One freezing winter night, inside a Belgian tapas bar with a menu that offers kofte and “Mexican chicken” among its options and with nary a pomme fritte or moulle in sight, a Brussels insider is holding forth:

“It used to be a big deal for the city when there was a summit in Brussels with heads of state coming.  The helicopters would be overhead and security everywhere. You really had a sense that something was going on. Now we have a summit every other weekend — and during the week as well — and they are a joke because there are no products from any of them.”

The eatery is self-consciously cosmopolitan in a forced kind of way, and there is no real sense of bonhomie. You can just imagine how cosy everything sounded in the business proposal, but in the execution, the feel of the joint is sterile. And on a week night in the capital city at the centre of a continental system of governance that is stumbling around the brink of a financial and political chasm, the place is almost empty.  It is some consolation that at least the Trappist bier — excellent as always — is ready to hand.

Brussels is an ambiguous place: once the imperial centre of a conspicuously bloody African empire owned by the king, not the state, and now the capital of a deeply divided and localised country that has lacked a government for most of this decade, the city remains the administrative centre of the largest trading block on earth. Certainly Brussels resembles a mini-state unto itself, with demography, culture and politics a thing apart from the rest of the nation.

Just a few years ago, Brussels was full of confidence, as Eurocrats — self-assured in their vision of a peaceful, prosperous, green and technocratic future — dealt with the common policies of an increasingly united continent.  Europe was spoken of as a new kind of Western superpower, relying on a normative strength that was to be contrasted to the brutishness of the United States of America.  But the flower of the European bureaucracy has wilted: there is now an abiding sense of weakness and doubt.

“The financial crisis has found them all out,” the insider continues. “Weak leaders — professional politicians — who can win national beauty contests but are incapable of decisive action, combined with a feeble EU bureaucracy composed of people only interested in keeping their heads down in pursuit of career advancement.”

Now, the insider argues, the chickens have come home to roost.

“National governments have for many years weakened the EU on purpose because they didn’t want interference in their national affairs. Now they wish interference was possible, but there is nobody capable of what is required. We’ve got a no-name President of Council and a set of weak commissioners, precisely because national governments did not want the EU being too assertive. And now they are stuck, because when they want the commission to be decisive, the capacity is simply not there.”

Only Connie Hedegaard — the EU Commissioner for Climate Action — who recently distinguished herself at the COP 17 talks in Durban with a bravura performance, is singled out for any praise.

There is no glee in the insider’s words — just genuine sadness at a continental project that is in dire trouble and the impact of the predicament on a city that was getting used to being a metonym for European power.

In a typically thoughtful and provocative essay, the late Tony Judt once noted that “whether Belgium needs to exist is a vexed question”. The crisis of Belgium’s failure to form a national government in 2010-11 coincided with the emergence of Europe’s financial crunch. But the belated formation of a Belgian government in December last year — after a world record 540 days of on and off again negotiations between the parties — has not so much raised spirits as interacted with the economic crisis to produce new unrest.

“The government has fallen in to place and then immediately embarked on a round of radical cuts in government expenditure.  It has made people very angry,” the insider says.

Earlier this week the resentment was manifested in Belgium’s first general strike in two decades.

“People are furious. The politicians have taken months and months just to form a government, and now it has taken them just a few weeks to decide to slash pensions.”

In Belgium, as in the rest of austerity Europe, there is a gulf between the people and the elites and a general sense of confusion, resentment and listlessness. We finish the pallid food and brave the outside once more. It’s minus 10 and the chill goes much deeper than the air.

Peter Fray

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