In the Capital of Europe

Belgian soldiers posing for a photograph while patrolling the Grand Place, Brussels, December 24, 2015
François Lenoir/Reuters
Belgian soldiers posing for a photograph while patrolling the Grand Place, Brussels, December 24, 2015


Brussels has frequently had a bad press. Already in the 1860s, Baudelaire, who fled there from the French censors, called the Belgian capital “a ghost town, a mummy of a town, it smells of death, the Middle Ages, and tombs.” To a growing number of Europeans, “Brussels” is a byword for bureaucratic bullying by the so-called Eurocrats.

Donald Trump called Brussels a “hellhole.” Perhaps he was thinking, if that is the right word, of Molenbeek. Densely populated by immigrants, mostly from North Africa, this district has become a symbol of seething European jihadism. Last year’s mass murders in Paris were apparently plotted there; the number of young men and women (around a hundred) who have left Molenbeek to fight for ISIS in Syria and Iraq is relatively high.

Still, much of the negative reputation of Brussels is undeserved and overblown. Brussels is not a dangerous city—not even Molenbeek, which is shabby, sullen (unemployment 30 percent), socially cut off, but not especially menacing. Many non-Muslim hipsters live there as well. Parts of Brussels are actually quite beautiful. The city has many fine examples of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, as well as the more famous sixteenth- and seventeenth-century gold-gabled buildings on the magnificent Grand Place.

But Brussels is indeed rather chaotic, a political mess of nineteen different municipal districts, each with its own public authorities competing for funds, with an uncoordinated police force prone to conspicuous failures, and different political parties, linked to different language groups, operating their own more or less corrupt systems of patronage. Brussels, which has its own government, is mostly Francophone, but it is also the capital of Dutch-speaking Flanders and the capital of the European Union, whose own “Quartier Européen” is almost like a separate city within the city.

But this political fragmentation, and the consequent lack of strong central control, are also why modern Brussels has been a haven for dissidents, misfits, bohemians, and refugees of one kind or another. Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto there, after he was kicked out of France in 1845. Baudelaire came to Brussels because he could express himself more freely than in Paris, even to pour vitriol onto his city of refuge. It is still one of the freest, most ethnically mixed cities in Europe.

For much of its history, Brussels was occupied by oppressive empires: the Spanish Habsburgs in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Austria in the eighteenth century (after France’s Louis XIV had laid waste to the city in 1695), and France from 1795 until 1815, after which it became part of the Netherlands. Belgium became an independent kingdom only in 1830 (under King Leopold of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, a German, of course), after a combined rebellion of French-speaking socialists and Flemish Catholics against the Protestant Dutch king. Apart from their hatred of the Dutch, these groups had very little in common; they still don’t.

Five years ago, Belgium established a peculiar record in being the only democracy to go without an elected government for more than a year (589 days, to be exact). The Francophone parties couldn’t come to an agreement with the Flemish to form a national government. But this was, as it were, in character. For the Belgian identity always was rather shaky. People felt an allegiance to their language community, to their region, to their church, or to political patrons—socialists in industrial and now rusting postindustrial Wallonia, and liberals, Christian Democrats, or Flemish nationalists in the north. Even imperial conquest was not always a strictly national enterprise: in the nineteenth century, the Congo belonged to King Leopold II alone.

Brussels, that magnificent repository of history, with its Renaissance guild houses and nineteenth-century palaces built on fortunes made in the Congo, is the capital of Belgium, but few Belgians take much pride in it, in the way the French are proud of Paris, or the British of London. Flemish politicians and businessmen prefer to live in Antwerp or Ghent. To many Belgians, Brussels is a strange city of immigrants, refugees, and foreign grandees. It is still a capital in search of a nation. And if you include the EU, it is also a capital in search of an empire, or a federal state, or whatever it is that Europe is destined to become.

