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EU: Union Searches For A Soul In The Heart Of Its Bureaucracy

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Brussels, the capital of Belgium, is also in a sense the capital of Europe. As the major seat of European Union institutions, including most of its bureaucracy, Brussels appears destined to play an increasing role in the lives of the Union's citizens. When the Central and Eastern European states join the EU in the coming years, they will also come under its influence. But what of the city itself? The usual notion is that it is a rather gray, dull place. But now EU Commission President Romano Prodi has launched a debate to establish what Brussels needs to make it a truly European capital, reflecting diversity in unity. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports on the search for the city's symbols and soul.

Prague, 20 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- European Commission President Romano Prodi often has the air of a somewhat distracted professor. Peering over his glasses in an avuncular way, he leaves his sentences unfinished, hanging in the air.

Prodi certainly has an academic's liking for concepts and ideas. Amid the many practical problems surrounding him as head of the Commission, he has found time to open a debate on what features the city of Brussels needs to symbolize its role as the capital of Europe.

Prodi has turned his attention to Brussels following his campaign to provoke and stimulate debate on the future role of the Union itself -- a debate which is still in full swing. Working with Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, he recently invited a group of intellectuals to formulate ideas on how the city could better reflect both the common values and the diversity of the EU.

One of the intellectuals who attended that meeting, Italian writer Umberto Eco (author of "The Name of the Rose"), expressed skepticism about the project, calling it "artificial."

Brussels, a city of a million people, is generally considered rather dull by the bureaucrats who come to serve there from EU member states. Architecturally, it is a mixture of traditional Flemish and French belle-epoque styles, interspersed with art deco and the inevitable dreary modern office buildings.

The so-called European quarter, where the EU institutions are grouped, was once the city's Bohemian quarter. But little of that atmosphere is left, as ever-bigger projects smash their way through the old buildings. One of the historic houses demolished to make way for the gigantic European Parliament complex was the home of the sculptor Auguste Rodin.

More office space in and around the European quarter will be rented as bureaucrats from the new member countries of Central and Eastern Europe start arriving in the city. Each new member state will send a contingent of no fewer than 400 officials to work within the EU institutions. Sufficient office space already exists, but the German news magazine "Focus" estimates that in addition to their spouses, the Eastern officials will be bringing with them more than 5,000 children. Because existing facilities cannot absorb them, new kindergartens and international schools must therefore be built.

Already, foreigners make up more than a third of the city's population. And some people complain that ordinary citizens are not being given enough say in future developments. Columnist Gareth Harding writes in the weekly "European Voice" newspaper that "in time-honored fashion, local residents -- who have seen rents skyrocket, roads clogged, and whole streets torn down to make way for the EU's ever-growing institutions -- were not on the invitation list [to attend Prodi's debate]."

In separate comments to RFE/RL, Harding -- who spoke personally and not on behalf of his paper -- said:

"I think it is absurd, really, that the European Union is looking at ways of making Brussels a true European capital without involving the people who live in the vicinity. This is a city which has seen large swathes of its center destroyed to make way for the EU institutions, and rather than inviting well-known intellectuals from around Europe to give their airy ideas about what a European capital should be, they should actually ask the people who live around it."

Belgium's minister-president of the Brussels region, Francois-Xavier de Donnea, admits it's going to be a "challenge" to increase the European-grade functions of the city while not "selling out," as he puts it.

The Prodi-Verhofstadt initiative has nevertheless aroused interest. The "European Voice" itself has launched an international writing prize for essays under the title "Brussels: A Capital for Europe."

The newspaper's publisher, Dennis Landsbert-Noon, told our correspondent that citizens of the candidate countries of Central and Eastern Europe are "absolutely" welcome to compete for the prize of almost $1,000. Landsbert-Noon sees the initiative as having some value, even if the EU is preoccupied with more pressing problems.

"Symbols are always important. How important [they are] will vary. In terms of whether they are as important as searching for peace in Macedonia, or trying to find peace in the Middle East, or even in launching the euro enlargement -- no, of course [Brussels' image] is not important in that scheme of things."

But of course, no one has yet to explain what precisely is being sought to make Brussels the capital of Europe. Is it a new statue, or cultural centers, or a new "atmosphere"? Landsbert-Noon ponders the matter:

"A capital of Europe can mean so many things. I don't think it is just architecture, or just culture. It's a mixture of so many things. If you were just to look at the capital cities of Europe, as it were -- in the member states and the applicant member states -- they represent a whole diverse mixture of qualities, which make them what they are."

If Prodi's group of intellectuals is not up to the task, perhaps one of the "European Voice" essayists will finally be able to specify what Brussels needs in order to fulfill its role as the capital of Europe.