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Brussels is Europe’s Crucible: The city that hosts a continent

The landscape of Brussels at sunset. Photograph: Getty Images/Westend61. - Credit: Getty Images/Westend61

Belgian author ANNELIES BECK reflects on the role that Brussels has played as the capital of the EU and a focus for its people.

Umberto Eco’s response to my first question was booming laughter. We were sitting in a taxi, cruising along the Rue Royal through Brussels, the capital of Europe. I was a young journalist at the time, working on my first novel (facts alone didn’t do the human experience justice, I felt). He was Umberto Eco, the Italian writer and European intellectual.

We were making a detour on the way to the airport, allowing me to steal some time for an interview. I had asked him whether he liked Brussels and he had laughed. ‘Considering that you live here, politeness requires me to say ‘Yes, of course’. It’s not an interesting question.’ This was the beginning of our conversation.

It was July 2001. Looking back now it feels like the last innocent summer: 9/11 was still a few months away; Facebook wouldn’t start holding our attention hostage for another year or two; and climate change wasn’t considered more of a threat than it had been in the 1980s and 1990s when we all wore T-shirts saying: ‘No time to waste.’

I was indeed living in Brussels and that summer, Europe came to town. That is to say, Brussels had been the official capital of the European Union for years already, of course. The EU had landed in Brussels much like a shard of glass lodged in a hand.

It was a separate part of the city where buildings with mirrored windows suggested transparency rather than offered it; a beer was more expensive in this quarter, and ‘eurocrats’ flew in and out every week to earn big paycheques.

Reporting on what was going on in the EU was, more often than not, focussed on its institutions rather than on Europeans. In short, not many people living in Brussels, or beyond for that matter, felt the EU pertained to them, in spite of the euro and the cheap labour that it made possible.

But all of that was going to change. Belgium had taken on the six-month rotating presidency of the council of European heads of states for the second half of that year. The idea was to put a heart into the European Union, a heart called Brussels.

The then Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt – who was big on symbolism and a firm believer in the EU – brought together a group of wise men (and two women) from all over Europe to discuss the best way to mark Brussels as a capital of and, most importantly, for all Europeans. (Yes, in 2001 it was still possible to include only two women among those great minds.)

‘Could it be a building? A piece of music? A monument?,’ the prime minister wondered aloud. It was up to the gathered sages to decide. They discussed the matter over dinner at Erasmus House, the site where Desiderius Erasmus – a humanist and the prototypical European intellectual – stayed for a few months in 1521, writing letters, enjoying the beautiful garden and discussing the state of the world with his friends.

One of the participants in the 21st-century version of this exchange of ideas was Umberto Eco, the man I shared a taxi with at the end of that day. It hadn’t been made clear yet what the result was of all the brainstorming and wining and dining at Erasmus House. (And as it turned out, it never would be.) Eco, however, had a personal view he didn’t mind sharing.

‘A true city is like a theatre. It offers wide perspectives with a finely calculated distribution of grand monuments. You have to be careful: throw around too many imposing buildings and they lose grace, think of what the Nazis did.’

We were still driving along the Rue Royal with the Palais de Justice looming ahead of us, a giant building with a golden-tinged dome, shrouded in scaffolding for decades, in a perpetual state of salvage from ruin, as opposed to restoration or improvement. Needless to say, the metaphor wasn’t lost on Eco.

‘It is not enough for Brussels, or any city, to have a brilliant artist design a wonderful monument, compose a piece of music or sculpt a statue, for people to relate to it as the capital of the EU.’

We made a stop in the European Quarter and drank a coffee – a proper coffee – on a terrace at the Luxemburg Square, in front of the European parliament. ‘I can only see it working as a hub, a place where every Erasmus student feels obliged, intellectually and morally, to spend at least three months during the course of their studies. A city where the ruling class of tomorrow learn the trade, form bonds with each other and the city.’

His eyes lit up. ‘And I mean bonding in the most literal sense: marrying each other, learning each other’s languages, appreciating each other’s food.’

Eco told me stories about his wife, who is German, and about his favourite food. ‘In 30 years, Europe will be a colourful continent, not only in terms of skin but in terms of ideas. It will be a continent where all kinds of religions will have to live together. To learn to appreciate each other’s culinary traditions is a fundamental way to learn about one another’s mentality!’

It was an exciting idea: Brussels as both the pole of attraction and the springboard for the next generation, the first truly European generation, from Warsaw to London, from Stockholm to Madrid, whether they’d be the ones manning the institutions, artistically shaping European reality or exchanging recipes and vegetables, grown back home. His vision appealed to me, being of the interrail generation myself and having studied abroad: I could imagine this whirl of like-minded young potentials all too well. But could it ever work for everyone?

