With her small eyeglasses perched on her nose, Isabelle Durant receives me in her offices at Parliament, an institution which dominates this part of Brussels. Yes, Durant is in Brussels. She’s fed up with people saying that she’s “gone to Europe,” even though she bikes to work, has always lived in Schaerbeek and can almost see the Belgian parliament from her window. She explains this strange phenomenon: “On the one hand, there is less of a media presence due to the fact that the media speaks more about the deputies as opposed to Europe. On the other hand, Europe is often seen as a punishment inflicted upon elected officials, as if they were put in quarantine.”
Even though she is vice-president of the European Parliament, she likes to remind people that she is, above all, a Green. Some are displeased as she tries to enact initiatives that may seem unimportant to constituents but which on the European sphere create quite a stir. For example, she is trying to dispel the image of deputies riding around in chauffeured limos by installing an ecological minibus system between Parliament and the airport.
“Keeping One’s Feet on the Ground”
It’s a simple vision but very difficult to implement, that of bringing together the average citizen with European institutions and their deputies. This vision is what characterizes Isabelle Durant’s involvement in Belgian politics, both obviously on the front lines but also in the heart of her party and also her municipality. Every month, she attends the Schaerbeek municipal council meetings and fulfills her duties there without resignation, because she considers them vital. This involvement is one of the ways, as she says, of “keeping one’s feet on the ground” and staying in touch with reality and the people.
She is also at the top of the list for Schaerbeek’s 2012 local elections. One of Durant’s wishes is to stop talking about either Europe or the nation or municipality, but about issues and subjects and then discuss their European, national or regional implications, in order to show how European decisions have the same implications as national or regional ones. For example, she points out that “the European Council is composed of national ministers, but they are never questioned about what they have done or said, even though their decisions are of capital importance, especially with regard to agriculture and finance.”
A Kind of European Pretension
Often spoken of both in and out of Parliament is “a kind of European pretension,” and for Isabelle Durant, it’s a persistent reality. “European deputies often look upon their regional counterparts with disdain, and that’s something I am struggling against on a personal level. I am always communicating with environmentalist national parliamentarians about European level issues, and as another example, I divide my partnerships, half-time here and half for the party, a personal decision that few choose to make.”
Some deputies or officers who have been promoted to the European council, especially those from Eastern European countries, see their salaries become equal to those of their prime ministers. One expects them to behave like lords of the manor. As vice-president, it is incumbent upon her to take charge of relations with Belgian authorities. From this perspective, she tries to burst the European bubble by opening it to the rest of Belgium and the world, taking ministers out of the hotel rooms they occupy for the three weeks a month that they work in Brussels, by having events at Luxembourg Square and mainly getting them out of the area surrounding Parliament and to places like Saint Josse and Molenbeek. “Every time we do it, the ministers just love it!”
Appreciating the Plan for Europe
When asked what she wants to leave as her legacy for Europe, her answer is worthy of Jacques Delors: “I want first of all to understand and then love, not in the rarified sense of the word, but in the sense of appreciating the plan for Europe.” And as a logical follow-up, her pride in Europe is demonstrated by her establishment, with Guy Verhofstadt and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, of the “Spinelli Group.” This multi-party group aims to dispel the nationalistic and Euro-skeptic notions being played out on many stages, meeting as a “shadow council” (conseil fantôme) the night before European summits and taking positions on a number of issues. Composed of parliamentary personalities, civil society members and journalists, it’s a sort of resonant repository facing the steamroller of anti-European sentiment.
It’s an initiative that sums up Isabelle Durant’s actions and personality, showing her humane and proactive approach to an austere and closed Europe. Those are qualities rarely found in the bubble she wishes to see burst and finally disappear from daily reality.