A sign with multi-coloured letters, invites passers-by to visit the small bookshop on the rue Froissart: “Large choice of books in English, Spanish, Italian, German, Dutch, Greek, Russian and Scandinavian languages.” Behind the counter, Coralie takes a break from serving customers to eat a slice of pizza. It has been two years since the bookshop opened in an area that is home to many European institutions. “When we came here, we were hoping to attract a different type of customer, not just local people who are the main users of our original shop in the city centre. We thought that highly cultured European civil servants would buy plenty of books, but that is not always the case. Many of our sales are still generated by local people.” Nonetheless, the bookshop which is closed at the weekend does most of its business at lunch time and in the evening after office hours.
In the same street, pharmacist Louis-Philippe is busy stocking a shelf with organic products. He has spent the last 15 years serving and advising predominantly European customers. “They live a different life in a different social world with its own particular point of view, and they expect special treatment,” he says. There are plenty of pharmacies in the neighbourhood where “direct services” predominate. “Pharmacies in the area tend to stock plenty of natural products, because Europeans prefer to take them instead of medicine. And we have adapted our range of products to reflect this preference,” he explains. Louis-Philippe admits that workers in European institutions “do make an effort to mix with the local population,” but “they complain about not being paid enough even though they have a high standard of living. They are out of touch with reality.”
Brussels residents feel excluded
On her way to do some shopping, Belgin is wearing outsize sunglasses and smoking a cigarette. For the last 23 years, she has lived in a council flat in the European quarter. “I am very happy to live here. It is a very clean and safe neighbourhood. But the European summits are a problem. There are so many people it is very hard to get around, even on foot,”she explains. “The cost of living is another issue. Rent is very high for ordinary Brussels residents, and food is too expensive, which is why I do my shopping in another neighbourhood.”
With 46% of residents hailing from other countries, Brussels is often considered to be an urban laboratory for Europe. But it is a city with many contradictions: it generates 20% of national GDP, but it also has a level of unemployment that hovers at around 20%, and one in four residents of the city lives below the poverty line. Europe has very little to do with the lives of local people who do not benefit directly or indirectly from the presence of EU institutions. “I feel that the eurocrats are privileged: they have good salaries, and they do not pay the same taxes. But I have nothing against them personally,” remarks Nelly, age 71. Sitting on a shady bench in place du Jeu de Balle in the Marolles neighbourhood, she takes a quick look to check on her shopping trolley before she continues: “In this district, people worry about holding down a job and keeping a roof over their heads. Life can be tough. I worked for 34 years, but I am not entitled to a full pension. I am lucky to live in a small council flat, and to be able to eat in a restaurant for the homeless.”
Addressing catastrophic town planning
A few blocks away, Alain is supervising children from the “Ateliers populaires” (community workshops) programme at a stand selling popcorn to finance youth leisure activities. “I’m glad that European institutions are bringing money to Brussels, but I wouldn’t say I’m proud of that,” he explains. “They are one of the reasons for the catastrophic planning of this town.” It is a view shared by Nicolas Bernard a law PhD and philosophy graduate at the Facultés universitaires Saint-Louis (FUSL): ” the poor image that the people of Brussels have of Europe has a lot to with the presence of European buildings that pay no heed to the basic rules of urban planning.
At the same time, no one has bothered to construct a European identity with a strong relationship to Belgium. The people of Brussels feel they have been left out of the European project because it has been largely built without consulting them.” This point is also taken up by Eric Corijn, a sociologist and specialist in the philosophy of culture at the Free University of Brussels (VUB): “If architecture is to exert a positive influence on the urban fabric, building projects need to be perceived as involving local people. But this principle has been ignored in Brussels. The European quarter should be developed as a major centre for Europe, with a Museum of Europe and European universities and so on. Then and only then will Brussels be able to function as a laboratory for Europe.”
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Welcome to “Euroland”
This is how La Libre Belgique refers to the quarter where many of Europe’s institutions are located. “Globish (ie. global English) has taken over from Dutch and French” on the streets of this neighbourhood which are lined with “trattorias and sushi bars” and where “all of the news agents sell a huge range of international newspapers.” As the daily explains, “the people of Brussels have always been wary” of “this white-collar ghetto marked by soulless planning and a socio-economic apartheid,” which is “populated by 50,000 European civil servants who make use of three million square metres of office space.” The newspaper looks back on the history of neighbourhood, which was transformed by the construction of offices to house the institutions of the Benelux Economic Union in 1948. According to writer Thierry Demey, the neighbourhood “has evolved to reflect the erratic and unpredictable construction of the European project.” In another article, La Libre Belgique focuses on Brussels’ population of “eurocrats” and their families: 105,000 people who account for “close to 10% of the total population in Brussels.” According to the researcher Emanuele Gatti quoted by the daily, it is a community “that tends to live in a parallel world. With their own highly codified rituals, jargon and status symbols, the expats are members of a highly select club. They even have their own meeting places, schools and social media sites.”