Brussels: Idealistic or just out of touch?

For many years now, the preoccupation of Eurocrats has been to push for greater integration. There has been no debate as to whether integration is actually a good thing.

For many years, Belgium was host to the titanic clashes of European wars. Since the Treaty of Paris in 1951, its capital has been the host to a very different form of inter-state conflict: the headquarters of many European institutions. Having so many institutions in one place makes it highly convenient to visit (or lobby!) the EU. Anyone interested in European affairs (and everyone who lives in Europe should!), or politics in general, would be wise to visit Brussels at least once (if the famous chips and chocolate weren’t enough!). Visits to institutions (such as the European Parliament, the European Social and Economic Committee and the European headquarters of many non-EU institutions such as lobby groups) are usually very simple and easy to organise. It was thus with great enthusiasm that I arrived in Brussels with several other students earlier this month.

I had been told that the first thing that strikes you about Brussels is the number of cranes. It is certainly a unique aspect of this wonderful city. There is a theory that the number of skyscrapers and the business cycle are co-integrates, thus a large number of cranes can be a sign of an imminent recession, not just economic progress. But there is no recession here. Nor, unlike the rest of the EU, is there any sign of austerity. There are 25,000 lobbyists in Brussels, outnumbering MEP’s more than 30 to 1! It demonstrates the growing influence of the EU and also gives a sense of permanence; you don’t set up a permanent presence in Brussels if you think that the EU is a temporary phenomenon. It is a rare, though prominent, vote of confidence in the EU.

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But the cranes were not the most striking aspect of the city for me. The most noticeable way in which Brussels differs from the UK is how the UK’s blanket Euroscepticism contrasted with the enthusiasm with which Brussels has embraced European integration. Indeed, it now seems very much a part of this city’s identity. The tour guide handed to us by the tourism office proudly proclaims Brussels to be: ‘not just the capital of Belgium, but also the capital of Europe’. EU flags adorned rows of buildings, including many not connected to the EU (good luck getting the UK government to agree to that, even on Europe Day!). All of this is perhaps unsurpising – in many ways Belgium is a microcosm of the EU itself: a weak national identity, a strong regional identity and near ungovernable institutions. Nevertheless, the enthusiasm with which Brussels has taken its role in EU affairs makes it ever clearer that the UK is the ‘awkward partner of Europe’.

The most noticeable way in which the EU is out of touch with average Europeans is that it is clear in every EU building you visit that this is not an age of austerity. The European Parliament (boasted as one of the largest buildings in the world) has an extensive art exhibition for visitors and workers that rotates regularly. The workload of Eurocrats does sound more demanding than the average British tabloid would have you believe, though they are highly remunerated and much of the work seems needless, particularly the weekly plenary sessions in Strasbourg and the endless regulation.

The evidence for the EU’s distance from reality peaked at a visit to the ‘Green Week’. The Green Week was a convention that drew together green technology that could help to reduce CO2 emissions and combat global warming. The science was undoubtedly interesting, though one aspect was conspicuously absent: cost. The average European is concerned by global warming, though is also concerned by rising energy bills at a time of economic difficulty. By contrast, presentations at the Green Week about decoupling the link between economic growth and CO2 emissions did not mention the financial cost of green energy until the last 15 minutes of a two hour segment. Even then, the only mention of financial cost was that it was ‘affordable’. No cold, hard figures were provided. By contrast, the presentation had an entire section on the impact of wind farms on bird deaths. A wind farm consisting of 65 mills apparently kills 7.8 eagles a year. Evidently bird deaths are worthy of several minutes of an EU presentation but financial cost is not.

If one conclusion should be drawn from a visit to Brussels, it is that it is difficult to govern an area that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Baltic Sea from a single city in Belgium whilst staying in touch with the ‘common European’ (whatever that is!). This has a material effect and trickles down into EU policy making, as the cost of regulation and green energy soars. If pro-Europeans wish to stem the tidal change in public opinion towards Euroscepticism, then understanding the causes of the Eurosceptic tsunami is vital. Unfortunately, the pro-European elites in Brussels may be too out of touch for this to be possible.

 

Will Archdeacon

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