Beggars’ paradise – City Column

City Column

Beggars’ Paradise

brussel

The European Parliament looms up directly behind the charming Place du Luxembourg, the heart of the stately, 19th century Leopold district. It was already enormous when it was built in 1989, on a site formerly occupied by a brewery and a shunting yard, but it has since become even bigger as the growing number of member states necessitated the addition of a new wing here or an extension there.

There are names emblazoned across the top of these steel and glass monstrosities: Paul-Henri Spaak, Jozsef Antall and Alturro Spinelli. European heroes, I assume, but they might just as well have been the names of Manchester United’s backfield players. The square in front of the main entrance is a one hundred-metre expanse of smooth stone, built on a slight decline and therefore an ideal place for skateboarding. But that won’t happen here: this is Brussels.

At the security check near main entrance, a new shift is taking over, and one guard gets a kiss from another; both are men. That does happen here: this is Brussels. Once inside I wander through endless corridors decorated with artwork, some of it quite good, and of course each country is represented (which is why the corridors are so long). I climb a staircase, and then another, and amble into a conference room. The only person I meet is an employee with a cup of coffee-to-go. I might have been in an unvisited museum. Where are all the Euro parliamentarians? Finally someone enlightens me: they’re in Strasbourg. The whole circus decamps to Strasbourg for a few days, twelve times a year, because those are the terms that France – the unchallenged European champion of putting its own interests first – forced the EU to accept in 1992.

I bicycle another kilometre or so to Schumanplein. This is where Mr Barosso’s office is located, and it is also the seat of the European Commission. Here too, gleaming glass giants tower over an old and otherwise unremarkable neighbourhood. I notice quite a few beggars on the square. Lobbyists do their begging wearing a suit and carrying a sleek briefcase, others do it dressed in rags, clutching an empty coffee cup. They know: here’s where the money is.