Meeting European integration half way

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Series Details Vol.7, No.33, 13.9.01, p20
Publication Date 13/09/2001
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Date: 13/09/01

By Albrecht Rothacher

What is a capital? Niamey is a capital and so is Ulan Bator. There were transitional capitals like Bonn or Vichy. There are also artificial ones like Canberra and Brasilia, or currently still more fictional spots like Abuja (Nigeria) or Astana (Kazakhstan).

Yet typically one does ascribe capital functions to definite global cities with an imperial past, with an impressive urban heritage, of great cultural standing and a continued continental, if not global role, like London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Madrid, and but also Tokyo, Moscow, Washington D.C., etc.

With all due respect you would not normally list Brussels among them. No doubt it is a serious capital. It is pretty, likeable in many of its quartiers. When asked about the advantages of Brussels most ex-pat residents will quickly name its convenient location to reach Paris, London or Amsterdam. One the other hand you will find few people in London or Paris who will list their town's closeness to Brussels as a major advantage.

Yet Brussels until the late 19th century used to be a pleasant medieval town like the centres of Ghent, Bruges, Antwerp and Louvain of today. Leopold II with his Congolese funds imposed elements of neo-classicist grandeur on a restive populace and on its parochial local politics. The medieval town perished and so did many of the 19th century constructions.

The 1960s and 1970s attempted the imitation of a functional and car-oriented city, in trying to look like Dallas or St Louis. The slums of Anderlecht and Scharbeek appear to complement the picture of an imperfect European imitation.

Impressive suburbanization occurred in the Flemish North-Eastern to Southern fringe. Supranational corporate and military headquarters and suburban shopping malls dot the major outgoing arteries. Windswept skyscrapers popped up west of Gare du Nord. The monofunctional European HQ around Schuman is similarly sterile (and attractive only at its undeveloped fringes: Place du Luxembourg, Place Jourdan and at Merode, where it meets real Belgium).

Hence Brussels represents a curious symbiosis: vestiges of the medieval, symbols of short-lived imperialism, a fairly neglected public infrastructure, and the partly already very run down and discredited modernisation of the last decades, coexisting happily with the residual communal spirit and initiative of Brussels almost anarchist burghers and of those of its foreign residents who were willing and able to integrate. Is this the capital of Europe ? Yes, it is. With all its contradictions it adequately describes the current half-way state of European integration. We are beyond Luxembourg or Bonn, so to speak, but surely are not yet (and probably shall never be) in the London or Paris league.

Hence Brussels is fine and fair for Europe at the moment. But there are a few things, besides fixing pot holes and the long-suffering sewage system, which should be done with urgency as sound urban management, including upgrading the metro, its stations, regional public transport and the railway stations (the stench of urine around Central Station has unfortunately become a most memorable impression for shocked first time visitors); banning gangs of armed thugs, mostly ill-adjusted immigrant youths, from the inner city with an effective policy of zero tolerance; enlarging public parks and green spaces (instead of parking lots) in the inner city; and regenerating urban spaces in the greater Schuman ("European") area.

These are undramatic and inexpensive but hopefully effective fixes to make Brussels a cleaner, livelier, safer and more urban capital for the present needs of Europe.

But how about the capital of a hopefully more democratised, federal Europe, which should also comprise some 100 million new citizens from Central East Europe?

Let's begin at the top. The elected President of the democratically controlled European Commission does not reside on the 15th floor of the Breydel (or the refurbished Berlaymont), but in a "White House" with its own identity, say the Bibliotheque Solvay. He and his state guests are not protected by gum chewing private security guards, but by uniformed Euro-Cops or members of the Euro-Force. One could even think about a change-of-guard ceremony.

Symbolisms are important. There is to be a monument to the Unknown European Soldier of the European civil wars of the last century, containing the bones of victims of the battles at Ypres, Verdun, the Isonzo, Stalingrad and Tobruk. (Unfortunately there is no shortage of suitable sites).

More important is civic culture. For visitors wishing to see Europe, there should be full access and transparency to all EU institution proceedings, to witness Parliament, Council and Commission debates - not a "Schuman Day", but as a regular feature on a walk-in basis with briefings by well-informed information officers supported by a well-stocked public library with internet access and televised monitors on all ongoing European affairs.

The promotion of an intellectual capital should follow: think tanks, policy-oriented research institutes (beyond the narrow confines of 'European lobbying studies'), a greater European dimension of local and international universities, the establishment of genuine European media - both print and electronic - in Brussels.

In terms of urbanisation, improvements could include redesigning Rue de la Loi and Rue Belliard as current inner-city race tracks by tree-lined boulevards, upgrading inner city life within les ceintures by rehabilitating the rich architectural heritage, animating urban qualities, attracting private capital, corporate headquarters and upper-class residences, expanding attractive pedestrian shopping and leisure areas by linking Brussels' three most attractive urban sites: Grand Place, Mont des Arts/Les Sablons and Avenue Louise, redevelop Gare de Midi area by inducing corporate headquarters to move from sterile greensite 'corporate villages' to a vibrant and then also safe inner city location, and last but not least, preserving traditional Brussels quartiers, assuring that they are not destroyed by developers or by "ethnic invasions", creating slums and lawless no-go areas.

Possibly Brussels local politics (witness the last four decades) may be unable or unwilling to deliver. If the communal tax base proves too weak and intercommunal fragmentation too strong, perhaps a "Brussels D.C." unified and quadrilingual European metropolitan administration might be an option. For the time being however, in the typical time-honoured incremental fashion of European integration, lets give the current local authorities their chance.

  • Dr Albrecht Rothacher, 46, works for the European Commission enlargement directorate-general in Brussels. He originally comes from Germany.

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

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