Constructed for the Universal Exhibition of Brussels in 1958, today the Esplanade de l'Europe has more rubbish bins than people. The few pedestrians that pass through this esplanade are mostly the North African immigrants who populate the quarter of Saint-Gilles. In Esplanade de L'Europe there are no shops, no kiosks, no doggy-zones. Nor there is there even one of those trees that bring this green city joy, although there are several industrial-looking lampposts and a few benches where nobody sits. A place of transience, the perfect expression of the ‘raised area.’
The square that only works one day a week
Esplanade de L'Europe fits into the Saint-Gilles neighbourhood, a perfect window from which to witness the paradox that is Brussels. With a 43% immigrant population, it would be hard to say that Saint-Gilles is the favoured district for the more than 15, 000 European officials who live in the city. Brussels is a mosaic of origins, languages and colours, although just as in any other place, it’s how you make ends meet that determines where to live, to eat and to walk. It is a long wait before someone ventures this way. Abdelbassir is a Moroccan in his twenties. Although I try to tease from him some reflection on Europe, he speaks to me only about Belgium, and about everything he and his people ‘owe to this small country.’ For him ‘Europe is Belgium’ and I don’t wonder why; it’s possible he’s never been anywhere else.
While Abdelbassir goes on his way, a stench reaches me from the tier of garbage bins that border the raised area; rubbish from Sunday’s fleamarket, the only time that the European Esplanade goes to work.
Eurostar, skyscraper and a beggars' refuge
Surprise! Someone comes out of the station. No need for me to go over: the traveller, with a British accent (perhaps recently alighted from the Eurostar) asks for the Tour du Midi. It’s in front, just over the road. The Tour du Midi is the highest building in Brussels. The Eurostar and the 150 metres of the modern Tour du Midi are perhaps the only reason to give this space in which nothing happens except on Sundays the name of ‘Europe’.
Venturing towards the urine-soaked corners of a nearby bridge that is shelter on the habitually rainy days for those killing time inside a can of beer, I see some contemporary photography on the walls. They portray –it is not difficult to imagine why– black and white figures. As if they were supporting in the walls, they are characters with artificially bandaged hands and faces made up to provoke compassion. The whole is a simulacrum of refuge improvised for beggars. The scene is completed by a few graffiti-decorated columns.
Take care of image and communication
Still no one passes. I wasn’t going to mention it, but it is 9am on a normal working Monday. Just when I am about to give up and go, I spot a group of young people crossing the raised area. I pick out Elodie, who is Belgian and about to take the metro to her work at the European Committee of the Regions. What should Europe be most concerned about? ‘Not unemployment or terrorism,’ Elodie focuses her answer on ‘the lack of information that European citizens have regarding most European institutions; we have to make it so that people are interested in Europe, beyond the subsidies.’
Irrefutable. You have to begin at the beginning: communication and image. I leave with the impression that Brussels deserves much more than the Esplanade de L'Europe it has been given. Perhaps Europe also deserves something more than this non-place. I do not think I’ll ever be back. Well, maybe I will, if someone reads this and gets to work some time to inaugurate a ‘new esplanade of Europe.’