When President Barack Obama visits Brussels for the first time on March 26, he will discover a city that – in many ways – is Europe’s version of Washington D.C.
Both are medium-sized capitals with large commuter belts, fine restaurants and delightful green spaces. They are relatively wealthy cities with large pockets of poverty – Brussels is the third richest region in the European Union but has a youth unemployment rate of almost 30%. In both places everyone seems to be from somewhere else – and in Brussels’ case this is largely true with over half the population born abroad or to foreign parents. And they have a complicated status within their respective nations. Brussels is the glue that holds divided Belgium together, a Francophone city surrounded by Dutch-speaking Flanders. The District of Columbia, to the befuddlement of most foreigners and many Americans, is the capital of the United States but its elected representatives have no voting rights in Congress.
More importantly, the two cities are probably the world’s most powerful political capitals. As the headquarters of major international organizations like NATO, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and home to the legislative and executive arms of the United States and the EU – which together account for over half the world’s wealth – decisions taken in Washington and Brussels reverberate around the globe. As a result, state bodies are the major employers and legions of lawyers, politicians, officials, diplomats, spies, journalists, lobbyists and other hangers-on buzz around these power centers like bees around a hive. Needless to say, both cities have become bywords for bloated bureaucracy and federal overstretch in their respective dominions. John F. Kennedy’s famous quip about Washington being a city of “Southern efficiency and Northern charm” could equally apply to Brussels – although this rather underestimates the former’s efficiency and the latter’s charm.
Much like Washington, “Brussels is a company town,” writes the BBC’s Europe Editor Gavin Hewitt in ‘The Lost Continent.’ “Its business is servicing Project Europe.” There are about 40,000 officials working for the EU institutions, 1,100 accredited journalists – making it the third largest international press corps after Washington and London – and more embassies than any other city in the world. Brussels even has its own version of K Street, where approximately 10,000 lobbyists work for interest groups as varied as the National Union of County Councils of Romania and The European Synthetic Rubbers Association.
Diplomats, lobbyists and reporters are attracted to power and money and Brussels has both in abundance. It is the headquarters of the European Union – the world’s biggest economic power, trading bloc, regulatory authority and aid donor with 500 million citizens, a budget of over 140 billion euro a year and the ability to block mergers (like GE/Honeywell) and slap massive fines on companies (as it did with Microsoft). It is also the seat of NATO, the most powerful military club on the planet.
So Brussels and Washington are clearly the world’s most important legislative centers. In other respects, however, the two capitals could not be more different. D.C. is politically polarized – some would say paralyzed – whereas Brussels is a city of compromise where the preferred solution to any problem is to draft a declaration so vague everyone can claim victory and so vacuous nobody is offended.
Where Washington is uptight about security – and justly so after the events of 11 September 2001 – Brussels is so lax there is not a policeman or armed officer to be seen in the EU district. Shortly after 9/11 this reporter found a pile of architect’s plans for the newly-refurbished European Commission HQ next to a trash can in a car park underneath the building. To this day, you can illegally park your car on a roundabout opposite the EU headquarters and you are unlikely to be ticketed, let alone towed.
Brussels has a far more relaxed vibe than Washington, a city known for its motorcades and power breakfasts. Sharp suits and bodyguards are rarer than sunny skies and cheery service. There is a strip club (‘Le Manhattan’ if you are interested) inside the Maelbeek metro station closest to the European Parliament. And between late July and early September the EU district is practically deserted as the European institutions switch to ‘sleep’ mode and officials head to the beaches.
The Belgian capital also takes itself less seriously. Its most famous landmark is the Manneken Pis – a statue of a small boy peeing. And unlike the inhabitants of most major capital cities, who are often snooty and supercilious, ‘les Bruxellois’ are known for their self-depreciation and irreverence.
There are also huge differences in how the two cities’ administrative areas evolved. Washington was meticulously planned as the young nation’s capital in the late 18th century, with French architect Pierre Charles L’Enfante’s designs evoking symmetry, space and grandeur. Brussels, on the other hand, ended up as the de facto capital of the EU more by accident than design after the organization outgrew its Luxembourg premises. It is a similar story with NATO, which was based in Paris until President Charles de Gaulle abruptly withdrew France from the bloc’s military command in 1966. The defense club subsequently decamped to a series of grim, prefabricated huts near Brussels airport, where it remains to this day.
The consequences of this haphazard decampment are still visible. In the late 1950’s The European Union landed in the bourgeois Etterbeek neighborhood of Brussels like a bizarre and alien UFO. As the organization has grown in size and power – it started with six states and now has 28 – it has required more and more office space. The result has been the almost total decimation of a once attractive neighborhood, with whole streets of three-story townhouses torn down to make way for ugly EU headquarters and nondescript office blocks.
Despite the recession and the EU’s existential woes, which have been sparked by the euro crisis and waning public support for greater European integration, the skyline of Brussels is dotted with more cranes than ever. EU leaders are building themselves a gigantic, €240 million egg-shaped steel and glass head office. Not to be outdone, NATO is also busy constructing a colossal new headquarters that is already going to cost taxpayers over twice the original €460 million price tag attached to it four years ago.
