There are European cities that conjure romantic notions – London, Paris, Rome, Milan, Edinburgh the list goes on.
This city is the one that doesn’t crave the spotlight, but gets it nonetheless for incidental political reasons, since the mention of its name is immediately associated with the political centre of Europe.
This is Brussels, the capital of Europe.
Everytime you hear Brussels, you think the European Union not Belgium. That’s because Brussels is the de facto capital of the European Union (which incidentally is having regional elections now). A controversial political umbrella formed in 1958 that currently encompasses 27 member nations, shares a single market, freedom of movement, common currency (among most nations) and shared legislation. And all the deliberations of this umbrella union are made in the European Parliament in Brussels. The European Parliament and the coterie of staff and institutions to keep such a vast organisation running are housed almost entirely in this city. So much so that a whole European Quarter exists.
Depending on which side of the political spectrum and your own ideological persuasions, Brussels is therefore either a positive sign of the future of continued European integration, or a living example of everything that is wrong with the Europe (namely: the centralisation and removal of national identities in mostly the former Western Europe). It is either an evil organisation with too much power, the heart of the beast, or one that is losing its influence (and here). Brussels is the capital of the European Union not because of any wonderful pre-existing conditions, its name started with a ‘B’ and the original plan was to rotate capitals in the different member countries and Brussels in Belgium came first. But then everyone got lazy so it just became the de facto capital.
There is the Brussels of Europe and the Brussels of Belgium, two faces to the city that should not be confused though, Brussels is first and foremost the capital of an independent state – Belgium. But its history and that of the tiny nation in Europe are ironcially one of the most apt reasons to keep the European Parliament in the city.
Brussels has been continually settled since the stone ages, although the foundations of the city were laid with the establishment of a church in the area in 580 AD by the saint Gaugericus. Like most important cities today however it was its located next to the River Senne that allowed the city to thrive. In the case of Brussels, it became an important textile centre linking Ghent, Brugge and Cologne. The trading heart of the city was centred at the Grand Place.
While the cities are historical, Belgium itself is a relatively young European country, having had its Independence declared from the Dutch only in 1830. The geographic region that describes modern day Belgium was settled back in 100 AD settled by Gauls and later on by Roman invaders and changed hands in the same way as the major kingdoms of western Europe did – Romans, Carolingians, Holy Roman Empire, French. But it was only in the medieval times that the modern Belgian story became unique, intrinsically tied to and a counterpoint to the Netherlands. From the 14th to 16th century, the fiefdoms that make up Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg today, were collected into different versions of the Hapsburg Empire. Then came a series of wars in the 16th century, the Eighty Years War. It was the Eighty Years War that led to the independence of modern day Netherlands from the Spanish, but modern day Belgium remained in Spanish control, becoming the Spanish Netherlands and later a re-merger of the two territories.
Things did not remain peaceful though. Barely a few decades after the conclusion of the Eighty Years War, another war erupted in Europe – the Nine Year’s War. This was a war between France and a coalition of European monarchies with the objective of controlling the expansionist France under Louis XIV.
It was during this war, that most of Brussels was destroyed including the Grand Place – a event memorialised as the 1695 bombardment of Brussels. The nine years were an unfortunate waste of lives and resources, since most of the countries were financially deprived by the war and had to discuss a peace in 1697. Brussels had to be rebuilt from the ground up, as did many other cities. Peace did not last long.
Grand Place today
The conclusion of the war left the Spanish Netherlands and Brussels in a fragile state, and then 3 years later in 1700, the one person (Charles II of Spain) holding together the Spanish Empire died without an heir, prompting a new series of wars – the War of Spanish Succession. Two potetial heirs in France and Austria had justifiable claim to the throne. But the strength of the argument did not follow legal logic, as much as it followed military logic. The family squabble became another continental war since different sides of the family wanted power and different kings wanted the opportunity to maintain or reshape the balance of power on the continent. The treaties ended with the French claimant Phillip taking the throne of Spain and renouncing any merger between Spain and France. To limit Spanish influence, the areas of Belgium among others were handed over to the Austrian claimant instead. This was not the end though, Austria and France and Netherlands took turns to take control of these lands as well as Brussels in a series of wars culimnating in 1815, when the Dutch retook control of Belgium.
This state of affairs continued until the 1830s, when religious differences led the Catholic south (modern day Belgium) to revolt and split from the Protestant north (modern day Netherlands). It was this final split, and the chance to govern themselves however that led to rapid growth of this new country.
Independent Belgium and Brussels quickly became a financial centre, commerce hub and manufacturing region. Brussels grew rich and with the richness came investments in infrastructure and higher education. Belgium was born just as colonisation was reaching its zenith, and the young nation under their King Leopold I shared ambitions of grandeur just like their larger neighbours all around them.
So in 1876, King Leopold decided to host a Geographic Conference in Brussels and invited experts to advise him on how to civilise and improve the lives of the peoples of Africa. This led to the formation of the International African Association (the predecessor to the Belgian Congo) and gave Belgium a seat at the table during the Scramble for Africa which was formalised particularly through the Berlin Conference. The Belgians were not very good colonialist though…
Plucky little Belgium would however be occupied two more times in recent history during World War I and II, as it was ‘on the way’ to France. Both invasions however did not damage the city as much as the bombing of Brussels in 1695 did.
This historical milieu meant that modern day Belgium is therefore both Dutch and French speaking, and has been considered a divided nation. Even within Belgium though, Brussels is unique. The northern European country is divided into Dutch-Flemish and French speaking populations in the North and South of the Country respectively, and Brussels is a linguistic island located in the north that speaks French instead.Located in between French and Dutch peoples, the provinces that make up modern day Belgium therefore are either French speaking or Dutch speaking.
When you see the twists and turns of Belgium, and Brussels, a city tossed by the tides of political history, and the bloody history of Europe. It’s location as the capital of the European project makes ironically good sense.
The European project was always meant to ensure peace in Europe and stop the wars that seemed a constant in Europe. Brussels being a city that has always been a pawn at the heart of the major powers of Europe best symbolises that desire for peace – since if the European Project fails, history suggests that Brussels will eventually see itself tossed to the dogs of war once again.
Let’s go check out this Capital of Europe!