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Brusselsmarker (Belgiummarker) is considered to be the de facto capital of the European Union, having a long history of hosting the institutions of the European Union within its European Quarter. However, the EU has no official capital with no plans to declare one. The city hosts the official seats of the European Commissionmarker, Council of the European Union, European Council and a second seat of the European Parliamentmarker.


Two chances

In 1951, leaders signed the Treaty of Paris which created the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), and with this new community came the first institutions; the High Authority, Council of Ministers, Court of Justice and Common Assemblymarker. A number of cities were considered, and Brussels would have been accepted as a compromise, but the Belgian government put all its effort into backing Liègemarker, opposed by all the other members, and was unable to formally back Brussels due to internal instability.

Agreement remained elusive and a seat had to be found before the institutions could begin work, hence Luxembourgmarker was chosen as a provisional seat, though with the Common Assembly in Strasbourgmarker as that was the only city with a large enough hemicycle (the one used by the Council of Europe). This agreement was temporary, not even "provisional" and it was the intent that they would move to Saarbrückenmarker as a "European District" which did not occur.

The 1957 Treaties of Rome established two new communities, the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). These shared the Assembly and Court of the ECSC but created two new sets of Councils and Commissions (equivalent to the ECSC's High Authority). Discussions on the seats of the institutions were left till the last moment before the treaties came into force, so as not to interfere with ratification.

Brussels waited till only a month before talks to enter its application, which was unofficially backed by several member states. The members agreed in principle to locate the executives, councils and the assembly in one city, though could still not decide which city, so they put the decision off for six months. In the meantime, the Assembly would stay in Strasbourg and the new commissions would meet alternatively at the ECSC seat and at the Castle of the Valley of the Duchessmarker, in Brusselsmarker (headquarters of a temporary committee). The Councils would meet wherever their Presidents wanted to. In practice, this was the Castle in Brussels's until autumn 1958 when it moved to central Brussels: 2 Rue Ravensteinstraat.

Early expansion

Brussels missed out in its bid for a single seat due to a weak campaign from the government in negotiations, despite widespread support from the people. The Belgian government eventually pushed its campaign and started large scale construction, renting office space in the east of the city for use by the institutions. On 11 February 1958, the six governments concluded an unofficial agreement on the setting up of community offices. On the principle that it would take two years after a final agreement to prepare the appropriate office space, full services are set up in Brussels in expectation of a report from the Committee of Experts looking into the matter of a final seat.

While waiting for the completion of the building on Avenue de la Joyeuse Entrée/Blijde Inkomstlaan, offices moved to 51-53 Rue Belliardstraat on 1 April 1958 (later exclusively used by the Euratom Commission), though with the numbers of Civil Servants rapidly expanding, services are set up in buildings on Rue de Marais/Broekstraat, Avenue de Broquevillelaan, Avenue de Tervuerenlaanmarker, Rue d'Arlon/Aarlenstraat, Rue Joseph II/Jozef II-straat, Rue de la Loi/Wetstraatmarker and Avenue de Kortenberglaan. The Belgian government further provides newly built offices on the Mont des Arts/Kunstbergmarker (22 Rue des Sols/Stuiversstraat) for the Council of Ministers' Secretariat and European Investment Bank.

A Committee of Experts deemed Brussels to be the one option to have all the necessary features for a European capital: a large, active metropolis, without a congested centre and poor quality of housing; good communications with other member states' capitals, including to major commercial and maritime markets; vast internal transport links; an important international business centre; plentiful housing for European civil servants; and an open economy. Furthermore, it was located on the border between the two major European civilisations, Latin and Germanic, and was at the centre of the first post-war integration experiment: the Benelux. As a capital of a small country, it also cannot claim to use the presence of institutions to exert pressure on other member states, it being more of a neutral territory between the major European powers. The Committee's report was approved of by the Council, Parliament and Commissions, however the Council was still unable to achieve a final vote on the issue and hence put off the issue for a further three years despite all the institutions now leading in moving to Brussels.

