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An almost love letter to Brussels: why the city is a microcosm of all Europe’s challenges

Contrary to common prejudice, Brussels has many advantages. It’s relatively small, possesses an international population, property is reasonably priced (compared to other cities home to global organisations) and it is very well connected to cities like Paris and London. Belgians like nothing more than to retire as early as they can (just ask the OECD) and drink coffee or wine (on a terrace preferably) in the sunshine. It’s even got good weather (at least for an Irishman). In a way, living in Brussels is infectious.

Yet, it’s only a gentle stroll from the power and wealth of Schuman to the disadvantage of Saint-Josse-ten-Noode. Likewise from the bustling cafes and restaurants of Place Saint-Catherine to Molenbeek. This form of geographical division along class (and wealth) lines is not unique to Brussels, but perhaps it is a symbol of what is now more evident throughout Europe: communities becoming more and more distant from each other.

A distance becoming increasingly based on religion and ethnicity. Like the United States, social mobility is now becoming harder to achieve for younger generations.

Belgians like nothing more than to retire as early as they can (just ask the OECD).

But most of all Brussels – for all the complaining about penal Belgian income tax rates - is a very wealthy - albeit aging - city combining eurocrats, lobbyists, industrialists of all types, politicians (too many different layers to remember) and old school Belgian family money built up over generations (just don’t mention the Congo).

Delve a little deeper however and you’ll see emerge a much more complicated picture of a city that is struggling to adapt to the demands of its residents in the 21st century. Some of the worst traffic congestion in Europe and a taxation policy which continues to promote car usage result in a city that scores poorly on pollution indicators. Schuman roundabout anybody?

With a national budget deficit of over 100% of GDP the era of large scale, transformative infrastructural projects have ground to a halt, or at least to a very slow grind. The rolling closures of Brussels road tunnels over the past number of years highlights how even maintaining current infrastructure is now a budget issue (take note Germany).

Latest estimates indicate that the proposed northward metro extension (just 5 kilometers) from Gare du Nord will be delayed until at least 2028. The reason? Not even financial, but administrative squabbles between various government bodies.

Delve a little deeper however and you’ll see emerge a much more complicated picture of a city struggling to adapt to the demands of its residents in the 21st century.

Belgian trade unions regularly take days off to protest at federal government policy to raise the retirement age. If only they would also protest against one of the lowest entrepreneurship rates in Europe, stalling productivity growth, a labyrinth of protected professional services and an inability to balance the federal budget (notwithstanding the recent benign economic environment).

So what has all this got to do with the EU? Like Brussels, the EU remains an incredibly wealthy economic area with a significant footprint in most segments of the global economy. The EU possesses a multitude of strengths – educational, political, social, and economic – built not just on the generations of economic growth evident pre-1914, but also on the post-1945 economic expansion of a rebuilt and reinvigorated Europe.

However, the EU, like Brussels, is still largely operating on the diminishing returns of an economic model devised in the 1950s. A social market economy model based on a resurgent and youthful Europe, a Europe excited about meeting the challenges of the future head on. But today’s EU exhibits a vastly different personality.

In 2018, the EU is an aging Europe, a partly digital EU increasingly fragmented by the arrival of non-European refugees and economic migrants. An EU where the past decade of economic crisis has significantly increased the uncertainties and insecurities of millions of hard working European families. An EU characterised by high public debt and low growth by historic standards. An increasingly divided Europe where the benefits earned by today’s senior citizens will simply be unaffordable in the decades to come.

The social market economy has served us greatly over the past decades. But now it’s time for a reboot.

So are there ways to offset this long slow decline? For a start the centre-right should take the leading role in combatting the current inertia infecting large swathes of Europe’s aging population. We need to take some time off from the solidly middle class bubble we all inhabit and not be afraid to look beyond our traditional voting base. We need to provide real solutions for hardworking Europeans.

How about these for specific suggestions: in Brussels, eliminate the outrageous tax breaks for company cars and use the billions of euros saved to lower personal tax rates for employees and businesses?

We must remember that budgetary prudence and investment in next generation infrastructure, technology and education are not inconsistent with each other. The social market economy has served us greatly over the past decades. But now it’s time for a reboot, just like Star Wars.

Otherwise, I’ll just have a coffee and call me when it’s time to retire.

Photo by Alex Wong on Unsplash