From Rome to Brussels by bicycle: Powered by ideas

Italian journalist Lucia Bruni cycled the 2,000 kilometres between the Italian capital and that of the EU to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, stopping along the way at places of symbolic importance.

The mobile app I use for navigation brings me to the kind of wide and bustling ring road you find in all big cities. I’ve just left the European quarter, with its immense mirrored edifices that host EU institutions and their myriad connected offices. But now, taking a turn, I sense colors and odors typical of a middle-eastern souk.

In the supermarket I enter to buy biscuits and yoghurt, everyone is speaking arabic. The only words exchanged in English are those between me and the cashier. After sending me on my way, she switches back to arabic to greet the veiled woman behind me. I’m in the quartier Midi, named after the station of the same name. I love the Middle East, and after a second of disorientation I’m not unhappy to have encountered this side of Brussels – more than just a city, a union of communities, the third region of Belgium alongside Wallonia and Flanders.

I realise the complexity and vitality of this city, which can’t just be reduced to being the home of important European institutions, even though that is the reason I’m here – after almost 2000 kilometres by bike in sixteen days, plus a day-long pause in Luxembourg due to bad weather.

I left Rome on the 19th of June, with the intention of recounting with a journey by bike the sixtieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. This was the treaty that established the European Economic Community and Euratom, completing the triad of the European Community, and started the process that lead to the Union we have today. When I began to think of this journey, last January, denunciations in both Italy and elsewhere were raining down on the European Union, accused of being the cause of all the ills of our economies and societies.

More than one party has suggested having their country leave the EU, following the example of the UK. What has happened, I ask myself, in these last decades, to disfigure to such an extent the image of such an ambitious project, one which has succeeded in such crucial ways as achieving peace and cooperation between European states? We might think of the steps taken towards integration, dogged as they’ve been by uncertainties and endless bargaining over aspects of sovereignty. But above all, what comes to mind is the coup de grace inflicted by the global financial crisis, with its consequent, unpopular measures of austerity.

For years now we’ve seen leaders flailing in swamps of ambiguity, conscious of the need to move forward with European integration, but incapable of reaching agreement on the when and the how, weighed down by the pressure of ever more changeable and dissatisfied public opinion – a public more and more capable of dizzying electoral upheavals.

So, why does everything seem so much more difficult now than in the fifties and sixties? Shouldn’t it be easier to keep moving forward with an already moving machine, than starting again from zero? After all, back then the second world war had just ended, those years of so much tragedy and conflict between European states and peoples. I’d been thinking about this, mounting my bike for the heart of Europe, when it struck me that the most serious deficit has nothing to do with economics or Treaties, but rather an absence of ideas – and the lack of passion and support from citizens for a project which first and foremost should bring advantages to the people themselves.

Following this train of thought, on the 30th of June I came to the twelfth stage in my journey, leaving Kleinblittersdorf, a German city on the Saar, joined with the French commune of Grosbliederstroff by a bridge dedicated to their friendship, the Pont de l’Amitié, to be precise. I’d cycled forty kilometres between the highway and the river, passing factories that had played a part in French-German rivalry and then in their new spirit of cooperation. I cycled upwards to an impressive highland gold with grain, with towering wind turbines, and dotted here and there with Menhirs de l’Europe. Then there was the Moselle valley, crossroad between Germany, France and Luxembourg. And then the town of Schengen, mid-point of this stage in my journey, where in 1985 the various accords on the abolition of Europe’s internal borders were signed.

The bike path that leads to the bridge is dedicated to Robert Schuman, “père de l’Europe”. It was on May 9th, 1950, that Schuman delivered his declaration that France and Germany’s coal and steel production should be placed under “a common High Authority”. It’s for the practical and symbolic importance of this declaration that the 9th of May is celebrated every year as Europe Day. On this day, we celebrate the foresightedness of those people inspired by a vision which put an end to the vicious cycle that brought war after war to Europe.

I wanted to travel by bike to give a kind of personal touch to this journey. In a world dominated by the illusion that we can know, say and do almost anything with a smartphone, often we still find ourselves paralysed by a sense of fatalism when faced with what’s happening in the world around us, feeling like powerless victims of untrustworthy and cynical leaders – and the rapid, precarious changes, the climate, terrorism, economic crises, migratory flux.

With my bike, I wanted to take a trip that would lead out of this cognitive trap, to remind myself and others that ideas move and develop with the people themselves, that what happens in the world, for better or worse, is the work of people who bring to fruition their individual and collective visions. Naturally, the method of travel wasn’t chosen at random. Cycling is a sustainable form of mobility, and mobility is the mirror and litmus test of any society. Mobility is sustainable when it is accessible to all without being diminished, without causing harm or consuming resources. The essence of indivisible goods is that they can only be enjoyed in a shared manner, otherwise they don’t exist at all.

A Europe that closes itself off, that thinks it can reach peace and security by closing its borders, exchanging its values of justice and democracy with barbed wire fences raised by authoritarian regimes, is like a person who thinks they have the most freedom when driving an SUV in a city. Schuman knew well that peace couldn’t be created by the unilateral actions of single states, but only through collaboration. And it’s no accident that Schuman was convinced that the next step should be concerned with the development of Africa.

In 2010 I was in Syria. I’d had to renew my passport, since there were stamps from Israel, and I had to go to the Syrian embassy in Rome to obtain a visa. Millions of people have to go through such things all the time, or worse, have no legal means to leave in search of a better future, or even to merely survive. In the last few weeks, I’ve crossed borders a dozen times without even noticing. I used the coins and notes that I’d had in my wallet, used my Italian phone to chat and make calls. In Brussels and Luxembourg I met young Italians who were happily employed by European institutions. I met the young daughter of a Roman couple who had grown up speaking the three languages of Luxembourg, as well as English, which she learns at school.

I listened to accounts of how European networks had established social projects which aimed to alleviate poverty and create inclusive employment opportunities among the disadvantaged. I looked for, and found, sometimes by accident, signs of intervention and measures enacted for the benefit of regions and communities, thanks to European funds. I spoke to a judge of the European Court of Justice who reminded me that thanks to this institution, European rights are directly applicable to all citizens. In Aachen I could see our ancient cultural and historical heritage. In the Ardennes, on the Siegfried line, I saw the healed scars of our old conflicts.

I chose to travel by bike from Rome to Brussels to celebrate the anniversary of those ideals which have kept moving for sixty years. Thanks to these ideals we’ve enjoyed the benefits of peace, cooperation and integration. Today, these ideals need to resume their path, and realise their potential in the only way they can – through sharing. I chose to cycle, because alone in this vast world, I understand what it is to be caught by fear of the unknown, of the other, of the future; and it’s then, more than ever, that I need to keep my mind on the destination, to remain motivated, without letting negative emotions lead the way.

Sixteen times I departed, every morning closing up the bags I’d opened the night before, every day following a trail, reminding myself that goals are achieved when every day, metre by metre, we move in the right direction. I wish for my Europe a move in the right direction, a rediscovery of the strength of ideas, and a faith in achieving them together.

Translated from the Italian by Ciaran Lawless

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