“You were the future once.” So said David Cameron to Tony Blair in a notable exchange during the latter’s final years in office. As I sit today drinking a blanche at a pub on Place Luxembourg, Brussels, so the phrase could be adapted to fit my evolving experience of this city over the years. For me this was the future once. What is it now I wonder?
I passed through Brussels on the way to school exchanges in Verviers right from 1997 and started coming to Brussels often from 2000 onwards in the context of federalist campaigning work. I remember justifying a move to Berlin in 2001 that it would be important to spend some time elsewhere, as Brussels would be where I would eventually end up as someone who wanted to work in EU politics.
So it proved – 2002-03 was my first stint in the capital of the EU, followed by a year in Bruges. Despite the woes of working for an ineffective MEP, Brussels life was still a fascinating, eye-opening experience. The joy of friendships with people from across Europe, a Europe that had just ushered in the Euro and was on the point of bringing in 10 new countries.
I wonder is it the politics? Or the passage of time that has changed my view? Now I view the fat, suit wearing German lobbyists sat a few tables along from me in a new light. The young Spanish women with the extravagant shoes sat opposite, fresh from working in the European Parliament across the road, working in a bright eyed way towards the cause of European unity. Or biding time in that job before passing a concours so as to be secure for life, a rare security in today’s labour market? That will eventually turn out to be a golden cage for them?
A lot has physically changed on Place Lux. The bar I’m sat in was a hollow wreck for a decade. The bars have expanded, the buses – still dangerously driven – are at least new models. But the barbed wire still blocks the road just off rue du Luxembourg and the remnants of broken car windows still line the gutters. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
At a brunch yesterday with the blog nerds – Joe, Kosmopolit, Ronny and Anda – conversation turned to how we assessed the performance of the various members of the European Commission. Where else, mused Ronny, would anyone else be discussing this? Where else in Brussels, it could be added, would the people in the discussion have been so scathing in their assessment, and not want to actually tear down the whole house of cards? Perhaps we are just a depressingly small crew of people who are more motivated by the political outcomes of the Brussels processes than we are trying to lobby for our corner in these circles, or selfishly motivated to work inside the walls of the institutions’ anodyne buildings.
In the meantime a German MEP who plagiarised her thesis and hence cheated to get elected, and a Romanian MEP who was ready to take payments from lobbyists, still operate in the building across the road.
Maybe my grey feeling is due to the weather. Maybe it’s something deeper. But I can’t help feeling there is something deeply, fundamentally wrong with the way politics is pursued in this town. Yet it’s not as if I have an easy way out, for solace in populism, functionalism or nationalism are so much worse. But what is the way forward for me here? What can make me appreciate the symbolism of the young people coming down the steps of the EP with their blue and yellow bags full of information about the Parliament, rather than fear that those very same citizens are probably not going to even bother to vote next time the elections roll around?
[NOTE: this piece was written 20th June, but I’ve only found time to post it 21st June]