The decision was put off due to the varied national positions preventing a unanimous decision. Luxembourg fought to keep the ECSC or have compensation, France fought for Strasbourg and Italy, initially backing Paris, fought for any Italian city in order to thwart Luxembourg and Strasbourg. Meanwhile, Parliament passed a series of resolutions complaining about the whole situation of spreading itself across three cities, though unable to do anything about it.


The 1965 Merger Treaty was seen as an appropriate moment to finally resolve the issue, the separate Commissions and Councils were to be merged. Luxembourg, concerned about losing the High Authority, proposed a split between Brussels and Luxembourg. The Commission and Council in the former with Luxembourg keeping the Court and Parliamentary Assembly, together with a few of the Commissions departments. This was largely welcomed but opposed by France, not wishing to see the Parliament leave Strasbourg, and by Parliament itself which wished to be with the executives and was further annoyed by the fact it was not consulted on the matter of its own location.

Hence, the status quo was maintained with some adjustments; The Commission, with most of its departments, would be in Brussels. As would the Council, but in April, June and October it would meet in Luxembourg. In addition, Luxembourg would keep the Court of Justice, some of the Commission's departments and the secretariat of the European Parliament. Strasbourg would continue to host Parliament. Joining the Commission was the merged Council secretariat. The ECSC secretariat merged with the EEC's and EAEC's in the Ravenstein building which then moved to the Charlemagne buildingmarker, next to the Berlaymont, in 1971.

In Brussels, staff continued to be spread across a number of buildings, on the Rue Belliardstraat, Avenue de la Joyeuse Entrée/Blijde Inkomstlaan, Rue du Marais/Broekstraat and at Mont des Arts/Kunstberg. The first purpose built building was the Berlaymont buildingmarker in 1958, designed to house 3000 officials which soon proved too small, causing the institution to spread out across the neighbourhood.

Yet, despite the agreement to host these institutions in Brussels, its formal status was still inclear, and hence the city sought to strengthen its hand with major investment in buildings and infrastructure (including the Brussels Metro: Schuman stationmarker). However, these initial developments were sporadic with little town planning and based on speculation. (See: Brusselisation)

However the 1965 agreement was a source of contention for the Parliament which wished to be closer to the other institutions, it began moving some of its decision making bodies, committee and political group meetings to Brussels. In 1983 it went further by symbolically holding a plenary session in Brussels, in the basement of the Mont des Arts Congress Centre. However the meeting was a fiasco and the poor facilities partly discredited Brussels' aim of being the sole seat of the institutions. However, things looked up for Brussels when Parliament gained its own plenary chamber in Brusselsmarker (on Rue Wiertzstraat) in 1985 for some of its part-sessions. This was done unofficially due to the sensitive nature of the Parliaments seat, with the building being constructed under the name of an "international conference centre". The Parliament's half-move to Brussels was unsuccessful challenged by France in the Court of Justice, Parliament's victory led it to build full facilities in Brussels.

Edinburgh and the European Council

In response the Edinburghmarker European Council of 1992 adopted a final agreement on the location of the institutions. According to this decision, which was subsequently annexed to the Treaty of Amsterdam, the Parliament, although required to hold some of its sessions, including its budget session, in Strasbourg, extra sessions and committees could meet in Brussels. It also reaffirmed the presence of the Commission and Council in the city.

Shortly before this summit, the Commission moved into the Breydel buildingmarker. This was due to asbestos being discovered in the Berlaymont forcing its evacuation in 1989. The Commission threatened to move out of the city which would have destroyed Brussels's chances of hosting the Parliament, thus the government stepped in to build the Breydel next to Berlaymont in 23 months, ensuring the Commission could move in before the Edinburgh summit. Shortly after Edinburgh, Parliament bought its new building in Brussels. With the status of Brussels now clear, NGOs, lobbyists, advisory bodies and regional offices started basing themselves in the quarter near the institutions.

