The best advertisement for Brexit is the nightmarish city of Brussels itself
Last week, as Putin once again floated the prospect of nuclear war, Liz Truss appeared before the UN in New York and said the West would not be shaken by his brutality, adding: “Unless democratic societies respect the economy and security, our citizens expect, we will fall behind. It was generous, but pious, of Truss to include all of the West in this. Or rather, to include Europe, which has trumpeted its strength in unity but has done painfully little to deliver on its promise of security. Russia feels emboldened because, thanks to Europe, it is allowed to do so.
The EU – none of whose member states have matched Britain’s contribution to arms and support for Ukraine – is good at making statements. I found myself unable to suppress a groan when I read Thursday’s statement, which just came out of the press after the meeting of the UN, the Council of the European Union. “The European Union condemns in the strongest terms Russia’s latest escalation in its unlawful, unprovoked and unjustified aggression against Ukraine.” Ah, I thought. Putin must be really shaking in his boots now.
The EU and its die-hard fans in the UK love to claim that the bloc, in all its cooperative and stability-loving glory, has shown unparalleled unity in the face of aggression. But Europe’s response to the Russian threat has, in fact, been anything but coordinated, united and strong. Confused, out of sync and late, that’s pretty much it. There is the EU’s impotent dependence on Russian gas, which it does not seem at all committed to or able to change. And then there is its fundamentally pacifist and morally ambiguous post-war position, with no country more anti-war than Germany, which began its support for Ukraine with a boatload of helmets and continued it with no more blunders, covers, delays and under-delivery. At the start of the Russian hostilities, Emmanuel Macron honestly seemed to think he could dissuade Putin from invading Ukraine through “dialogue”.
The heart of the EU is of course Brussels, seat of the European Parliament and of the Council. The city must therefore be the crowning achievement of all that a united Europe represents, the symbol of unity, of coordinated infrastructures, of a balanced cost of living, of greater social integration.
But as I was reminded on a short trip last week, it’s the exact opposite. Brussels is a sobering symbol of European failure. The station and its surroundings are apocalyptic and menacing, which is odd for an international hub in the most international of cities. The station itself looks like a dungeon, with confusing French and Flemish signage almost indecipherable to non-locals, dirty platforms and, in the Eurostar terminal, coffee is only available from of a tiny machine that usually breaks down behind a cash register for duty-free odds and ends.
If one is able to get out of it, one hardly feels like one is in the cradle of civilization. The streets are strewn with garbage and blown by flies. Social services, including garbage collection, are clearly ill-equipped to cope. The sprawling area around Gare du Midi/Bruxelles-Sud looks a bit like King’s Cross was decades ago before it became the Eurostar hub and one of the city’s most gleaming neighborhoods and commercially important London.
Europeans may know how to live, but they also know how to strike, and there was no public transport in sight the day I was there, so I walked the 45 minutes to my accommodation , which allowed some additional observations. Remainiacs and the left are more generally fond of saying that Britain is a ‘systemic’ or ‘structural’ racist place. But walk around London and you’ll see integration: people of all ethnicities, and, thanks to social housing zoning, social classes, living side by side and going about their business together, from Peckham to Leyton and by Regent’s Park. Yet in the EU capital, the state of ethnic integration is truly dire, and all dreams of multiculturalism seem pitifully distant.
From the moment you leave the station and head south, you are in a ghetto of poverty, a sort of inner suburb. In Saint-Gilles, I passed the El Mouhsinin Islamic Center, the tranquil focal point of a region entirely dominated by immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa. Veiled women pushing babies populated parks and playgrounds, the only people on the street were Arabic-speaking men, teenagers chased a screaming police vehicle.
Brussels is famous for its racially segregated neighborhoods. In the film by Sofie Peeters in 2012 Street Woman, Peeters walks around downtown followed by a hidden camera, wearing a modest dress and flat boots. She is ogled all the way. Truth be told, I didn’t notice any glows last week – the streets were pretty empty – but I was troubled by the racial homogeneity and poverty. Especially when 10 minutes up the road the jewel restaurants charge €19 for a salad and tap water is ‘not possible’. Even coming from an inflation-bothered Britain, the prices in Brussels brought me to tears.
It is true that Brussels has always been a strange city, an enclave shared between French and Dutch, separated from Walloon and Flemish territory, once the princely capital of the Burgundian Netherlands. It was the center of Belgium’s macabre trade in the Congo, the strange “sepulchral city” in which Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness begins and ends.
Brussels appalled Conrad’s narrator Marlow at the end of the 19th century, no more so than when he returned to his beer smugness from the scene of Belgian atrocities in Africa. Of course, there is no moral comparison to be drawn with this aspect of Belgian history today. But while the city offers some of Europe’s finest cultural gems, it remains, despite its lofty status as the ground zero of the European project, a city of confusion and decay which, at least as an advertisement for a crumbling Europe , works quite well.