Fnew buildings can match the absurd majesty of the Palais de Justice in Brussels. The Palace of Justice complex was the largest structure in Europe when completed in 1883. Its seemingly random mix of classical columns, stacked haphazardly on top of each other, dwarfs even St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. An atrium has a ceiling height of more than 80 meters. unesco politely describes this architectural confection as “unique”. It was therefore with hints of regret that your rookie columnist left the Belgian capital in 2012 after a stint of three years: a large part of the Palace had been surrounded by scaffolding all the time. What excitement, as he returned this month after a decade away, to finally see the building in all its glory. Alas, the Palace is still just as hidden. Political wrangling and dodgy masonry mean the overhaul is now expected to take several years. The scaffolding has been in place for so long that it is itself being renovated.
Opposite the Palace, another behemoth has been under constant maintenance since 2012. The EU, whose main institutions are based in Brussels, is itself a kind of repairer. When your columnist left, in the depths of the euro zone crisis, the catastrophists wondered if the edifice was not going to be weakened by structural flaws at the heart of the single currency, its flagship project. The somber mood was pervasive and contrasted with Europe’s comfortable position in the rest of the world. On his return, Charlemagne discovers the opposite. Brussels is brimming with confidence, even as Europe’s prospects look dimmer. What happened?
Much of the dynamic vibe in Brussels is the collective satisfaction of having gone through a decennium horribilis in one piece (minus Britain). No sooner had the dispute over the euro been settled than a dispute broke out over how to deal with the more than a million migrant asylum seekers in Europe. The 2016 Brexit vote caused the bloc to shrink for the first time in its six-decade history. Then the pandemic hit, followed by the war in Ukraine. Many Eurocrats believe that there is nothing more the world can throw at them. The repeated heating up and extinction of this permacrisis strengthened the Brussels machinery and gave it more influence. The pandemic, for example, has prompted the creation of a 750 billion euro ($762 billion) recovery fund overseen by the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm.
The EUThe mission of evolved as it fought back these various disasters. Ten years ago, the mantra in Brussels was “more Europe”: every problem had a solution that required empowering the EU. An ever-closer union was its own reward, not to mention the reservations in the minds of the public, which (then as now) keeps only a distant eye on what Brussels is doing. These days, national leaders are kicking things off at European level because they realize there is no way one government can handle it alone. So solutions to the problems facing the world — climate change, the rise of an authoritarian China, pandemic vaccination — are supposed to be best crafted collectively. No national watchdog in Europe could run Amazon or Google. The EUThe regulation of these tech giants, on the other hand, has given Europeans’ concerns, whether about privacy or predatory business models, real weight.
All the mood issues of yesteryear haven’t gone away. There is justified concern about the war in Ukraine and the protracted energy crisis it has caused. But these are issues that EU helps to mend, not those it caused. (The same was true of Brexit, an act of self-harm engineered in Britain, not Brussels.) The threat of populism is more present today than ever: Giorgia Meloni of the right lasts could well win the next Italian elections. months, with unforeseeable consequences. The bloc still has no way of dealing with national politicians who flout its rules. A decade ago, Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary, was a brazenly defiant budding autocrat EU standards on how a member state should be run. Today, he is a longtime autocrat who brazenly challenges EU standards on how a member state should be run.
Some changes were supposed to materialize after 2012, but never happened. Attempts to make the European Parliament and the Commission the political expression of a demos were all the rage at the time, following the adoption of a new constitutional treaty in 2009. EU in another direction: during the euro crisis, Brussels became a place where national leaders brokered nightly deals rather than the seat of institutions that made their own decisions. This pattern largely persists to this day. This is a disappointment for purists of European integration, for whom the project should aim to lessen the power of selfish national governments, not to strengthen it.
Another Brick in the Wall
Finding imperfect solutions to challenges that national governments cannot meet alone is a great challenge for the EU. The problem is that the challenges seem increasingly daunting. The mantra these days in Brussels is to provide “a Europe that protects”, whether from the vagaries of globalization, climate change or foreign tyrants. Fabian Zuleeg of the European Policy Centre, a think tank, talks about the risk that Europe will feel that “we will live in a world determined by others, with stifling constraints on our ability to shape our future”. Some ways to counter this fear make sense: reducing carbon emissions, for example, or investing in defence, where the EU is still a weakling. Others, like the relocation of supply chains to strengthen European industry, are a matter of desperation.
Faced with these challenges, the people of Brussels have a lot to map out, plan and think about. They do so in a city that seems to have done well: once run down, the Belgian capital has been made more livable by many new cycle paths, more varied restaurants and even a handful of shops that open on Sundays. This may inspire Charlemagne to stay until he can observe the Palace of Justice in all its glory. ■
Read more from Charlemagne, our columnist on European politics:
Climate change is bad news for a continent that does not like change (August 13)
Emmanuel Macron is not as soft on Russia as his detractors claim (August 3)
Germans live in a dream (July 21)