Will Brussels ever become Washington?
By Roberto Foa
I lived in Washington, DC for about two years, during the dying days of the Bush administration. A sense of decadence and decline hung heavy over the city, like the plumes of smoke that still pocked Baghdad skies, leaving their trails across the daily headlines. Yet as the primary season got underway there was an undeniable buzz about town, a slow-burning frenzy of activity amidst the undergrowth of think-tanks, dinner circles, and political action groups. I saw young, power-hungry Americans come to Washington to advise for political parties, work for senators and congressmen, write in journals, and feel like they were part of a grander project. That wasn’t my project; it was the American Project, and I was at best a detached observer. But it gave me an idea of what an imperial capital ought to look and feel like, as well as how a polity can renew itself.
Inevitably, I now ask myself whether Brussels could one day have the same energy and vitality. For there are no motorcades bombing down the rue de la loi, ferrying foreign dignitaries from Cairo and Kabul, ready to make their speech on the stage of world history, and no meetings of young Europeans to draft manifestos for their first 100 days in office. Whereas Washington DC is a city of rogues and ideologues, of hungrily ambitious hacks and starved campaign staffers, of people who sleep poorly at night and by day dream with eyes wide open; Brussels remains a city of tidy officialdom, where people work solidly at their offices by light and snooze deeply in bed at dusk.
Can it ever change? I would like to believe so, but it seems beyond my lifetime. The problem is simple enough: post-Lisbon Europe remains bereft of real politics. Without meaningful pan-European elections, without European political parties and electoral campaigns, without winners and losers, there is no place for action groups, think-tanks, magazines and fiery debates. Everything remains inside the bureaucracy; nothing outside the bureaucracy.
I have nothing against Brussels itself. I feel at home there; it is one of the few places where I feel as such. I feel at place among the young, bright, optimistic Europeans who come from around the continent and believe in the European project, and share the same dream as I do, of a continent united and a world that transcends nationalism. But the problem is that Europe is not our Europe, it is something clung on to by elites in London, Berlin and Paris, and what has been left to us is just this dream, and little else.
I’ve heard that said to me many times, now, from Brussels friends and colleagues. You can come here, and dream your European dream, but sooner or later that dream will betray you: Europe is on the way to itself, but just a little too slowly, and its pace will not keep step with your hopes and ambitions. When Americans go to Washington, they undoubtedly have their moments of frustration, pain, and disappointment, but eventually these are balanced by moments of redemption, even of glory; for all the difficult years spent suffering the malapropisms of George W. Bush, Democrats could feel the excitement of the 2008 campaign, and the euphoria of victory. Such highs and lows, however, are denied to the denizen of Brussels, whose long-timers express weariness, lassitude, cynicism, and resignation. Indeed the contrast between the energy of youth and the exhaustion of age is perhaps nowhere stronger than in Brussels. Certainly, one does not find it in Washington DC, where I can recall plenty of determination, energy, and ambition among fiery-eye neoconservative gentlemen and battleaxe liberal mothers alike, and a real faith among each that the great American project is on track and that every DC hack, lobbyist, tinker and scribbler had some small place within it.
Of course it could change. I have no doubt that a hundred-and-fifty years ago, Washington had all the excitement and great-power potential of Canberra or Wellington. It took a century for the sleepy, provincial swamp of the American civil war era to become the superpower capital of the Kennedy years. Perhaps Brussels will make it there too one day. But it is difficult to imagine without a fundamentally different Europe, a political Europe with meaningful elections, winners and losers. In the meantime, to paraphrase de Gaulle’s pithy put-down of Brazil, “l’Union européenne est le pays de l’avenir, et elle le restera”.