Ken Sweeney, took time away from the office to visit the heart of Europe – Brussels – the capital of Belgium and the EU. Here, he takes a look at the city, as well as chats to some of its inhabitants to get a feel for Brussels and what it is like to experience it.
I’ve been to Brussels before, but during my recent visit I had more free time, so I decided to check in with some colleagues and to take a more in-depth look at the city. For the most part I had arranged to go so as to catch up with some of our contributors, network colleagues and to meet friends. So, on a very early Thursday morning I headed out of Dublin airport scheduled to touch down at Zaventem airport at around 9.30 am. It’s been a few years since I was last in Brussels, so I was keen to see if there were any major changes. Once I checked in at my hotel, I decided to have a look at the refurbished European Quarter. Last time it was a messy building site with massive disruption in traffic, but this time it looked almost finished. And it looked amazing, too.
You have this huge thoroughfare which begins just before the Parliament and takes you down to the Parlamentarium – a glossy building with Blade Runner style graphics outside, depicting positive images of beautiful people pointing and smiling. The Parlamentarium is dedicated to the EU and its institutions. It’s a funny entrance procedure, not unlike at airports where you need to take all your contents, place them on a tray and go through scanners. Once inside, you are greeted by smiling, if not somewhat robotic staff, who will gently force you to leave your coat and belongings to a locker system.
After that, it’s the tour – a slightly stale, but very informative exhibition which also has a wall of pictures of all the MEPs. To be honest, I didn’t find it that interesting and thought it too much time-consuming. I do have a problem with the public image of the EU in that it really doesn’t do itself justice and I found this evident here. I sometimes wish there would be more hoopla rather than the serious deep undertone that seems to follow it around.
First stop with some work was the press conference for Ralph Mesquita – a colleague of ours who is attempting to run from Nordkapp in Norway to southern Spain. Next month Ralph will be attempting his run in less than 80 days and as he is keen to raise awareness about obesity, he is dedicating this run to the illness. I asked Ralph about his feelings for Brussels and what he thinks of the city.
“I moved to Brussels as a child. And I grew up learning to love this town. There are so many cultures, languages, and different areas. [I love] [t]hat you can travel half a kilometre and change scenarios completely. There are so many things to say about this place, that it takes a lifetime to try to understand how the capital of Europe works. Until I understand it all, I think the best thing to do is to go have a beer at Delirium café.”
I’m really hoping that Ralph will get the recognition he deserves. He’s been committed to this project since the first time I got in touch with him, which was over a year ago, and hopefully, once he has completed his quest, he’ll be able to gain some fame.
As the rain poured down across the city in the now famous thunderstorms that seem to last minutes, but bring the pedestrians to a halt, I was on my way to check in with a local pro-federalist group that were celebrating their first meeting. I made my way to a local city centre bar, and met up with Pietro De Matteis who is the vice president of Stand Up For Europe – a political party that was set up in the last six months. SUFE has intentions of running candidates in the next European Parliament elections, and I was interested in seeing just how their local meeting are run. I’d been invited by Pietro and was keen to meet him in person, as we have only been in touch by phone and e-mail before. Pietro is a good guy – and very well versed on his passion for the federalist concept.
When I got there, I was presented with a sticker for which I was to write my name, and asked to sign in. There was decent turn out with over 15 people of all ages and walks of life. The majority of the people were from other EU states and it was interesting to hear them talk about why there were there. Some wanted to participate more in European affairs, while others were there because they feared the recent popularity of Eurosceptic parties and wanted to become part of a pro-EU movement. Not many spoke about federalism, which is funny because SUFE are a federalist movement, so it would have been interesting to see who in the group were committed to the federalist cause.
I got chatting to a lady by the name of Louise Månsson who was in Brussels on business, but was there as a representative of the SUFE Frankfurt branch which is where Louise is based. We discussed a lot of issues, including how the federalist movement is currently running. My belief that the motto of SUFE, federate the federalists, is not the correct way to win over hearts and minds. The federalist movement needs a number of different choices for people, and merging all the different groups together in one super party is exactly what the Eurosceptics bemoan: this superstate mentality. I admire what SUFE are trying, but I’m not a fan of their plan. Louise is helping to establish the Frankfurt branch, and I’m very sure that they are lucky to have her.
My last day was spent walking around the streets of the city and taking in the sights. I really enjoyed the old world charm and it’s a miracle that more of the city wasn’t destroyed in the wake of two world wars. Belgium has long been a pathway for the major powers in Europe and it is a testimony to the city that much of its architecture still survives. What was striking was the amount of soldiers on the streets.
I am kind of used to it, as we did have a lot of military presence in Ireland during the Troubles, and I actually felt reassured that there was a security presence. I think it is a good thing that there are professional soldiers keeping the peace alongside the police force, and, unfortunately, it is a sign of the times, but not something that we should be afraid of, in my opinion.
Overall, I enjoyed my stay in the capital of Europe. Would I recommend a weekend break there? Probably, but it is a busy city, so don’t expect a quiet stay. The question on my mind was is it a worthy capital of united Europe? I think it is trying hard to be one, so, hopefully, it will become a worthy choice in the decades to come.