The Council, which has been expanding into further buildings as it grew, consolidated once more in the Justus Lipsius buildingmarker and in 2002 it was agreed that the European Council should also be based in Brussels, having been moving between different cities as the EU's Presidency rotated. From 2004 all Councils were meant to be held in Brussels, however some extraordinary meetings are still held elsewhere. The reason for the move was in part due to the experience of the Belgian police in dealing with protesters and the fixed facilities in Brussels.


The Commission employs 25,000 people and the Parliament employs about 5000 people. Because of this concentration, Brussels is a preferred location for any move towards a single seat for Parliament. Despite it not formally being the "capital" of the EU, some commentators see the fact that Brussels enticed an increasing number of Parliament's sessions to the city, in addition to the main seats of the other two main political institutions, as making Brussels the de facto capital of the EU. Brussels is frequently labelled as the 'capital' of the EU, particularly in publications by local authorities, the Commission and press. Indeed, Brussels interprets the 1992 agreement on seats (details below) as declaring Brussels as the capital.

There are two further cities hosting major institutions, Luxembourgmarker (Judicial and second seats) and Strasbourgmarker (Parliament's main seat). Authorities in Strasbourg and organisations based there also refer to Strasbourg as the "capital" of Europe and Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg are also referred to as the joint capitals of Europe.

Lobbyists and journalists

Like Washington D.C.marker, Brussels is a centre of political activity with ambassadors to Belgium, NATO and the Union being based in the city; with there being more ambassadors based in the city than in the US capital. There's also a greater number of press corps in Brussels with media outlets in every Union member-state having a Brussels correspondent and there are 10,000 lobbyists registered.

Of the 1200 accredited journalists in Brussels, 1000 are from outside Belgium, 120 of these are from Germanymarker alone (compared to 20-30 in Washington D.C.) however there has been a disproportionately small representation of US press in Brussels, with very few newspapers having correspondents based in the city.

Population density of Europe, Brussels is located between the largest urban centres


Brussels is located in the urban centre of Europe, located within the Flemish Diamond and in between Parismarker, Londonmarker, the Ruhr, and the Randstadmarker. Via high speed trains Brussels is around 1h35 from Parismarker, 2h from Londonmarker, 2h15 from Cologne (and the surrounding industrialised regions), 3h20 from Frankfurtmarker.

The 2h44 travel time to Amsterdammarker is expected to be significantly reduced with the opening of the new Schiphol - Antwerp High-Speed Line and the "Eurocap-rail" project plans to improve Brussels' links to the south to Luxembourg citymarker and Strasbourgmarker. Brussels is also served by Brussels Airportmarker, located in the nearby Flemish municipality of Zaventemmarker, and by the much smaller Brussels South Charleroi Airportmarker, located near Charleroimarker (Wallonia), some from Brussels.


Most of the institutions are located within the European Quarter of Brussels, which is the unofficial name of the area corresponding to the approximate triangle between Brussels Parkmarker, Cinquantenaire Parkmarker and Leopold Parkmarker (with the Parliament's hemicycle extending into the latter). The Commission and Council are located in the heart of this area near to the Schuman stationmarker at the Schuman roundaboutmarker on the Rue de la Loimarker. The European Parliament is located over the Brussels-Luxembourg stationmarker, next to Luxembourg Squaremarker.

The area itself was historically residential, an aspect which was rapidly lost as the institutions moved in. Historical and residential buildings, although still present, have been largely replaced by modern offices. These buildings were built not according to a high quality master plan or government initiative, but according to speculative private sector construction of office space, without which most buildings of the institutions would not have been built. However, due to Brussels's attempts to consolidate its position, there was large government investment in infrastructure in the quarter. Authorities are keen to stress that the previous chaotic development has ended, being replaced by planned architecture competitions and a master plan (see "future" below).

