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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 March 2007, 11:12 GMT
Europe in search of a purpose
Fifty years since the signing of the Treaty of Rome, which launched the EEC, world affairs correspondent Paul Reynolds revisits Brussels, his base in the 1980s. In the first of two reports, he considers how it has changed.

The Eurostar slipped out of Waterloo early in the afternoon, leaving 20 seconds early by my watch.

Paul Reynolds
Your correspondent revisiting Brussels now...

As we glided across the plains of northern France, a couple of pillboxes in a ploughed field echoed the past and a wind turbine outside a small town in Belgium pointed to the future.

I had a strong sense on this return journey that it is no longer enough for people to justify the EU by saying that it had kept the peace for 50 years and more. It has established itself and it has expanded. But it has to prove itself to new generations.

We arrived on time two hours and 20 minutes later at Brussels Midi, where the familiar aroma of many a Belgian station wafted up from the waffle stalls.

Euro and Eurostar

The Eurostar and the euro perhaps sum up many of the changes in the 25 years since I arrived with the family in Ostend on a ferry from Dover with a dozen suitcases and pocketfuls of Belgian francs.

The euro is commonplace and the Eurostar a convenience. These are two aspects of a normality that supporters of the European Union say it seeks to establish. For many in conflict zones, normality is what they seek. You can argue about currencies and constitutions, but for many in Europe, normality is what they have.

Paul Reynolds Brussels 1982
...and based there in 1982
The huge new buildings around the centre of official Europe told me of the EU's growth. The Berlaymont, the Commission headquarters, has had its asbestos removed and seeks a re-invigorated, citizen-friendly image.

A vast granite block for member state negotiations is named after Justus Lipsius, a 16th Century Flemish humanist who believed in stoicism, a virtue that journalists covering the deliberations there certainly have to aspire to.

New fervour

Some of the people in those buildings told me of a new fervour sweeping through the European institutions. It is called climate change.

I consulted an old friend John Wyles, who had been the Financial Times correspondent when I was there. He is now a partner in a leading lobbying and communications group in Brussels called GPlus Europe.

European Parliament
The European Parliament now has real power
"The Commission sees energy and climate change as a vehicle for greater integration and it is not wrong in my view. Binding targets means implementation at EU level," he told me.

"It is an issue with strong public support." He also thinks that the EU would be helped by a dose of greater democracy and accountability.

His colleague Michael Tscherny, a former Commission spokesman, added: "Climate change is seen as a godsend by people in Brussels."

And the British permanent representative to the EU, Sir John Grant, had this to say about energy policy: "The EU has the chance of setting the global agenda. It can take on an issue that really matters to the citizens and lead the world."

Strong words for a British official.

Climate change might wreck the planet, it seems, but it could save the EU.

Enthusiastic MEPs

Down the road are two new European Parliament buildings, reflecting the increase in the powers of the parliament over the last 25 years. It used to have influence but now has power. It has the legislative right of "co-decision" with the Council of Ministers, the member states.

Signed 25 March 1957 at the Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome
Original name: Treaty establishing the European Economic Community
Key objectives: a common market and customs union; ever closer union among the peoples of Europe; pooling of resources to strengthen peace
Signatories: Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands
Came into force on 1 January 1958
One of its new buildings is named after Altiero Spinelli and this tells its own story. Spinelli was an Italian member of the parliament and like many of the founders of the new Europe, he had felt the effects of fascism. A former communist, Mussolini locked him up. I remember him as a genial character who produced a key report in which the phase "European Union" was used. In reading the Spinelli Report, you could read the future.

In the parliament, I spoke to a couple of my own London MEPs (several are elected in each region, by proportional representation) - John Bowis, a Conservative, and Claude Moraes for Labour.

It was interesting to see Claude Moraes happily engaged in all the social issues that the EU deals with. I remember the Labour members in the 1980s spending most of their time moaning about the community.

"It is not a question of liking the EU. It is a question of working with the EU," he said, which he does with enthusiasm.

It is now the Conservatives who are doubtful. John Bowis is not as sceptical as many and in fact he too sees the climate issue as a binding force.

"On some issues, the EU should lead and this is one of them," he said, fresh from a meeting with party leader David Cameron who had come to Brussels that day. A sign of things to come?

Beer and Breughel

Inside the Berlaymont, the Commission's daily press briefing has certainly been re-invigorated. It used to take place in French only, with the result that most reporters in the room, many of whom came from outside Europe, barely understood what was being said, which was little enough anyway.

The Berlaymont building
Old and new: The Berlaymont has had its asbestos removed

I recall arguments about whether there should be translation into English at least, which now happens, but the ruling at that time was that it was less discriminatory against other languages for the only language to be French. Work that one out.

Nowhere was the increased size of the European exercise more evident to me personally than in the BBC offices. I worked with just one assistant and two other correspondents, one of whom, Martin Sixsmith, went on to fame as Moscow correspondent under Gorbachev and Yeltsin.

The other was Clifford Smith, a charming Canadian, sadly no longer alive, who seemed to have been there since the Treaty of Rome itself. He showed me the real Brussels of beer and Breughel that survives almost unchanged under the veneer of the international occupation. I was quite pleased to see new evidence of this Brussels in a sign in the hotel unashamedly advertising the "Re-decouverte du boeuf" in its restaurant.

The BBC now has seven correspondents as well as camera crews and producers among 22 staff and on the couple of days I was in town, they were preparing both for the spring summit and for a move into new studios.

The personalities don't glitter, rarely clash in public, and the art of slow and steady compromise doesn't make for easy headlines
BBC Europe Editor Mark Mardell
I have to say that when I arrived in Brussels in 1982, the level of ignorance in the BBC and the media in general about the then EEC (European Economic Community) was high. Very few people were interested. Even fewer were informed.

I reported for radio only, which did make some efforts. But television news all but ignored the place and often only sent general reporters to the summit meetings. At the time these were dominated by Mrs Thatcher's demand for her "money back". She did get it back. At the time, Brussels was not regarded as important by the BBC's political staff. They did not get it at all.

It has improved. The current senior correspondent, Mark Mardell, is a former political correspondent himself. He told me: "I think there is now a real willingness at the highest level of the BBC to treat Europe very seriously and I see my job as providing a sort of narrative that will help people understand what is happening. I try to show this with concrete examples.

"The trouble is that European Union stories are often the reverse of what traditional news people think of as a decent story: the personalities don't glitter, rarely clash in public, and the art of slow and steady compromise doesn't make for easy headlines. So it would be easy for a news organisation to say, 'Why bother?' The answer is: 'Because it matters.'"


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