Soul­less round­about at EU’s heart awaits trans­plant


On a blus­tery af­ter­noon three Ger­man tourists emerge from the Brus­sels metro, seek­ing the very heart of Europe in all its grandeur.

Puz­zled, the visi­tors recheck a map that flaps fu­ri­ously in the wind: could this un­kempt round­about re­ally be the home of the EU, that great Euro­pean pro­ject born out of the hor­rors of World War II?

So­phie, a stu­dent from Ber­lin, is vis­i­bly alarmed at the “of­fice for let” signs that dom­i­nate what she as­sumed would be a more wor­thy cross­roads for world geopol­i­tics, akin to Washington’s Na­tional Mall or Moscow’s Red Square. “It isn’t in­ter­est­ing. It’s noth­ing re­ally. It’s just build­ings, signs. I can’t imag­ine that this is where pol­i­tics goes on,” she said, slowly tak­ing it in.

Welcome to the Schu­man round­about, the traf­fic- snarled home of the core in­sti­tu­tions of the 28-na­tion Euro­pean Union.

They in­clude the hulk­ing glas­sand-steel Ber­lay­mont, head­quar­ters of the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion, and the fla­vor­less Jus­tus Lip­sus, built in 1995, where EU lead­ers meet late into the night sev­eral times a year to dis­cuss crises like Greece and mi­gra­tion.

“It’s ugly to­day. What should be the most em­blem­atic square in Europe, what is the most tele­vised place in Europe, is un­for­tu­nately not a place that tourists want to spend any time in,” said Pas­cal Smet, the Brus­sels trans­port min­is­ter who is in charge of re­vamp­ing Schu­man.

“The round­about doesn’t give Brus­sels a good im­age, nor Europe in fact,” he said.

A New Hope

There is some light at the end of the tun­nel for the area, which is named af­ter the EU’s found­ing fa­ther, French­man Robert Schu­man.

Af­ter eight ag­o­niz­ingly slow years of work, the new Schu­man un­der­ground and rail­way sta­tions are due to be opened by Bel­gium’s King Philippe in De­cem­ber.

It will in­clude a new di­rect line to Brus­sels Air­port, which of­fi­cials hope will give the area a boost — even if many think it will just en­able the 40,000 “euro­crats” who work around Schu­man to flee the city even more quickly at the week­end.

Schu­man “will soon be a call­ing card for Brus­sels and for the Euro­pean Union,” said Euro­pean Com­mis­sioner Kristalina Ge­orgieva, a for­mer World Bank economist from Bulgaria who is in charge of deal­ings with the city.

Alain Hutchin­son, a for­mer MEP, who is in charge of the city’s re­la­tions with the EU, said there was real hope Ge­orgieva could change things as she was “not afraid to take de­ci­sions” that would build links be­tween the EU and Brus­sels.

In f act the story of the Schu­man round­about, as with so many things both Bel­gian and EU-re­lated, is one of byzan­tine gov­er­nance and hap­haz­ard plan­ning.

The Schu­man eye­sore ex­ists “be­cause from the start, it was never sure that the EU in­sti­tu­tions would come for good and stay and ex­pand,” said ur­ban his­to­rian Lau­rent Ver­meer­sch.

Smit­ten by the au­to­mo­bile, the city’s post-war bour­geoisie aban­doned art-deco town-houses to the wreck­ing ball and cashed out for the sub­urbs.

“It was the of­fice de­vel­op­ers who shaped it and they only cared about de­liv­er­ing to plan and profit and not how the city would look in 20 years,” Ver­meer­sch said.

‘ Brusselization’

Ur­ban plan­ners even have a name to this blind­ness to old­world beauty: Brusselization.

Ef­forts to im­prove Schu­man have been made harder be­cause both Brus­sels — a largely French- speak­ing cap­i­tal in a pre­dom­i­nantly Flem­ish-speak­ing area of Bel­gium — and the EU are known for con­fus­ing lay­ers of bu­reau­cracy.

The Euro­pean in­sti­tu­tions have “the habit to say the in­sti­tu­tional com­plex­ity of Brus­sels doesn’t make things easy,” said Hutchin­son.

“It’s true ... but on the Euro­pean side, it’s not any eas­ier.”

Mean­while the years of build­ing work have com­pounded the strug­gle to give Europe’s heart a trans­plant.

“In re­al­ity, Schu­man is big hole filled with tun­nels, which makes things dif­fi­cult,” said Smet, the Brus­sels min­is­ter.

Worse still, snaking around the place are thou­sands of ve­hi­cles that make Brus­sels one of Europe’s most con­gested cities, sec­ond only to Lon­don.

And when it’s not traf­fic, it’s protests. Last month, an­gry farm­ers oc­cu­pied Schu­man on trac­tors be­fore be­ing tear-gassed by po­lice, fol­lowed a week later by demon­stra­tions against taxi app Uber.

For now, Schu­man con­tin­ues stuck in its half- life, as unloved as the great Euro­pean pro­ject is in­creas­ingly prov­ing with vot­ers.

“There’s no un­em­ploy­ment for win­dow clean­ers that’s for sure,” says a pen­sioner from south­ern France to the rest of her group, to up­roar­i­ous laugh­ter, as they gape at the glass build­ings around them.

Brus­sels res­i­dent Leonardo Velez, a com­puter ex­pert on a tour of the city with his fam­ily who strug­gled to cross the round­about, had a more artis­tic sug­ges­tion.

“They should put some mon­u­ment up in the mid­dle. That would be nice,” he said, sur­vey­ing the windswept void around him.


(Top) This photo taken in Brus­sels on Sept. 25 shows signs for con­struc­tion work around the Schu­man round­about area, home to the Euro­pean Union’s core in­sti­tu­tions. (Above) Peo­ple walk around con­struc­tion work around the Schu­man round­about area in Brus­sels on Sept. 25.

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