The quarter itself is highly centralised and criticised by some, for example Romano Prodi, for being an administrative ghetto isolated from the rest of the city (though this view is not shared by all). There is also a perceived lack of symbolism, with some such as Rem Koolhaas proposing that Brussels needs an architectural symbol to represent Europe (akin to the Eiffel Towermarker or Colosseummarker). Others do not think this is in keeping with the idea of the EU, with Umberto Eco viewing Brussels as a "soft capital"; rather than it being an "imperial city" of an empire, it should reflect the EU's position as the "server" of Europe. Despite this, the plans for redevelopment intend to deal with a certain extent of visual identity in the quarter.

Commission buildings

The Charlemagne building, the second largest building of the Commission housing its external relations departments
The most iconic structure is the Berlaymontmarker, the primary seat of the Commission. It was the first building to be constructed for the Community, originally built in the 1960s. It was designed by Lucien De Vestel, Jean Gilson, André Polak and Jean Polak and paid for by the Belgian government (who could occupy it if the Commission left Brussels). It was inspired by the UNESCOmarker headquarters building in Parismarker, designed as a four-pointed star on supporting columns, and at the time an ambitious design.

Originally built with flock asbestos, the building was renovated in the 1990s to remove it and renovate the ageing building to cope with enlargement. After a period of exile in the Breydel building on the Avenue d'Auderghem/Oudergemlaan, the Commission reoccupied the Berlaymont in 2005 and bought the building for 550 million euros.

The president of the Commissionmarker occupies the largest office, near the Commission's meeting room on the top (13th) floor. Although the main Commission building, it houses only 2,000 out of the 20,000 Commission officials based in Brussels. In addition to the Commissioners and their cabinets, the Berlaymont also houses the Commission's Secretariat-General and Legal Service.

Across the quarter the Commission occupies 865,000m² in 61 buildings with the Berlaymont and Charlemagne buildingsmarker the only ones over 50,000m². Due to the accession of 12 new members in 2004 and 2007 staff has risen by 2,250 demanding an extra 35,000m² of office space. There are concerns that further buildings within the district will create a "ghetto effect". In response to this problem the Commission has, since 2004, begun decentralising across the city to areas such as avenue de Beaulieulaan and rue de Genèvestraat in Everemarker (see below).

Other institutions

Across the Rue de la Loimarker from the Berlayont is the Justus Lipsius buildingmarker which houses the Council of the European Union and the European Council. The Council's secretariat had originally been based in the city centre, and then in the Charlemagne building joining the other European buildings centred on the Schuman roundabout. From 2013, the European Council will move info Résidence Palacemarker next door once it has been renovated and the Lex buildingmarker beyond that was occupied by the Council in 2007.

The Parliament's buildings, known as Espace Léopoldmarker, are located to the south between Leopold Park and Luxembourg Square, over Brussels-Luxembourg Stationmarker which is underground. The complex, known as the "Espace Léopold" (or "Leopoldsruimte" in Dutch), has two main buildings: Paul-Henri Spaak and Altiero Spinelli which cover 372,000 m². The complex is not the official seat of the Parliament with its work being split with Strasbourg (its official seat) and Luxembourg (its secretariat). However the decision making bodies of the Parliament, along with its committees and some of its plenary sessions, are held in Brussels to the extent that three quarters of its activity take place in Brussels. The Parliament buildings have recently been extended with the new D4 and D5 buildings being completed and occupied in 2007 and 2008. It is believed the complex now provides enough space for Parliament for the next ten to fifteen years with no major new building projects foreseen.

The Economic and Social Committeemarker and the Committee of the Regions together occupy the Delors building, which is next to Leopold Park and used to be occupied by the Parliament. They also use the office building Bertha von Suttner. Both buildings were named in 2006. Brussels also hosts two agencies, the European Defence Agency (located on Rue des Drapiers/Lakenweversstraat) and the Executive Agency for Competitiveness and Innovation - (in Madou Towermarker). There is also EUROCONTROL, a semi-EU air traffic control agency covering much of Europe and the Western European Union which is a non-EU military organisation which is merging into the EU's CFSP.

