Belgium Europe

Atomium building in Brussels

Atomium Belgium

The Atomium is situated in Heysel, the northern downtown of Brussels. The design is based on a crystallized molecule of iron magnified 150 milliard times.

Brussels as International city

Brussels has since World War II become the administrative centre of many international organizations. Notably the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have their main institutions in the city, along with many other international organizations such as the Western European Union, World Customs Organization and EUROCONTROL as well as international corporations.

Cinquantenaire Brussels

Brussels is third in the world in the number of international conferences it hosts also becoming one of the largest convention centers in the world. The presence of the EU and the other international bodies has for example led to there being more ambassadors and journalists in Brussels than in Washington D.C.

International schools have also been established to serve this presence. The "international community" in Brussels officially numbers at least 70,000 people. In 2009, there were an estimated 286 lobbying consultancies known to work in Brussels.

Left, Cinquantenaire in Brussels.

How Brussels became the capitol of the EU

Brussels (Belgium) is considered to be the de facto capitol of the European Union, having a long history of hosting the institutions of the European Union within its European Quarter. The EU has no official capitol, and no plans to declare one, but Brussels hosts the official seats of the European Commission, Council of the European Union, and European Council, as well as a second seat of the European Parliament.

In 1951, leaders signed the Treaty of Paris which created the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), and with this new community came the first institutions; the High Authority, Council of Ministers, Court of Justice and Common Assembly. A number of cities were considered, and Brussels would have been accepted as a compromise, but the Belgian government put all its effort into backing Liège, opposed by all the other members, and then, was unable to formally back Brussels due to internal instability.

Agreement remained elusive and a seat had to be found before the institutions could begin work, hence Luxembourg was chosen as a provisional seat, though with the Common Assembly in Strasbourg as that was the only city with a large enough hemicycle (the one used by the Council of Europe). This agreement was temporary, not even "provisional", and it was the intent that they would move to Saarbrücken.

To the left, rue de la Loi in the EU quarter.

Rue de la Loi
Charlemagne Building 1971

The 1957 Treaties of Rome established two new communities, the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). These shared the Assembly and Court of the ECSC but created two new sets of Councils and Commissions (equivalent to the ECSC's High Authority). Discussions on the seats of the institutions were left till the last moment before the treaties came into force, so as not to interfere with ratification.

Brussels waited till only a month before talks to enter its application, which was unofficially backed by several member states. The members agreed in principle to locate the executives, councils and the assembly in one city.

In the meantime, the Assembly would stay in Strasbourg and the new commissions would meet alternatively at the ECSC seat and at the Castle of the Valley of the Duchess, in Brussels (headquarters of a temporary committee). In practice, this was the Castle in Brussels until autumn 1958 when all moved to central Brussels: Ravenstein street number 2.

Charlemagne building in Brussels before therenovation in 1971.

Brussels missed out in its bid for a single seat due to a weak campaign from the government in negotiations, despite widespread support from the people. The Belgian government eventually pushed its campaign and started large-scale construction, renting office space in the east of the city for use by the institutions.

On 11 February 1958, the six governments concluded an unofficial agreement on the setting-up of community offices. On the principle that it would take two years after a final agreement to prepare the appropriate office space, full services were set up in Brussels in expectation of a report from the Committee of Experts looking into the matter of a final seat.

A Committee of Experts deemed Brussels to be the one option to have all the necessary features for a European capitol: a large, active metropolis, without a congested centre or poor quality of housing; good communications with other member states' capitols, including to major commercial and maritime markets; vast internal transport links; an important international business centre; plentiful housing for European civil servants; and an open economy.

Furthermore, it was located on the border between the two major European civilizations, Latin and Germanic, and was at the centre of the first post-war integration experiment: the Benelux. As a capitol of a small country, it also could not claim to use the presence of institutions to exert pressure on other member states, it being more of a neutral territory between the major European powers.

Right, Charlemagne building after renovation.

Charlemagne building 2000

The Committee's report was approved of by the Council, Parliament and Commissions, however the Council was still unable to achieve a final vote on the issue and hence put off the issue for a further three years despite all the institutions now leading in moving to Brussels.

Semi ciircle Parliament in Luxembourg

The decision was put off due to the varied national positions preventing a unanimous decision.

Luxembourg fought to keep the ECSC or have compensation, France fought for Strasbourg and Italy, initially backing Paris, fought for any Italian city in order to thwart Luxembourg and Strasbourg.

Meanwhile, Parliament passed a series of resolutions complaining about the whole situation of spreading itself across three cities, though unable to do anything about it.

On the left, old hemicycle of the European Parliament in Luxembourg.

The 1965 Merger Treaty was seen as an appropriate moment to finally resolve the issue, the separate Commissions and Councils were to be merged. Luxembourg, concerned about losing the High Authority, proposed a split between Brussels and Luxembourg. The Commission and Council in the former with Luxembourg keeping the Court and Parliamentary Assembly, together with a few of the Commission's departments. This was largely welcomed but opposed by France, not wishing to see the Parliament leave Strasbourg, and by Parliament itself which wished to be with the executives and was further annoyed by the fact it was not consulted on the matter of its own location.

