Tuesday, August 22, 2006

On Leaving Brussels

Brussels is a city of impermanence, a drift-zone of short term bureaucrats and long term inertia. It’s the kind of place that never really changes, and where no-one ever intends to stay. I’m coming up on the end of a year here—one of my roommates has already left for good. I understand it no better than I did on arrival.

Among international cities (London, New York, etc) Brussels is rather the runt of the litter. It’s an odd town—barely a million people, far too many of them foreigners living here only for a year or two, the locals divided along linguistic lines, and an almost grand history of mediocrity. The result should be vibrant. Instead, it’s quite grey.

So what’s there for me to miss? A few good friends, all of them foreign and most of them leaving or already gone (I’m celebrating more departures in the present month or two than I have in the previous few years). A handful of conveniences—decent public transport, and so on—nothing one can’t replace anywhere in Europe and in much of North America. A favorite coffee shop, from which I write this.

North of here in Antwerp there’s a national identity, that of the Flemish, and it’s as strong as ever. In all directions, in fact, there are clearly demarcated European cultures—Dutch, French, German, even Luxembourg knows what it is and wants to be. Brussels is the exception. It would be nice to say that it represents European culture as such, but that isn’t true. The culture here is that of the EC—bureaucratic drag, confusion, an identity shaped in endless paperwork. The bars swell with Eurocrats and ‘European studies’ majors trawling for jobs at the Commission. They come from anywhere but here.

This is perhaps the cultural crisis of the place. Brussels is defined by foreign presence; it’s a city under willing foreign occupation. The capital of Belgium vanishes beneath the capital of Europe. The old capital city, the national identity of the Belgians (such as they are a single people at all), has been geopolitically bulldozed under the weight of the European project, a sacrifice on the altar of post-national politics. Brussels represents the hopes and fears of post-war Europe. It is Europe at peace. It is also Europe deprived of cultural identity. It’s a harder trade-off than one might think.

In a few weeks, perhaps a little over a month, this blog will start broadcasting from London, the most Eurosceptic capital in the EU (barring disaster, at least). It’s actually been a great year. Thanks to those who’ve share it with me—I hope you had as much fun as I did.

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