Demographics and economic impact

30% of the population of Brussels are from outside Belgium; of these, half are from other EU member states . About 3/5 of European Civil Servants live in the Brussels Capital Region with 63% in the communes around the European district. Half of civil servants are home owners. The institutions draw in, directly employed and employed by representatives, 50,000 people to work in the city. A further 20,000 people are working in Brussels due to the presence of the institutions (generating 2 billion a year) and 2000 foreign companies drawn into the city employ 80,000 multilingual locals.

In Brussels, there are 3.5 million square meters of occupied office space; half of this is taken up by the EU institutions alone, accounting for a quarter of available office space in the city. The majority of EU office space is concentrated in the Leopold quartermarker. Running costs of the EU institutions total €2 billion a year, half of which benefit Brussels directly, and a further €0.8 come from the expenses of diplomats, journalists etc. Business tourism in the city generates 2.2 million annual hotel room nights. There are thirty international schools (15,000 pupils run by 2000 employees) costing €99 million a year.



In September 2007, the Commissioner for Administrative Affairs Siim Kallas, together with Minister-President of the Brussels-Capital Region Charles Picqué, unveiled plans for rebuilding the district. It would involve new buildings (220,000m² of new office space) but also more efficient use of existing space. This is primarily through replacing numerous smaller buildings with fewer, larger, buildings.
The Rue de la Loi (pictured, 2009) is set to be rebuilt with taller and more open buildings.

In March 2009, a French-Belgian-British team led by French architect Christian de Portzamparc won a competition to redesign the rue de la Loi between Maelbeek Garden and Residence Palace in the east to the small ring in the west. Siim Kallas stated that the project, which would be put into action over a few a long period rather than all at once, would create a "symbolic area for the EU institutions" giving "body and soul to the European political project" and providing the Commission with extra office space. The road would be reduced from four lanes to two, and be returned to two way traffic (rather than all west-bound) and the architects proposed a tram line to run down the centre. A series of high rise buildings would be built on either side with three taller 'flag ship' high rises at the east end on the north side. Charles Picqué described the towers as "iconic buildings that will be among the highest in Brussels" and that "building higher allows you to turn closed blocks into open spaces." The tallest buildings will be up to 80 metres high, though most between 16 and 55, but the higher the building the further back it will be set from the road. The freed up space (some 180,000m²) would be given over to housing, shops, services and open spaces to give the area a more "human" feel. A sixth European School may also be built. On the western edge of the quarter, on the small ringmarker, there would be "gates to Europe" to add visual impact.

Given the delays and cost of the Berlaymont and other projects, the Commissioner emphasises that the new plans would offer "better value for money" and that the designs would be subject to an international architecture competition. He also pushed that controlling the buildings carbon footprint would be "an integral part of the programme". Charles Picqué has plans for a "new symbol of Europe" in the Quarter. This could be a ‘Maison de l‘Europe’ or 'Huis van Europa', acting as an emblem of Europe and back Brussels in its position as capital of Europe. This idea has also been touted by Commission President José Manuel Barroso who desires a "space reflecting the history of the European project". Parliament President Hans-Gert Pöttering wishes to use the Eastman Building, next to Leopold Parkmarker, as a House of Contemporary European History but has not yet won the backing of MEPs.

Pedestrian squares

There are also plans to pedestrianise of part of the Rue de la Loi/Wetstraat next to the Berlaymont. A new Place Schumanplein (currently the Schuman roundabout) would be one of three new pedestrian squares. Schuman would focus on "policy and politics" and Schuman stationmarker itself will be redesigned. Coverings over nearby motorways and railways would be extended to shield them from view.