Right, the EU complex in Strasbourg

EU Parliamenet in Strasbourg

However, the 1965 agreement was a source of contention for the Parliament, which wished to be closer to the other institutions, so it began moving some of its decision making bodies, committee and political group meetings to Brussels. In 1983 it went further by symbolically holding a plenary session in Brussels, in the basement of the Mont des Arts Congress Centre. However the meeting was a fiasco and the poor facilities partly discredited Brussels' aim of being the sole seat of the institutions.

EU Parliamenet Brussels

Things looked up for Brussels when Parliament gained its own plenary chamber in Brussels (on Wiertz Street) in 1985 for some of its part-sessions. This was done unofficially due to the sensitive nature of the Parliament's seat, with the building being constructed under the name of an "international conference centre". When France unsuccessfully challenged Parliament's half-move to Brussels in the Court of Justice, Parliament's victory led it to build full facilities in Brussels.

Parliament Building Brussels

In response the Edinburgh European Council of 1992 adopted a final agreement on the location of the institutions. According to this decision, which was subsequently annexed to the Treaty of Amsterdam, although Parliament was required to hold some of its sessions, including its budget session, in Strasbourg, extra sessions and committees could meet in Brussels. It also reaffirmed the presence of the Commission and Council in the city.

Shortly before this summit, the Commission moved into the Breydel building. This was due to asbestos being discovered in the Berlaymont building, forcing its evacuation in 1989. The Commission threatened to move out of the city, which would have destroyed Brussels's chances of hosting the Parliament, so the government stepped in to build the Breydel building a short distance from the Berlaymont in 23 months, ensuring the Commission could move in before the Edinburgh summit.

Shortly after Edinburgh, Parliament bought its new building in Brussels (see the photo above left). With the status of Brussels now clear, NGOs, lobbyists, advisory bodies and regional offices started basing themselves in the quarter near the institutions.

The Council, which had been expanding into further buildings as it grew, consolidated once more in the Justus Lipsius building, and in 2002 it was agreed that the European Council should also be based in Brussels, having previously moved between different cities as the EU's Presidency rotated.

From 2004 all Councils were meant to be held in Brussels; however, some extraordinary meetings are still held elsewhere. The reason for the move was in part due to the experience of the Belgian police in dealing with protesters and the fixed facilities in Brussels.

On the right, the Justus-Lipsius building that was finally taken by the European Council.

Berlyamont Building

The Commission employs 25,000 people and the Parliament employs about 6000 people. Because of this concentration, Brussels is a preferred location for any move towards a single seat for Parliament.

Despite it not formally being the "capitol" of the EU, some commentators see the fact that Brussels enticed an increasing number of Parliament's sessions to the city, in addition to the main seats of the other two main political institutions, as making Brussels the de facto capitol of the EU.

Brussels is frequently labeled as the 'capitol' of the EU, particularly in publications by local authorities, the Commission and press. Indeed, Brussels interprets the 1992 agreement on seats as declaring Brussels as the capitol.

To the left, the Berlaymont building of EU Commission in Brussels.

There are two further cities hosting major institutions, Luxembourg (judicial and second seats) and Strasbourg (Parliament's main seat). Authorities in Strasbourg and organizations based there also refer to Strasbourg as the "capitol" of Europe and Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg are also referred to as the joint capitols of Europe.

EuroBrussels view from Leopold Park

In 2010, Vice President of the United States Joe Biden, while speaking to the European Parliament, stated that Brussels, like Washington D.C. had its own claim to be capitol of the free world.

Like Washington D.C., Brussels is a centre of political activity with ambassadors to Belgium, NATO and the Union being based in the city; with there being more ambassadors based in the city than in the US capitol.

There's also a greater number of press corps in Brussels with media outlets in every Union member-state having a Brussels correspondent and there are 10,000 lobbyists registered.

To the right, the NATO meeting place in Brussels NATO Headquarters.

NATO in BRussels

Another important organization sitting in Brussels is EUROCONTROL. This is the European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation. Founded in 1963, it is an international organization working for seamless, pan-European air traffic management. EUROCONTROL is a civil organization and currently has 39 member states; its headquarters are in Brussels.

It coordinates and plans air traffic control for all of Europe. This involves working with national authorities, air navigation service providers, civil and military airspace users, airports, and other organizations.

To the left, EUROCONTROL headquarters, Evere, Brussels.

EUROCONTROL activities involve all gate-to-gate air navigation service operations: strategic and tactical flow management, controller training, regional control of airspace, safety-proofed technologies and procedures, and collection of air navigation charges.

Of the 1200 accredited journalists in Brussels, 1000 are from outside Belgium, 120 of these are from Germany alone (compared to 20-30 in Washington D.C.) however there has been a disproportionately small representation of US press in Brussels, with very few newspapers having correspondents based in the city.

On the right, the air view of the Euro-Brussels.

In front of the photo the characteristic Berlaymont building with four wings, to the left in the middle the Leopold I park and European Parliament buildings.