The signs in Brussels Airport say “Welcome to Europe”; because let’s face it, you think of Brussels and European Union (EU) springs to mind.
I was over there for a two-and-a-half day workshop for young journalists, hosted by the European Parliament. It was stressful and hard work, but it was an amazing experience and the contacts and friendships made were more than worth it. To be honest the amount and quality of work we managed to produce in such a short time is indeed impressive. Especially given all the challenges we faced.
For starters there was the adventure of finding your way in Brussels and to the EU institutions. For first-timers it was no piece of cake. Three years after my first time in Brussels and there are still construction works going on all around the EU Quarter. Something which makes orientating yourself so much harder. And for people (like myself) who have a bit of trouble with orientation, it means getting lost countless of times. But hey, that’s how you learn a place better. At least that’s what they say. Because I’ve seen beautiful places that I have no idea how to get back to!
So, after walking in circles between the Schuman and Maelbeek metro stations, that is between the Commission, Council and Parliament buildings, there on one side of rue Belliard appears the impressive esplanade of the European Parliament (EP), with the fancy digital screen of the Parlamentarium inviting you in, and this period calling you to vote in the 2014 EU elections.
So all is well, and having already burnt the calories you had for breakfast, you’ve passed the security checks and you’re in! You’re in this huge (I mean really huge) building that hosts representatives from 28 European countries and serves (or at least claims to do so) as the ‘voice of EU citizens’. Being inside is impressive. But there are so many offices, rooms, floors, towers, buildings, that it is almost impossible not to get lost. Yet everyone who works there seems so comfortable in moving (actually rushing) around that it makes you wonder: do they have a secret map embedded in their brain that we do not know of? Personally, I had to ask for directions a handful of times while going around and up and down that building. It seems like a maze. And one person who kindly directed me to the right elevator (yes, I had trouble finding these too!) told me that ‘this building is so confusing it’s as if it is designed to trap people inside’. For example, did you know that there is an exit on the third floor?
Even finding the canteen required asking for directions. And then actually getting the food was itself a complex process, or so it seemed to us, because everyone else pretty much knew what they were doing and where to go. We were just in their way.
This EP mall, as it is called, is exactly that. Fully equipped with a sports centre, hairdresser’s, banks, cafés, restaurants, shops, florists, and I’m sure there is a ‘nap-pad’ hidden somewhere. It’s like the Google playground in The Internship, only for EU civil servants. And I’m sure the buildings of the other EU institutions are similar to this.
But seeing and experiencing all this from the inside, you are left to wonder: do these EU officials live in their own world? They don’t even need to go outside. Heck, by the time a visitor would manage to find the exit, it would be time to go back in again to resume their work! But it seems that after all, the EU does live in a bubble. Detached from reality, distant from what people’s lives are really like. They make decisions, reports and dossiers, all drowning in bureaucracy, but they seem to be unaware of how all these policies affect people’s lives in practice. Just ask any citizen of a Memorandum country and you’ll see the negative view that prevails of the EU, its officials and its policies.
If the confusion and disorder that reigns in the EU Quarter and is encountered by visitors is in any way symbolic of the ‘Europe’ that Brussels proclaims it represents, then it is no surprise why the EU is in such chaos and is constantly losing credibility and trust in the eyes of its citizens.
EU officials should exit their bubble once in a while and see for themselves how their decisions affect the people they claim to represent. After all, isn’t that their job? They’re supposed to be accessible and close to their constituents. Not locked in an office, a building or a mall. Particularly one in which you need a map, comfortable shoes, security badges, and a lot of patience, in order to find your way around.
Brussels is a beautiful city, but if you’re isolated inside what in essence can only be described as a ‘small state’, you don’t really get to experience it. And if you’re in there too long, when you do get out in the real world, you should cover your ears at the deafening sound of your bubble bursting.
18 October 2013, Brussels