This peculiarly open-ended status can be disconcerting. And the lack of central coordination and control, on a municipal, national, and European level, may account for a sense of drift, unaccountability, and disorder. Perhaps the disaffection and extremism in Molenbeek are partly the result of this, as is the seeming paralysis of the EU in the face of financial crises and migrants streaming across Europe’s porous borders. The problems of Belgium and the EU overlap. But if Brussels is the symbol of dysfunction, its lack of a clear identity, its fragmentation, and its flexibility also offer a sense of freedom and possibility. The EU, and perhaps Belgium too, are still experiments, and that might be their greatest strength.


Last year I lived for a month in the Stevinstraat, or the rue Stevin (every street in Brussels is named in Dutch as well as French). A ten-minute walk in each direction from my apartment revealed the different states of Brussels, Belgium, and the EU. The architecture is telling.

Just to the south, in the European Quarter, is the gigantic Berlaymont, headquarters of the European Commission, the executive body of the EU, which proposes and enforces EU laws. Built in the 1960s and renovated in the 1990s, after the building was found to be full of asbestos, the Berlaymont is grandiose but devoid of any character, a steel and glass expression of great power, but without any cultural, historical, or aesthetic appeal. Once in a while, I noticed Chinese tourists gazing at the building in wonder and taking selfies in front of the stark little monument to Robert Schuman, one of postwar Europe’s founding fathers.

Even more hideous is the Justus Lipsius building, completed in 1995 by a pan-European consortium of architects and engineers. This piece of modernist brutality houses the Council of the European Union. Government ministers from the twenty-eight EU member states meet there to haggle over and vote on laws and budgets. The presidency of the council rotates every six months between the different member states.

A different institution altogether, and probably the most powerful in the EU, is the European Council, consisting of the government leaders of EU states. They have also been meeting regularly at the Justus Lipsius building. It was the setting last July of the sometimes acrimonious negotiations over debt with the Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras. This year the council is supposed to be moving into a giant egg encased in a glass box called Bloc A, another grand modernist construction that is more imposing than attractive. Then there is the most gigantic building complex of all, called the Espace Léopold, which includes a dome resembling the Tower of Babel in Pieter Bruegel’s famous painting. (Bruegel died in Brussels.) The EU parliament, which moves back and forth once a month between Brussels and Strasbourg at vast expense, in order to keep France happy, has to pass the laws initiated by the commission. And the president of the commission now has to be backed by the largest party in the parliament.

Both monumental and abstract, all these buildings in the European Quarter seem designed to impress the citizens with the grandeur of a great empire. The EU does in fact have great economic muscle. Collectively, it has a bigger economy than China or the US. But unlike great empires in the past, the EU institutions in Brussels have almost no political power, since there is no United States of Europe to project it. The eurozone of nineteen countries has a common currency. And the European Central Bank in Frankfurt has the authority to set monetary policies and, within limits, bail countries out if they cannot pay their debts. But there is no collective defense force or collective foreign policy. This might possibly account for the grandiosity of the EU’s institutional buildings: an attempt to look mightier than it really is.

The same might be said about the Royal Palace, where the king of Belgium receives guests, built not far from the European Quarter on the site of older palaces. It is an absurdly lavish building in the neoclassical style, grander even than Buckingham Palace. The Mirror Room with its marble and copper walls was intended to evoke the atmosphere of the Congo. The ceiling is covered with the shiny green wing cases of 1.4 million Thai jewel beetles. Versailles was the inspiration for the Grand Hall, where royal banquets are held under giant chandeliers. Leopold II was responsible for much of this, as though he wished to puff up his chest to his more powerful neighbors, especially France.

But the most peculiar manifestation of Brussels puffery can be reached in a five-minute walk from the Berlaymont. The Parc du Cinquantenaire, or Jubilee Park, was laid out in 1880 to mark fifty years of Belgian independence with a National Exhibition showing off the young state’s industrial and imperial prowess. This, again, was an initiative of Leopold II. Looming over the park is a huge triumphal arch, erected in 1905, clearly inspired by Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, only much bigger.

Near the arch is the Monument to Belgian Pioneers in the Congo, finished in 1921. A series of friezes and reliefs celebrates the benefits of Belgian rule in Africa. Naked Africans can be seen kneeling in gratitude at the feet of a white-bearded patriarch—probably Leopold II himself—sitting on a throne. The following words are engraved in stone: “I have embarked on the great work in the Congo/to further the cause of civilization/and the welfare of Belgium. Leopold II 3 June 1906.” King Leopold’s enterprise may have cost the lives of more than ten million people in the Congo.

