Beggar thy Euro-neighbour; Official urban vandalism is the price that some Belgians have to pay for their place in Europe

With speculation came soulless utilitarianism; 'The EU gives nothing back to communities'
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The Independent Online
Around the Rond Point Schuman, near the European Commission, and the embassies of members states, the graffiti spell hatred. Down the Rue Stevin, where journalists pass en route to Euro-briefings, weeds are pushing through the cobbled pavements. In the shadow of Europe's burgeoning institutions is urban blight. "We must be closer to the people," say the leaders of the European Union. But the people are moving away.

"We must listen to our citizens," says Jacques Santer, President of the European Commission. But he and his bureaucracy are too busy to notice that their European architecture is flattening a community under foot. The decrepit Berlaymont tower, once home of the European Commission, has been deserted since an asbestos scare. Locals call it "The Berlaymont slum''.

Yesterday, in the Quartier Leopold, near the new European Parliament, the revolt against this urban vandalism began. Residents, including artists, artisans, trade unions and businessmen, launched a campaign to stop the rot. "To destroy the architecture is to destroy the memory of a borough or a town," says Philippe Brodzki, an artist protesting against the eviction of residents from Rue Wiertz.

The area around the early EU buildings was once an elegant and well planned suburb for Belgian Catholic nobility who moved out from the centre of the town to settle this small hill in the mid-19th century.

As the European community grew in the 1950s, Brussels became home to most of the institutions. These prosperous quarters were chosen for the European buildings in part because of good access to the Brussels government centre. The establishment of the Berlaymont set the pattern. As the speculators advanced so did soulless utilitarianism. Motorways and tunnels were carved through the area and pedestrians forced to negotiate a confusing urban jungle. A network of streets was evacuated after an expropriation order to make way for the new council building. In the end, the building was erected elsewhere and today squatters, the poor, and blacks, have moved back to the abandoned buildings. The new parliament decided that the nearby Gare du Luxembourg was offensive to the eye and had it buried in a tunnel. In one small area, 53 buildings, many outstanding neo-classical architecture, were bought by speculators in 1991 and will remain abandoned until the moment for development is ripe.

In 1960, in the Quartier Schuman, 49.2 per cent of the buildings were residential, 30.9 were administrative and none were unoccupied. Today the number of residences has probably dropped below 10 per cent, while offices constitute probably 70 per cent, with a significant percentage unoccupied. "The result is that the European quarter is a black hole abandoned to the whims of private interests," says a pamphlet produced by the Quartier Leopold Residents Association.

Blame can be levelled at speculators and the Belgian planning authorities for failing to exercise control. But the EU member states failed to draw up any plan for a European quarter, rushing instead to set down political facts on the ground. Institutions competed with each other for power by racing to build ever bigger buildings and never considered the environmental effects.

The culture committee of the parliament may finally have woken up to the problem, after a tour of the area. "We have to recognise that a bureaucratic way of thinking has prevailed. I felt very guilty when I saw the damage," said Luciana Catellina, the committee's president.

The local residents complain that not only do the institutions bring blight, but the EU gives nothing back to the communities it settles in. Diplomats and bureaucrats live outside these areas which close down at 6pm. Crime is on the rise and the area is viewed as dangerous at night.

The protesters insist they are not anti-European, and are concerned that their cause might be hijacked by those who are. "As a neighbourhood we do not want to parade anti-European arguments," says Henry Bernard, of the residents' association. " I have campaigned for the union. But it must be a union which listens to its citizens and which takes responsibility for its actions. The EU is ignoring the people and the physical evidence is here in Brussels."