Sunday, 15 June 2014

Brussels: The European Quarter

During my otherwise very enjoyable stay in Brussels, I did at one point venture over to the European Quarter where most of the EU institutions are located.

Despite a visceral dislike of the EU, or more accurately the UK's membership of it, I felt it important to see for myself what the European Quarter looked like - a lot can be garnered about any institution just from observing its buildings.

Therefore what follows in this piece is a 'day-tripper's' first impressions and initial observations without any particular direct intimate knowledge of the buildings themselves. Naturally given the standpoint of this blog the following views won't be without any bias but I'll try to make it as fair as possible.

Nevertheless I suspect that it will come as no surprise that I will begin this piece by first making a criticism of the European Quarter -  particularly the EU Parliament. However it is a criticism which I wasn't expecting to make.

Given the historic nature of the centre of Brussels with its cobbled streets, there was an expectation of difficulty of disability access, yet what came as a surprise is that this difficulty extended itself to the European Quarter - a much more modern construction. In short disability access around and near EU buildings is an absolute shocker.

To give but one example, here's a picture of a road crossing within the confines of the EU Parliament (and we found no exception to this example around the EU Parliament):

As can be clearly seen there are no dropped kerbs (or certainly not ones that are level with the road) which made wheelchair access when crossing a road much more difficult; those with a keener eye will notice there is also an absence of 'tactile paving' for the blind or visually impaired. Nor did any crossing with lights indicate with a noise when it was safe to cross. Thus basically if someone has sight disabilities near the EU Parliament (and other EU institutions) they can expect to be run over.

We did discover one 'dropped kerb' near the EU Parliament which 'helpfully' wasn't actually near a designated crossing. Rather than be a gentle slope as is normal in the UK as shown below... instead was a sharp 45 degree sudden drop; difficult enough to navigate with a wheelchair with anti-tilt mechanisms even more so we suspect with an electric wheelchair which has a longer wheel-base which would become somewhat stuck.

Another feature of the European Quarter is that it is not flat - there are significant gradients to navigate between the EU Parliament and other EU institutions nearby which surround the Schuman Roundabout. The EU Parliament in particular appears to be built on two levels as a result of it being rather 'hilly'. An example is shown below:

On the left is the Paul-Henri Spaak part of the Parliament which houses the hemicycle for plenary sessions and on the right is the Altiero Spinelli building(s) which as can be seen is connected by a two-floor pedestrian bridge.

A problem arises though for someone not inside the building. Entering via the pedestrian access through the Altiero Spinelli building(s) - which makes up the front of the EU Parliament - to the Henri Spaak part which forms the 'chamber tour' involves a great number of steps (clearly seen on the right). And it is via these numerous steep steps that the (visit EP) signs indicate the way to go to the chamber tour

At no point is disability access clearly marked or catered for to easily navigate between the two. Instead through 'trial and error' we found the only way round was to take a path involving a very steep slope which went well outside the 'footprint' of the EU Parliament. To add insult to injury the entrance to the chamber tour involved wheelchair unfriendly cobbles.

And by no means was this confined to the EU Parliament. Access outside other EU buildings was equally poor and, despite a genuine emergency, showing the following MS card (below) which in a number of languages advises that Mrs TBF occasionally needs toilet access urgently, the officials in the Berlaymont building (EU Commission) informed us in no uncertain terms that they had "no disabled toilets" which she could use.

To put these difficulties into context, the EU likes to promote itself as a defender of disability rights - as promoted here (in typical EU speak):
The European Union policy on disability is built on an explicit commitment to the social model of disability.

The EU perceives disability as the result of the dynamic interaction between a person and their environment, including social constructions, which lead to discrimination and stigmatisation.  It is therefore the environment that should be adapted to each individual person, including people with disabilities, by removing these barriers.

Disability is a right-based issue, discrimination should be eliminated.  Disability policies should follow a socially inclusive and individualised approach: rights have to be supplemented by actions, which provide access to rights, that is to say with equal opportunities...
The legal basis for EU action in this area is provided by Article 13 of the European Treaty, dating from 1999, which permits the European Council to ‘take appropriate action to combat discrimination based on sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age and sexual orientation’. It has been expressed in a variety of forms, such as the Charter of Fundamental Rights.
It would be nice if they actually applied those same principles to themselves. It can be safely said that in terms of disability access in public buildings and public highways the UK is miles ahead of the European Quarter.

Those criticisms aside, onto more general observations. We began 'our tour' at the EU Parliament. Pictures cannot do justice on how big this complex is. The building, or should we say buildings, is bloody massive and it's difficult to know sometimes where the Parliament complex actually ends given the number of 'linked' buildings.

The size though is about the only impressive thing about it; a mixture of concrete and glass it is grey and soulless. Perhaps then the perfect metaphor for the Parliament itself - a gargantuan and very expensive monument to powerlessness (and we must remember this is only one of the EU parliament buildings - there's one in Strasbourg and it has substantial administrative offices in Luxembourg). As an example here are a selection of pictures which show the front entrance:

Running in front of the entrance, along the entire length of the complex is a wide long pedestrian walkway which seems to serve little purpose other than to provide access to the EU Parliament's own train station seen here:

Below are a number of pictures to give an idea of the scale of the walkway (all buildings shown are part of the Parliament):

Dotted along this walkway are numerous plaques dedicated to those people significant in EU history, with one or two references to Auschwitz. Also strangely there is a tribute to the Solidarity movement in Poland. Quite why this was on an EU building I'm not sure, even the EU plaque made no mention of itself. Along this walkway is a visitor's centre where "dynamic, interactive multimedia displays" informs us of how great the EU is. For very obvious reasons I gave it a miss.

