Brussels Diary: When feeding frenzy comes, the piranhas dart in every direction

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ADMITTEDLY, international dramas or events - a Gulf war, the collapse of a Berlin Wall, little upsets like that - cause greater hordes of journalists to congregate. Other cities have large numbers of correspondents permanently accredited to report on government policy.

None the less, Brussels remains unique. Hundreds of journalists swirl around to report on every twist and turn of European Union policy. At noon every day comes the feeding frenzy, where the latest decisions are announced in several languages. But, in stark contrast to elsewhere, each of the piranhas is interested in different issues. In the White House press room, the dominant tone is national. CNN, Washington Post, Newsweek and Time are the guys that count. On Euro-stories, however, there are no national media. A decision about unfair steel subsidies may be remote for one country but front-page news elsewhere.

Only in one crucial respect is Britain different from all the other countries reporting on EU affairs. In Germany, Italy, Poland or South Korea, Europe is covered for its own sake; EU decisions are the subject of debate. But Britain continues to believe that Brussels is simultaneously much too important and almost irrelevant. Politicians still present reality through the prism of Westminster.

In recent months, British politicians like Gordon Brown have still seemed convinced that they can spin to their hearts' content about British triumphs, leaving the Wacky Foreigners out of the loop. It is a fascinatingly futile view. Brussels is not just a bunch of foreigners; Brussels has become part of our lives.

In reality, there are two Brussels. There is Brussels (Europe) - at the heart of which stands the huge Berlaymont building, the former commission headquarters which is now covered in white sheeting like a creation by wrap-artist Christo, because of the dangers of asbestos. Meanwhile, gleaming new asbestos-free Euro-buildings pop up all around - a newly opened parliament building here, an about-to-be-opened commission building there.

And then there is Brussels (Belgium). Town-and-gown conflicts are nothing, by comparison with Brussels' commission-and-country division. Euro-people indulge in Belgian chocolate, Belgian monks' beer, and Belgian surrealism (the much-heralded new Magritte exhibition, not the political process or the local highway code). Beyond that, the crossovers are few. A European official was asked how many Belgians she knew. "Not very many. Five or six," came the somewhat sheepish reply. "That many?" replied her Belgian interlocutor, with no apparent irony. Integration may be a European dream. In Brussels, it has a long way to go.

Brussels is more than just a city of grey suits, that is for sure. A note from a Bruxellois, Mr Diawa, dropped through the letterbox last week, promising "important revelations about your life". Mr Diawa described himself as "chief of the grand sacred forest of Africa". He offers "effective protection in work and love, for slimming or getting fatter, for business". Above all, "If bad luck pursues you, I will help you with my great power - even for desperate cases." If the EU gets into serious difficulties , Mr Diawa is clearly their man - especially since it won't be too expensive. He promises: "Success from the first visit.".

Some Euro-successes have already begun. Restaurants have started marking their prices in euros, demonstrating Euro-patriotism and a belief in the new era. Even now, British politicians remain wary of the single currency. It is worth noting, however, that that the "pragmatists" (sceptics) have had to give much more ground than the enthusiasts in recent years.

Perhaps, therefore, Brussels deserves a new hero. Belgium's best-known popular character (apart from the urinating fountain-figure Manneken Pis, who can even be eaten in dark chocolate) is the boy with the famous quiff and the little white dog. Distinguishing features: ineffable optimism in absurd circumstances, and he always succeeds in the end. Maybe Herge's Tintin and Snowy should become the EU's very own mascots. Good for the dreamers' morale - and good for reconciliation between the decent but dull Euro-Brussels, on the one hand, and the unvarnished but real Belgo- Brussels next door.

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