Replicas of ‘the most famous symbol of the city,’ the seventeenth-century bronze figure of the Manneken Pis, or ‘Little Pisser,’ for sale in Brussels, 2009
Richard Kalvar/Magnum Photos
Replicas of ‘the most famous symbol of the city,’ the seventeenth-century bronze figure of the Manneken Pis, or ‘Little Pisser,’ for sale in Brussels, 2009

Walking past these various buildings and monuments shouting for attention, it is hard to suppress the thought that Brussels and the EU were made for each other: fat and pompous, and more than a little overbearing. But another ten-minute walk, this time in the northern direction from the rue Stevin, past the splendid Art Nouveau townhouses on the Square Marie-Louise, where wealthy Belgians and Eurocrats live, shows a different side of Brussels. There, in the scruffy nineteenth-century streets of the Schaerbeek quarter, is one of the city’s typical immigrant areas: halal butchers, Turkish restaurants, teashops filled with bearded men smoking water pipes, and housewives in headscarves. As is true in Molenbeek, more than half the population here was born in another country, mostly Turkey in this case. Part of the area is known as Petite Anatolie.

One of the reasons given for the radicalization of youth in Molenbeek is the isolation of immigrant communities. Africans live among Africans, Moroccans among Moroccans, Turks among Turks, and so forth. The more or less benign neglect of a weak state is said to make the feeling of segregation worse. Unlike in Paris, however, most immigrants live right in the center of the city, in very close proximity to other communities. The rue Dansaert, one of the plushest shopping streets of Brussels, leads right into Molenbeek; the distance from an expensive Italian fashion boutique to a café filled with unemployed Muslim men is less than a few hundred yards. And even a cursory visitor to an area like Schaerbeek will soon notice that ethnic relations in Brussels are more complex and interrelated than they might seem at first sight.

Adjacent to Schaerbeek is another municipality called Saint Joost-ten-Noode, which contains a mix of local hipsters and immigrants. One day I walked into the attractive neobaroque church of Saint Joost. The number of active Christians is dwindling in Belgium, as it is in most parts of Europe. But I found some believers inside, kneeling in their wooden pews. Most were elderly, and looked to be from different ethnic origins. Some were white. The priest, a tall black man in a green and white cassock, delivered his sermon in a thick African accent.


When I arrived in Brussels in the fall of 2015, the sense of crisis was palpable. And this was before armored vehicles appeared in the streets in a rather futile show of strength after the killings in Paris. Not long ago, EU officials and their boosters in the media tended to speak triumphantly of “Europe” as a beacon of peace, freedom, and democracy, a model for the rest of world. The rhetoric was now distinctly downbeat.

I attended a dinner party in an elegant apartment on the Boulevard Winston Churchill. My fellow guests were all connected to the EU in one capacity or another. One spoke openly about the possibility of the euro crashing. Another mentioned the increasingly bad image of the European Commission, as an undemocratic, semi-authoritarian body. Parts of it should probably be dismantled, he suggested. At an EU conference held in one of those magnificent palaces left behind by the Belgian Empire, the Dutch vice-president of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, warned that if Europe didn’t solve the refugee crisis soon, the EU could easily fall apart.

At a lavish banquet following yet another EU conference in the same gilded palace, I listened to a speech by Étienne Davignon. If anyone personifies the grand European “project,” it is Davignon. This aristocratic Belgian businessman, banker, diplomat, former commissioner, and now president of a think tank called Friends of Europe operates precisely where Belgian and EU elites overlap: on the summit of big money and lofty ideals. Davignon is, in a sense, the unofficial king of Brussels. In the past, he could be counted on to hold forth about the glories of a united Europe. Now he struck a more defensive note; he was sick and tired, he said, of European despondency: “We have lost pride in what we have done.”