Now we moved through the Altiero Spinelli sector and across the road which separates it from the Paul-Henri Spaak part which houses the chamber. Part of the back of the Spinelli building (and only part) can be seen below:

And the Paul-Henri Spaak building as seen here which has more than a passing reference to aspects of the Crystal Palace:

We were unable to take part in a Chamber Tour visit as for reasons unknown it was closed on the day we went. It's worth noting that via its website that tours are limited anyway to just twice a day - 10am & 3pm. A stark contrast to our own Parliament where generally visitors can turn up anytime to visit the public gallery or lobby their MP. Even greater freedom can be found in the Capitol building in Washington where, after passing the usual security checks, you are at liberty to wander about almost where you like.

That said, the EU Parliament is model of openness compared to other EU buildings where visitors (taxpayers) were most certainly not welcome. And it's here we move on to next. I'm not sure if it's deliberate but it's symbolic that the majority of EU institutions (the important and powerful ones) are clustered around the Schuman Roundabout around a 15-20 minute walk away - the Parliament is out on its own...almost on a limb.

Next up was the Berlaymont (or Berlaymonster to its friends) home of the EU Commission:
Note the lack of English; it's worth pointing out that many EU buildings have notices and plaques in just two languages - three if they include English which is always third on the list. The first language is invariably French revealing the true soul and origins of the EU.

Well what can one say about the Berlaymont other than it looks like a glorified office block on stilts. If ever a building epitomised Monnet's vision of an "organised world of tomorrow" run by anonymous unelected civil servants this is it. No grand entrance, little information for visitors and no fuss, just a large functional dull grey building with lots and lots of windows by undoubtedly lots and lots of desks:

One interesting observation though (probably a slightly mischievous one) is when the BBC do (occasionally) report on the EU they do so with the Berlaymont as a backdrop but with the only side which has copious numbers of flagpoles with EU flags as below:

Perhaps the BBC do this for aesthetic reasons or if we're to be very cynical for bias reasons due to the number of EU flags they can achieve in a camera shot. However directly opposite is a British themed pub called "The Old Hack Pub":

A coincidence I'm sure. Opposite this pub (to the right) and opposite the Berlaymont is another EU Commission building - Charlemagne, another glorified office block...

...with what I guess is supposed to be an interesting design feature:

Directly opposite the front of the Berlaymont (well I think it's the front, it's hard to tell), and across the main road, is the Council of the European Union (Ministers) the Justus Lipsius building:

And this I guess is the front entrance, not much to write home about and again not very welcoming for visitors (taxpayers):
Like the EU Parliament this is another very large complex, one that is a little more deceptive in its size as became evident when we tried walking around it - it takes a considerable amount of time. Below is a picture of another (small) part:

Next door to the Justus Lipsius building is the Residence Palace which serves as the home of the European Council and Van Rompuy which is currently undergoing construction (as is much of the European Quarter):

What is not readily apparent from the pictures nor from street view until very close up is the inside of the Residence Palace is taking shape to look rather like this below:

I'm sure readers will take great comfort in the fact that it will be eco-friendly. At this point we were running out of time, so these are my thoughts on the most 'important' buildings. There are plenty of other EU buildings around the Schuman Roundabout to visit including this one rather ironically...

Whatever the EU says about promoting democracy and freedom, nothing can disguise its true nature when visiting the very buildings it resides in. Secret, elitist, grey, soulless and a complete disregard of people's money with no attempt to disguise it. All of the buildings ooze grotesque opulence albeit with no class. They are the ultimate tribute to a fundamentally unelected bureaucratic organisation - Jean Monnet would have been proud.

I would fully recommended that any eurosceptic should visit the European Quarter to truly appreciate what we're up against.

With that in mind I'll leave the final word to Mrs TBF. She has long been tolerant of my EU obsessions, but visiting last week she became extremely animated by what she saw all around her; at last she understood:
"I resent my money being spent to build a load of crap like this."


  1. Surprisingly revealing. Without ever having seen them myself I would never have guessed the building would be so ghastly.

    As for the lack of regard for disabled access and facilities, I'm amazed and it takes a lot to amaze this old cynic.

    1. It took me by surprise as well, of all things I was expecting to criticise it wasn't that. I was assuming the EU at least would have had that sorted.

  2. Looks like a thoroughly depressing place!

    1. And it even manages to be so on bright sunny day...

  3. Only ever went to Brussels once, was surprised by how dirty the place was... Are the pavements still a minefield? (is it still plagued with dog shit?)

  4. I wouldn't want to defend the architecture of the EU quarter - it's pretty ghastly, as you say. However, the issue on disabled access and the quality of the streets is a Belgian problem - and specifically a Brussels problem. Getting anywhere in Brussels with a wheelchair is a nightmare (I also wonder how the aged and infirm manage in many places as well). I suppose the EU institutions could insist on having better pavements than anywhere else in Brussels, but the headlines would be all too predictable...and the thing about two languages is, again, to do with Brussels. Has to be in French and Dutch, as does every other official sign in the city.

    1. The lack of disability access on roads was very firmly within the footprint of the EU Parliament as was the lack of access between the Spinelli and the Henri Spaak building. That is specifically an EU issue.

      Access around the centre of Brussels itself was ad hoc, but largely they had 'tactile paving','clicking noises on pedestrian crossings and by and large dropped kerbs. Except around the centre of Brussels which was full of cobbles and entirely expected.

      There is no excuse for the lack of disabled access between EU Parliamentary buildings given that it is a recent construction.