When visiting Brussels as a student of European politics back in the 1990s I was often struck by how much of the city felt like a building site. The physical geography of the city was constantly changing with new EU buildings sprouting up overnight.
The sky line was more often than not littered with cranes. The city’s housing stock also went through significant renovation to accommodate the growing influx of civil servants, lobbyists and thinks tanks. Flush with new money from outside Brussels had the feel of a city on the move, an old historic city being reborn to meet the challenges of the future.
Today, Brussels is all together a much quieter city to visit. You certainly don’t need to pack a hard hat as in days of old. Nor do you need an asbestos protecting face mask when walking past the Berlaymont, the headquarters of the European Commission. Yes there is still building work, but no more than what you would expect to see in other capital cities. It is more maintenance than out and out construction.
Despite this normality, Brussels remains a strange place to visit.
The EU quarter feels detached from the rest of the city, while the bilingual signs on the Metro underline just how divided Brussels and the rest of Belgium remain. The quest for a stable government in Belgium remains precariously elusive. Despite its claim to being the Capital of Europe, Brussels as a city feels less than the sum of its parts.
I know from past experience that Brussels – or more accurately the Brussels of EU technocrats that I participated in – is an enjoyable and rewarding place to live and work. But, I can’t help but think that Brussels is a city that is still struggling to come to terms with and live out the identity that others have constructed for it.