It sounded to me as though Brussels triumphalism was turning into a lament. In a way, this was refreshing. Many observers have described the dangers faced by Europe, not least George Soros in these pages. One of the most cogent thinkers about the EU is Luuk van Middelaar, a historian educated in Holland and France, and now based in Brussels. His articles frequently appear in France, as well as his native Holland. As a former member of the cabinet of the Belgian Herman Van Rompuy, the first president of the European Council, van Middelaar knows the EU from the inside out. He sees the problem of Europe mainly as a political crisis.

In the beginning, the conception of European unity, first as the Coal and Steel Community of six nations, and then as the European Economic Community, was deliberately apolitical, or in van Middelaar’s words, a “dedramatisation of European politics.” The distant goal of technocratic founding fathers, such as Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet, might have been a United States of Europe, but peaceful relations between the European nations, which had just emerged from a catastrophic war, needed to be secured first by pooling such economic resources as coal and steel. European institutions were constructed to transcend national politics. Peace and prosperity would come from economic cooperation and negotiation. Consensus would be reached by responsible leaders out of public sight.

The founding fathers were, however, more than dry technocrats. There was a moral, even quasi-religious dimension to the postwar European ideal, a whiff of the Holy Roman Empire; most of the leading figures in the unification of Europe—Konrad Adenauer, Schuman, Alcide De Gaspari, Paul-Henri Spaak—were Roman Catholics.

The French intellectual Julien Benda was not. But he still had a vision. “Europe,” he wrote in a fascinating essay on European unification, published in 1933, “won’t be the result of a simple economic, or political transformation. It will not really exist without adopting a system of moral and aesthetic values, the exaltation of a certain way of thinking and feeling….” But Benda also believed that the idea of Europe should remain utterly rational, abstract, devoid of any national or tribal sentiments. And French, in his view the most rational language, should be the common means of pan-European communication. It is this rationalist, abstract, deliberately deracinated quality, exemplified by the main EU buildings in Brussels, that would prove to be an obstacle once it became necessary to claim the loyalty of the citizens in twenty-eight different nation-states.

The flaws in the founding fathers’ construction, as van Middelaar sees it, became evident once Britain joined in 1973, and even more so after the end of the cold war in the early 1990s. Problems related to climate change, security, immigration, and a common currency demand political solutions. Bureaucratic tinkering, financial planning, and institution-building are no longer enough. To play a part commensurate with its economic power, Europe needs common policies that are democratically legitimate.

But there lies the nub of the European problem: how to give the EU a strong political identity without undermining the legitimacy of national governments. Many commentators, including George Soros, Paul Krugman, and Jürgen Habermas, have criticized the way austerity policies have been imposed on highly indebted European countries, particularly Greece. This was done against the wishes of Greek voters and their democratically elected government. But is it even possible to create democratic European institutions without creating a European superstate?

Habermas, for one, has stuck his neck out on this issue. As an old German leftist who grew up under Nazi rule, he is deeply critical of Germany’s dominant power; it was, after all, Angela Merkel’s government that pushed austerity on Greece. He believes that the only rational solution to the EU’s “democratic deficit” is to create what he calls a “more integrated democratic core Europe.” The eurozone, at the very least, should go ahead and, in the words of the 1957 Treaty of Rome, form “an ever closer union.” But how?

Thomas Piketty has argued in these pages that there should be a new and separate eurozone parliament made up of members of national parliaments, proportionate to the size of each country’s population. And national parliaments should have the right to vote on a common eurozone corporate tax. Among other things, this would have the merit of making Germany less dominant, for its representatives could be outvoted by those from other nations. But how can Germans, or indeed other Europeans, even just the ones inside the eurozone, be persuaded to do this?

Habermas thinks that European solidarity must start with the intelligentsia. A cosmopolitan European public must be shaped by news media that transcend national concerns and focus on European affairs. Citizens should vote for pan-European parties. The European Parliament must have more powers to determine the European future. A European constitution must become the primary source of pan-European patriotism. These are the essential conditions to forge a Europe that is not dominated by bankers, corporate interests, or the German government.

