatant anti-humanist styles from neo-classicalism to socialist realism.

Massive orderly structures projecting power and purpose blight the landscape of the traditional capital. The most extreme example of this statist and power-oriented architecture was the absurdly grandiose plans of the Hitlerian architects for Berlin during the second world war.

These plans were not demented or insane. Like so many other horrors of the Nazi regime, they merely took existing social tendencies, racism, anti-semitism, etc., to their most extreme positions.

Thankfully the European Union is not, nor is likely to become, a "traditional" nation-state. The EU was not designed nor intended to completely replace the member states, but built to enable them to revive and peacefully interact with each other.

For the past 50 years the EU has been slowly and benignly blunting former national antagonisms, institutionalising cooperation and agreements and encouraging member state interaction and learning. It has progressed through cooperative innovation, adjustment and evolution, not through centralised control or a rigid plan. Pro- and anti-Europeans often forget this basic fact when arguing over the merits of any EU initiative.

By either seeking or fearing traditional nationalism at the EU level, both miss the fundamentally healthy and benevolent aspects of the EU's complex and chaotic nature. Without constant uncertain compromises, bargaining and incremental agreements, it would be neither institutionally viable nor politically acceptable. Given the EU's complex nature, Brussels is its perfect non-traditional 'un-capital'.

Its position in a small, centrally located, non-threatening member state that couldn't begin to impose political, economic and/or cultural hegemony over the rest of Europe makes it an ideal 'un-capital' city. To prove this one merely needs to consider the historical landmines of moving the EU capital to Berlin.

Other smaller member states may quibble, but Brussels has history (being one of the first member states) and possession (most of the EU institutions are there) on its side. Equally important, Brussels doesn't feel or act like a traditional capital for Europe.

For one thing, it isn't the true home to all of the EU's main institutions. The Parliament vibrates between it and Strasbourg. The Bank is located in Frankfurt. The Court sits in Luxembourg. And the European Council bounces around the member states.

Culturally, Brussels is a thriving and vibrant multi-lingual and multi-ethnic society with significant migrant communities (ranging from Kurdish refugees to EU bureaucrats) and spiced with social antagonisms (just listen to the locals complain when they see a badly parked car with EU number plates).

All of this is a reflection of the diversity of European society. Architecturally, Brussels is a wonderful mixture of styles.

However, its heart is the lavish, baroque and pleasantly human scale of the Grand Place. Luckily, Belgium's brief flirtation with international power status in the late 19th century only produced a few neo-classical monstrosities and decaying monuments to the work of Belgian mercenaries in Africa.

The EU buildings in Brussels do not reflect a new Euro-nationalism, but attempt instead to project a type of conservative managerialism.

All of the main EU offices could easily be mistaken for the glass and steel headquarters of any major corporation. Their primary weakness is not their lack of respect and power, but their lack of human touch and scale.

As a citizen or tourist, what would you rather see, the pleasant ambience of the small streets around the Grand Place or the car-choked Rue Belliard which runs next to the Parliament?

Pedestrianisation and humanisation of the EU-dominated part of Brussels would be the best way to improve the area rather than ridiculous traditional notions such as the creation of phallic columns topped with the oversized embodiments of dead Euro-politicians. Put the Rue Belliard underground. Create more playgrounds and parks in the central areas. Encourage a diversity of small shops and restaurants.

Make the EU area a new Grand Place. Make it a beautiful and humane place for Europeans to live in and visit. That would be the best thing the EU could do for Brussels and help to make it the ideal European 'un-capital'.

  • Dr Robert Geyer, 37, is an author and lecturer at the University of Liverpool in the UK. His first book, 'Exploring European Social Policy' was published last year. His next, 'The EU and the British Welfare State', is due out next year.

Winner of the European Voice 'Brussels: a Capital for Europe' essay contest.

Subject Categories
Countries / Regions