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The Possessed City

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I must admit to having a bit of a love-hate relationship with Brussels.

On the one hand, it’s a charming mediaeval town with adorable architecture and delicious cuisine, populated by a mixed crowd of bilingual inhabitants that embody the perfect blend between southern laissez-faire (the French influence) and northern practicality (the Dutch influence). On the other hand, it’s a city that’s constantly dug up on all sides, swarming with officials that toil in its bowels, motoring the ever-expanding behemoth of the European Union.

It’s almost as if the city didn’t entirely belong to its citizens, having been possessed a long time ago by a foreign entity which has since overgrown the capacities of its host. The fragile symbiosis between the two is akin to a wrestling deadlock, not unlike that portrayed by the statue of Hercules and Diomedes at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. (Yes, I’ve just finished reading Dan Brown’s Inferno.)

Multiple aircrafts, carrying hundreds of officials, touch down at Brussels Airport every single day. The airport bus line, connecting the airport with the hub of EU institutions, is constantly packed to the brim. Carry-on luggage, blocking escalators and subway trains, is ubiquitous, as is a plethora of languages from all corners of Europe.  The hotels – mediocre at best – overflow with clients, their hassled staff hardly having time to clean up after one guest before the next dozen materialise at the reception desk.

Then there’s the total mayhem of constantly ongoing reconstruction – building higher and digging deeper – in a desperate effort to absorb the ramifications of a rapidly expanding union. (Membership jumped from 15 to 25 in 2004, and will reach 28 in June this year when Croatia joins the club.) In addition to its 1 million strong population and the hundreds of officials making their way into the city from abroad, Brussels has to make room for more than 40 000 employees of EU institutions, including an army of interpreters who make sure that everyone can communicate with everyone else in this veritable Babel of Europe.

And yet, I wonder how any other European city would thrive were it dealt the same fate as Brussels. (Mind you, the EU has no official capital. Brussels was simply chosen to host the official seats of the European commission, the Council of the European Union and the European Council, as well as one of the seats of  the European Parliament.) What would Paris look like? Or Berlin? Or Stockholm?

What I find endearing about Brussels is that the city seems to have enough soul to withstand the influence of international organisations. (NATO also has its headquarters there, with some 4000 employees.) Although the city seems to be out of reach of its inhabitants, somehow it’s managed to maintain its character and not tailor its every amenity to the myriad of passing visitors who have no genuine interest in its history or its culture, and who will never contribute anything to the city save a few hundred Euros spent on hotels and restaurants.

Perhaps Brussels is the ideal choice for a de facto capital of the EU. Were it Paris, the tourist attractions would no doubt overshadow the significance of the European project, and tourists and bureaucrats might come to clash. Were it Berlin,  the EU may have taken over the city entirely, killing the artsy vibe that gives it its modern edge.  Stockholm, perhaps, would have remained unscathed, although the effect of such a seat within the usually neutral and unintrusive Sweden may have been interesting.

(As usual, I’m generalising, Germany was already divided at the time of the founding of the EU,  and hence Berlin could not have become the capital. Sweden, for its part, only joined the EU in 1995. My reflections are a mere mental exercise.)

Luckily enough, the first time I ever visited Brussels was in August, which is when all EU institutions are officially closed for the summer break. It’s the only month in the year when the city may take a breather from the endless comings and goings of  EU officials, and serve for thirty-one days as the capital of Belgium.

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