The real Bruxellois are irritated with their EU bubble neighbors.
Ask Brussels residents what they think of the EU district, and they will often roll their eyes. The city’s Belgian residents complain that the endless construction works there, combined with the traffic disruption caused by leaders’ motorcades during European Council summits, make their city harder to enjoy.
Many deride the quarter of the city housing the EU institutions as a noisy ghetto for high-handed, white, overpaid, tax-exempt bureaucrats who show little interest in the country they inhabit.
The frustrations go the other way too, with EU workers complaining of bafflingly over-zealous Belgian bureaucracy combined with less than enthusiastic customer service — to name two national stereotypes.
Whether the caricatures are fair or not, they add up to a serious relationship problem which has been made worse by the institutions’ continued fondness for real estate expansion. But while some residents on either side of the psychological divide are content to stay in their silo and grumble quietly about the other lot, there are people on both sides working for a more harmonious Brussels.
“Nobody lives there. It is a torrent of cars and offices” — Denys Ryelandt, local residents’ association.
The city became the temporary seat of the European Economic Community in 1958 and acquired the status of formal headquarters of the European Union institutions in 1992 (NATO moved to the city in 1967.) As such, Brussels has welcomed six European institutions (including the Commission and Council), 42 intergovernmental organizations and 5,400 diplomats — more than any other city in the world, according to a report from the Brussels city administration.
All that gives Brussels an international clout that a medium sized city of 1.2 million could not hope to enjoy otherwise. Its international presence creates about 121,000 jobs (16.7 percent of employment) and the Commission itself employs more than 5,000 Belgian citizens directly.
But for residents who are not in the highfalutin embassy crowd or don’t work with the institutions, what has been referred to as a “bureaucratic blandsville” can feel like an unwelcoming city-within-a-city.
“I never go there,” said Denys Ryelandt, the vice-president of an association defending the rights of residents in Uccle, a residential district in the Brussels-Capital region. “Why would I go? Nobody lives there. It is a torrent of cars and offices.”
One problem is what critics regard as a hungry but visionless expansionism by the EU, which has turned the “Leopold district” — named after Belgium’s first king, Leopold I — from an elegant neighborhood into a soulless and messy hub for urban highways and grey offices, with little regard for residents’ views.
“The construction of the EU hub has been an urban planning trauma for many residents of Brussels,” said Alain Hutchinson, the Belgian federal state’s Brussels Commissioner for Europe, a former MEP. “So I try to make this area and presence much more acceptable for the inhabitants of Brussels, who have remained skeptical of how much they benefit from it.”
Hutchinson’s appointment in 2016 was an attempt to improve relations between the EU and the Brussels region. Once or twice a year, he organizes a roundtable with “all the political leaders of the institutions” and the Brussels government. European Budget Commissioner Günther Oettinger was at the last meeting, with the next scheduled for December 4.
Those meetings have provided a forum to resolve differences and discuss planning issues that irritate the locals, but he argues that the EU bubble could do more. “The European and international institutions should become more aware of the great potential of this city. The distance they maintain does not make the task easier for those who are working to develop closer links,” his office’s annual report says.
“The expansion of the EU institutions created a two-speed city with two differently designed spaces ignoring each other” — Denys Ryelandt
The Commission itself doesn’t always make life easy. Hutchinson said the institution often requests that the Belgian state grant its staff more parking spaces, adding to the road congestion, while at the same time a different part of the EU’s bureaucracy denied Brussels an official EU “green capital” label, he said.
“It is a subject of tension,” he added.
One long-standing bone of contention dating back to the 1960s was the forced expulsion by local authorities of many residents and the razing of some homes in part to make space for the cruciform colossus that is the Commission’s love-it-or-hate-it Berlaymont headquarters.
Across the road, the art deco Résidence Palace — built in 1920 as a luxurious apartment block before being turned into an HQ for German occupiers during World War II — was spared demolition but became an office for the Belgian federal state and later, an international press center.
Ryelandt said he used to go to the Résidence Palace because of its “stunning” swimming pool and would visit friends in the nearby Ambiorix Square. “The pool closed and my friends no longer live there,” he said. “The expansion of the EU institutions created a two-speed city with two differently designed spaces ignoring each other.”
“The relations with the European institutions have always been complicated,” said Marco Schmitt, an architect and president of “Quartier Léopold,” an association which defends the rights of residents in the EU area.
He argues that many of the EU’s construction projects have been “shortsighted” and “profitability-driven.”
“That caused an absence of urban planning vision in the area, a lack of creativity, and unbridled constructions because it is not up to private investors to have a long-term vision,” he said.
For Schmitt, the most striking evidence of the institutions’ out of control building appetite is the massive “Urbain Loi” project which was signed by regional authorities in 2008 to “re-energise the European quarter,” with more housing, offices and public spaces.
“This will contribute to the vision we have of institutions which look down on others” — Marco Schmitt
Schmitt described the construction of the 94-meter “The One” tower, which is part of the plan, as “a disaster for the landscape” in what is by and large a low-rise city. The building, a stone’s throw from the Berlaymont, houses a mix of offices and apartments.
He also cited another aspect of the plan — the “Loi 130” project — which will include office space for more than 5,250 people, as well as two childcare centers, a visitor center, more shops and restaurants. In March, the Commission launched an international architectural competition to “identify the best design proposals for its most important current real estate project in Brussels: the redevelopment of its premises,” with the first phase of the project due to start in 2025.
The plan, Schmitt said, is likely to reinforce the existing gap between local inhabitants and the EU. “This will contribute to the vision we have of institutions which look down on others, are out of touch with the outside world and feel less and less concerned about the rest of the city,” he said.
The Paul-Henri Spaak building of the European Parliament | Stéphanie Lecocq
Another headache will be the eye-wateringly expensive future renovation or destruction of the Paul-Henri Spaak building of the European Parliament. In service for only around 25 years, but it is already deemed in urgent need of renovation. Hutchinson says he has made it clear that the construction and renovation work, when it happens, must be sensitive to residents and not involve “any centimeter of extension.”
Fixing the relationship problem between the EU and its host city could have wider benefits though, Schmitt argues. He says the frequent criticism of the EU as out of touch and aloof from its citizens could be blunted by it listening to and demonstrating better relations with its nearest neighbours.
“The more these institutions take measures that are incomprehensible for the Brussels residents, the more counterproductive their measures will be for the European citizens,” Schmitt said.
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The real Bruxellois are irritated with their EU bubble neighbors.