The capital of Europe is not exactly what a visitor from an alien civilisation would expect. There is little in the way of grand boulevards, monumental buildings, overblown statuary. Indeed, it all seems a little down at heel. I’ve always suspected that Belgians don’t waste money maintaining facades on the basis that, soon enough, someone will invade and do it for them.
In Howard Blake’s ‘New National Songbook’, he writes, “”Good heavens, look at that Empire!”, we thought. Most of us were thinking about trees and birds all the while.”. He could have been writing about the relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union.
And yet, what happens in the steel and glass buildings on the eastern side of this city impacts on 400 million people within the European Union, and on billions of others across the globe.
Trade deals through the World Trade Organisation, aid packages to developing countries, fishing deals with poor African countries, agricultural subsidies that impact on agrarian economies everywhere, a single currency, all of these and so much more are developed, voted upon and implemented here, much of it whilst we aren’t looking.
Whilst in Westminster, politicians squabble over what are, in truth, fairly small differences – “I’ll cut £8 of government spending for every £7 you’ll cut” – here in Brussels, the debate is about pan-European infrastructure, trade deals with China, India and Brazil, how to secure the single market – the “big stuff”, if you will. And it all happens in a smallish city, nowhere in particular.
Brussels itself could be seen as a metaphor for the European Union. The capital of a country split into two halves, the industrious Flemish to the north, the rather less driven Walloons to the south, with their old industries crushed by cheaper competition elsewhere, it carries on, never quite reaching the promised land, laden with good intentions. And yet, despite political parties that squabble amongst themselves, with a block of Parliamentarians considered beyond the civilised pale (the Vlaams Blok), collapse is avoided.
Even when the government falls, life carries on. Where else, after all, could you fail to appoint a government for more than a year without significant ill-effect? Can you imagine that at home, in a country where taking a week to form a coalition was considered highly dangerous?
Mark Valladares is a newly appointed member of the ELDR Financial Advisory Committee, which meets in Brussels twice a year. There is, regrettably, beer and chocolates involved…