It was time for Eco to catch that plane, and he did.

Today there’s no way you could risk a detour through Brussels’ city centre in a taxi (or even an Uber) on the way to the airport. Twenty years on, cars are losing the fight for public space to pedestrians, electrical bikes and public transport, but until the battle is truly over, people pay in time, health and nerves. The Palais de Justice is still standing, held up by scaffolding. In the European Quarter, more glass buildings have arisen, adding to the labyrinthine aspect of that part of the city, with the fissures of the financial crisis of 2008 plastered over.

The terrorist attacks in 2016 laid bare other tears in the city’s fabric. Brussels has changed and so has Europe.

I wonder what Umberto Eco would make of Europe today – he died in February 2016. No doubt his ideas of 2001 about enlightened and truly European bureaucrats and politicians are deemed elitist by some. His understanding of the need for recognition of local and historical traditions would be considered provincial by others.

Whereas back then the shape and future of Europe seemed to have been the prerogative of politicians and intellectuals having a civil conversation, the question today is of a much more pressing nature than the role of ‘Brussels’.

The conversation has turned into a shouting match between parties calling each other names (‘elites’, ‘nationalists’, ‘cosmopolitans’, etc.) and, more importantly, challenging the role of the European Union. The EU is too much or too little, too loud or too quiet, too unified or too divided.

Men continue to pontificate, sometimes wisely too. But, thankfully, more and more women now raise their voices and make themselves heard. Eco was right: bonds are being forged across boundaries. ‘Climate kids’ take to the streets, inspired by a Swedish girl, and hold the EU to account for what it is failing to do. Young men from Hungary to Belgium calling themselves ‘identitaires’ challenge the idea of the EU altogether.

The debate is no longer about symbols or a shared capital. The next generation is talking about survival, recognition, dignity, and home, albeit in many different and often contradictory ways.

Whether it is being rejected as the root of all evil or embraced as the start of the solution, the EU is finally, and somewhat ironically, at the heart of the debate. On second thought, ‘debate’ may be too civilised a word for the clash that is being fought on so many different fronts: on the streets and social media more so than in political arenas.

Politics has become a spectacle, a theatrical event with effect trumping essence. It quickens the blood and raises the stakes in equal measure. The ‘inner emigration’ of Europeans who don’t feel at home anymore in their own country and who, as Hannah Arendt put it, withdraw to an interior realm, into the ‘invisibility of thinking and feeling’, is as much part of what threatens to break up the European construction as the perceived threat of actual people crossing the Mediterranean.

Migration is not only a movement of people but also of minds. Citizens hesitate between wearily shaking their head or turning their backs on it all.

But a story is being written and it will play itself out far beyond the theatre that is Brussels. Some scripts are being prompted from the wings across the ocean, whispering the catchphrase ‘Take Back Control’. Others are being tested in citizens’ panels or forums that are redesigning democracy with an eye on the future.

Every European, old and new, here or on the way, has a stake in this story – stories, plural. There are many, many sides to the debate. Eco’s ‘wide perspectives’ are ever more fractured, much like a kaleidoscope wherein fragments constantly realign themselves in unimaginable patterns.

So how to bond and bridge all those elements, all those people in their multifaceted individuality? How to leave room to manoeuvre and at the same time hold the continent together? Is it possible to blend and at the same time respect the where, whence and how of the parts that make up the whole? Brexit taught us that breaking away comes at a cost.

Since the last European elections, it looks like fewer parties want out, but more – and perhaps louder ones – want it done differently.

A foundation of facts won’t suffice to hold up the European project. An empty theatre, no matter how grand it looks, is a soulless place. There’s not just the one story that should hijack the stage and occupy the theatre. There should be room for more. Stories can work in a myriad of ways; they are not in themselves good or bad. But they can unlock hearts and minds and lay bare the shared humanity of all, more so than newly invented symbols. They can put a wedge in shrill sounding certainties that are sold as unassailable truths.

I’m still a journalist, trying to gain footing in fact. But I’m ever more the novelist, examining the more complicated ways in which we exist. My first question to Eco, ‘Do you like Brussels?’, wasn’t
an interesting one – he was right. There are other questions to be asked: ‘What do you think of…?, How do you feel about… ?’, ‘Who are you…?, What is your life like… ?’, ‘What do you suggest…?’ Questions that set off stories. The power of a story lies in a voice speaking up. The power of a story lies in its multiplicity. The power of every story lies in it being listened to.

Annelies Beck represents Belgium in the Hay Festival Europa28 project; her essay was originally published in the anthology Europa28: Writing by Women on the Future of Europe (Comma Press), out now

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