For a continent that prides itself on its human-scale cities, with historic buildings, efficient public transport and generous sidewalks and cycle lanes, the EU quarter of Brussels is something of an urban disaster zone. It is sliced apart by two, five-lane highways, the sidewalks are a minefield of broken paving stones, litter and dog poo and the two main metro stations serving the area – Schuman and Arts-Loi – have been under construction for almost five years.
It is all a far cry from the prim and primped political district of Washington, where tourists queue up to have their photo taken in front of Congress, The White House and monuments celebrating America’s checkered history, vast museums trumpet the greatness of a young and still insecure nation and fierce security measures attest to the country’s military might – and vulnerability. It may all be somewhat pompous but there is pride in the city and power is choreographed with balletic precision.
It is unlikely that many of the visitors who venture away from the chocolate and lace shops of Brussels’ Grand Place to the steel and glass canyons of the European quarter have any affinity with or pride in the capital that has been constructed in their name. In fact, what is remarkable about this area of Brussels is how distinctly un-European it feels. The EU’s founding fathers like Robert Schuman and Alcide de Gasperi get roundabouts and buildings named after them but few Europeans outside the Brussels bubble have heard of them. There is a Soviet-style statue of the Greek goddess Europa holding a euro symbol but this must seem like a sick joke to the millions of Europeans suffering from the unintended consequences of the single currency. And although they are building a House of Contemporary European History next to the European Parliament, you get very little sense of the continent’s tragic past or more upbeat present in Brussels – as you do, say, in Berlin, Prague or Riga.
Like the European Union it is meant to embody, the EU district of Brussels is half-built and with no grand design for its future. The rest of the city, however, is mostly charming, unpretentious, steeped in history and immensely livable. In fact, it is precisely because of its slow-burning charms that many residents who initially planned to stay six months for work – like this writer – end up spending 20 years for the quality of life. The housing is cheap and spacious – especially compared to Paris and London, which are less than two hours away by train. The health system puts America’s to shame – although the flipside is the highest tax rate in the world. And then, of course there are life’s little indulgences – beer, chocolate, waffles and fries – that Belgium does better than anywhere else.
Few people fantasise about living in Brussels, as they do about living in Rome, Vienna or Madrid. But it is a much more cosmopolitan city than any of these – and far more interesting and important politically. It is home to the world’s biggest and boldest experiment in trans-national democracy – one which will be severely tested in May’s European Parliament elections, when less than half the bloc’s 300 million electors are expected to turn out to vote. And for the last five years it has been at the epicentre of what German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called “Europe’s toughest hour since World War Two” as EU leaders have sought to save their shared currency, the euro.
Americans have a lot at stake in the success of NATO and the European Union, which is why US officials take Brussels so seriously. The United States alone has three embassies in Brussels – to the European Union, Belgium and NATO. In addition, The State Department set up one of its first regional media hubs in the Belgian capital aimed at improving America’s image in Europe after the PR calamity of the George W. Bush presidency.
“As you probably know, some American politicians and American journalists refer to Washington, D.C. as the ‘capital of the free world,'” Vice-President Joe Biden told EU lawmakers in 2010. “But it seems to me that in this great city, which boasts 1,000 years of history and which serves as the capital of Belgium, the home of the European Union, and the headquarters for NATO, this city has its own legitimate claim to that title.”
President Obama has never been as enthusiastic about the EU as his vice-president. One year after taking office, Obama abruptly cancelled an annual EU-US summit in Madrid, which had been scheduled for May 2010. When he eventually did hook up with European leaders in Lisbon later that year he bluntly declared: “This summit was not as exciting as other summits because we basically agree on everything.”
The March 26 meeting – the first since the Lisbon meeting three and a half years ago – is unlikely to be as consensual. Europeans are angry at NSA snooping and the Obama administration’s refusal to sign up to binding targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, Washington is frustrated at the EU’s sluggish growth and its inability to sort out problems in its backyard, like Ukraine. One of the few issues the two powers see eye to eye on is the importance of agreeing a free trade pact aimed at boosting transatlantic jobs and growth.
According to press reports of the first aborted summit in Madrid, EU leaders did themselves no favors with the U.S. administration by squabbling among themselves about who would shake Obama’s hand first and who would sit next to the First Lady at dinner. The EU’s Hydra-headed leadership is likely to be no less a source of frustration for Obama this time round. After the obligatory photo-ops with the Belgian king and prime minister, he will meet with three leaders – European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh-Rasmussen – whose terms all end this year.
If all this hand-shaking with lame-duck leaders gets too much for Obama, he would be well advised to do what Bill Clinton did when he visited Brussels – head to Maison Antoine on the nearby Place Jourdan and buy a cone of arguably the best fries in the world (preferably with a healthy dollop of mayonnaise on top). He should then pop into one of the square’s watering holes and wash them down with a glass of cool Stella Artois beer while chatting to the locals. He would not only get a better idea of what matters to ordinary Europeans but a better feel for Brussels, a much-maligned and often misunderstood city that American leaders will find increasingly difficult to ignore in the future.
A shorter version of this article was published by Politico on March 24, 2014