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Sunday, 10 March, 2002, 17:21 GMT
Europe's 'filthiest city'
Brussels' Grand Place
Brussels is "more dilapidated" than Athens
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By Justin Webb
BBC correspondent in Brussels

I opened the door of our townhouse the other day to find a dog defecating on the step.

The dog was unfazed by my sudden appearance - that I suppose was to be expected - but it was the reaction of the owner that I found fascinating.

A respectable looking chap wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase, he merely moved the creature slightly to one side to let me pass, and then just carried on with his cigarette, waiting for the dog to finish and amble off.

Nothing untoward had happened - a dirty city had become slightly dirtier, but few would notice or care.


Brussels is the filthiest, most dilapidated capital city in the European Union - yes, even including Athens.

The grime here seems to have infected the soul of the place. Its people have a defeated air.

My wife says everyone here looks tired. As the parents of two-year old twins, we know that look, but we do have the odd good night - the Belgians seem tired all the time. And everything is too much trouble.

My prediction is this: that Brussels, the city synonymous with the European Union, will be its downfall

Even the friendliest of people seem daunted by their daily lives. I have been going to the same barber for the last three years.

I usually turn up in the middle of the day and I do not think I have ever seen anyone else there.

But when I breeze in, without appointment, there is always a ritual sucking of air through teeth - Monsieur could perhaps be fitted in, maybe in a quarter of an hour, but really it would have been better to have booked.

Sometimes I even have to go through the charade of waiting a few minutes in order to preserve the dignity of the establishment.

Bagel debacle

And even when the service does come with a smile - I'm thinking now of the jolly multilingual staff of the bagel bar where I sometimes buy lunch - there is too often a catch.

At the bagel bar the catch is a lack of bagels - not at the beginning of lunchtime of course, but always, always, towards the end.

Could you not stock more bagels, I ventured?

They were genuinely bemused... Why?

They always sell the ones they have and if people come late, that's their look-out - the supplier here is king, the customer is lucky to get his lunch.

Berlaymont fiasco

Why does this matter? Belgium - cruelly mocked by all its neighbours - is famously unimportant in its own right.

But of course, Brussels is more than just the capital city of the Belgians. It is the capital of Europe. The way the Belgians behave has a profound impact on the workings of the European Union.

The Berlaymont
The Berlaymont remains a landmark in the centre of Brussels

For proof of that, look no further than the 13-storey, glass-sided Berlaymont building erected in the 1960s to house the European Commission.

The Berlaymont, like many 1960s office blocks, was built with asbestos.

Like many office blocks it had to be closed and stripped of the offending substance. But, unlike most office blocks, it has never re-opened.

More than 10 years after the Commission moved out to a temporary home, the Berlaymont is still empty. Work Belgian-style is still in progress. For bagels read bricks.

And do not ask why things are taking so long - nobody seems to know.

All that is certain is that the building's latest finish date, the fourth one to be set, is going to be missed and the total cost, according to some, is heading above 50m.

Now my point is that the Berlaymont fiasco has been judged acceptable in the European Union as presently constituted.

Belgium was a founder member and its foibles, its peculiar shabbiness, have been respected in the club.

Fall of Europe

But am I the only person to have noticed that most of the dozen or so countries about to join the union have fairly recent experience of communism and are supremely unlikely to tolerate the Belgian practices that so often mirror the grim drudgery that used to be the lot of all eastern Europeans?

They are joining this union to be truly free. They are not - absolutely not - joining a club for the erection and maintenance at any cost of Stalinist office blocks in gloomy far-away cities.

My prediction is this: that Brussels, the city synonymous with the European Union, will be its downfall.

That the new gang, once they have found their feet, simply will not like this place and its ways.


Already there is talk - talk for instance of moving the EU institutions to Prague, which will be the geographical centre of the new Europe, a gorgeous city steeped in history and bursting with flair and joie de vivre.

Far from controlling our lives as the Eurosceptic superstate brigade would have us believe, Brussels, I predict, is going to be put to the sword.

How much of the European Union goes with it, it is still too early to say, but a revolution is in the offing - the dogs of Brussels have had their day.

Inside Europe
Guide to life inside the EU
See also:

08 Oct 01 | Europe
Sorry saga of Euro showpiece
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