The logic of these positions is impeccable. But human society is not always logical. The thinking of Habermas suffers from the same abstraction as the essay by Julien Benda. Cosmopolitanism, however laudable, is not the direction in which most European voters are moving, and neither is constitutional patriotism. Van Middelaar has a more multidimensional view of European politics. Direct political participation in democratic elections is what he calls the Greek model, which in his view is not sufficient. Citizens also need the Roman model: the state as a source of material benefits. And the German model: the imaginary community of shared historical and cultural values. The process of these models together creating a European polity will be hard and long, but van Middelaar still believes that it is possible. He thinks that muddling through, without a clear blueprint, but taking all three models into account, remains the best option for the European experiment.

Common enemies can help to forge political cohesion: that is how Belgians became Belgians, after all—their common opposition to Dutch rule. But so, perhaps, does the challenge of common crises. European leaders disagree fiercely about the ways to respond to financial disasters in Greece, or the arrival of refugees and migrants, or indeed the prospect of Britain leaving the EU. To some observers, these conflicts are harbingers of a European implosion.

This could have happened on February 19, during a marathon summit in Brussels. Prime Minister Cameron did extract some concessions for the UK: a cut in work benefits for EU migrants in Britain, and a promise to protect the interests of countries outside the eurozone. Still, if British voters elect to leave the EU in a forthcoming referendum, possibly inviting other countries to follow suit, the Union could slowly come apart.

But there is room for a more optimistic view. European journalists, commentators, businessmen, and politicians are at least talking about the same things. There is much anxiety about how to deal with the vast current arrival of refugees from Syria, and even more the possibility of mass migration from Africa. There is no agreement on how to defend Europe’s external borders; but at least citizens are reminded that these common borders exist. Open conflicts between political players may eventually tear the EU apart, but the opposite is also possible. Conflict, like a common conversation, is an essential ingredient of a democratic political community. Whatever happens from now on, the days of quiet consensus hammered out in opaque meetings deep inside the glass and steel palaces of the European Quarter are surely over.


Since October 7, 2014, Belgium has had a new federal government. It is a center-right coalition, led by the New Flemish Alliance (NVA). The Francophones are represented by the conservative Mouvement Réformateur (MR). So far, the government has continued to hold power. But it is a fragile construction. Francophone and Dutch-speaking Belgians are drifting ever further apart; they don’t read one another’s press or watch the same TV. More and more well-educated Flemish cannot or will not speak French. Nationalists in the NVA openly support the ideal of Flemish independence. Each region, including the small German-speaking area around Liège, as well as Brussels, has its own government, and cooperation between them is often faulty.

All that Belgians have in common—and this may be more than it sounds—is a monarchy and a national soccer team, the Red Devils. As in the case of the EU, Belgium seems constantly to be on the brink of falling apart. And yet it has not. One of the reasons is Brussels. No one, certainly not the Francophone population, but not even the Flemish nationalists, wants to give it up. They may not love their capital city, but Brussels still represents something more than the nation’s increasingly separate parts. Brussels makes all Belgians feel bigger, less provincial, more able to face the wider world, than they would otherwise.

A similar view of Brussels is still held by most Europeans, even a large number of British subjects, who just might vote to keep Britain in the EU. Few people like “Brussels,” but equally few really want to do without it. Much will depend, for this to continue, on the way the EU responds to the crises at hand. If the past is any indication, Europe might yet again muddle through, slowly, painfully, but still intact enough to carry on the experiment.

It might. But it would be foolish to bank on it. Brussels has seen many empires come and go. The pomposity of official Brussels, national and European, is offset by a healthy dose of rebellion and skepticism. The most famous symbol of the city is not the Royal Palace, let alone the Berlaymont, but the small seventeenth-century bronze figure of Manneken Pis, the Little Pisser. There are several legends about this naked little boy urinating. Perhaps he is the two-year-old Duke Godfrey III of Leuven, peeing on his enemies during a battle in 1142. Or he might be the boy who pissed on the bomb fuses about to be set off by foreign troops trying to take the city in the fourteenth century. But whoever he is, the urge to piss on power-hungry interlopers does not strike me as a bad one.