A pedestrian and visual link would be created between the Berlaymont and Leopold park by demolishing sections of the ground to fourth floors of Justus Lipsius, the south "bland" façade of which would be redesigned. Further pedestrian and cycle links would be created around the quarter. Pedestrian routes would also be created for demonstrations. Next to the Parliament at Leopold Parkmarker, the block of buildings between Rue d’Arlon/Aarlenstraat and Rue de Trêves/Trierstraat would be removed, creating a broad boulevard-like extension of Luxembourg Squaremarker, the second pedestrian square (focusing on citizens).

The third pedestrian square would be the "Esplanade du Cinquantenaire" or "Esplanade van het Jubelpark" (for events and festivities). Wider development may also surround Cinquantenaire Parkmarker with plans for a new metro station, underground car park and the Europeanisation of part of the Cinquantenaire complex with a "socio-cultural facility". It is possible that the European Council may have to move to this area from Résidence Palacemarker for security reasons.

Further quarters

The concentration of offices in the main quarter has led to increase real estate prices due to the increased demand and reduced space. In response to this problem the Commission has, since 2004, begun decentralising across the city to areas such as avenue de Beaulieulaan ( ) in Auderghemmarker and rue de Genèvestraat ( ) in Everemarker. This has reduced price increases but it is still one of the most expensive areas in the city (295 per square metre, compared to €196 per on average). Neither Parliament or the Council have followed suit however and the policy of decentralisation is unpopular among the Commission's staff.
Centenary Palace at Heysel Park

Nevertheless, the Commission intends to develop two or three large "poles" outside the quarter, each greater than 100,000m². Heysel Parkmarker ( ) has been proposed as one of the new polls by the City of Brusselsmarker, which intends to develop the area as an international district regardless. The park, built around the Atomiummarker landmark, already hosts a European School, has the largest parking facilities in Belgium, a metro stationmarker, an exhibition hall and the 'Mini-Europemarker' park. The city intends to build an international conference centre with 3,500 seats and an "important commercial centre." The Commission will respond to the proposal in the first half of 2009.

As for the existing Beaulieu poll, which is to the south east of the main European quarter, there is a proposal to link it with the main quarter by covering the railway lines between Beaulieu and the European Parliament (the esplanademarker of which sits on top of the Brussels-Luxembourg railway stationmarker). Traffic on the lines is expected to increase creating environmental problems that would be solved by covering the lines. The surface would then be covered by flagstones, in the same manner as Parliament's esplanade, to create a pedestrial/cyclists walkway between the two districts. The plan proposes that this "promenade of Europeans" of 3720 metres be divided into areas dedicated to each of the member states.

Political status

Brussels' shown in red, along side the two other regions.
In 2007, problems in forming a government because of different opinions concerning a state reform increased support for the independence of Flanders by Flemish independentalists from Belgium. Belgium currently operates a complex federal system between Flanders (Dutch speaking) and Walloniamarker (French speaking) which has been criticised by some but the system has also been compared to the EU, as a "laboratory of Europe". The Brussels-Capital Regionmarker, however, is surrounded by Flanders, yet is predominantly French speaking and officially bilingual.

In the event of independence, the future status of the city is unknown and problematic, but some have suggested it become a "European capital district", like Washington D.C.marker or the Australian Capital Territorymarker, run by the EU rather than Flanders or Wallonia. However, unlike these it would also be likely that Brussels itself would be an EU member state. The possible status of Brussels as a "city state" has also been suggested by Charles Picqué, Minister-President of the Brussels-Capital Regionmarker, who sees a tax on the EU institutions as a way of enriching the city. However, the Belgian issue has very little discussion within the EU bodies.

It may also be supported by the political territory of the city extending into bordering municipalities in the Flemish Brabantmarker and Walloon Brabantmarker, these rich areas would not only make the city financially viable as an independent state but potentially give the city around 1.5 million inhabitants, an airportmarker and forestmarker within its boundaries and make it three or four times larger than the current capital region. A large and independent status may help Brussels in its claim as the capital of the EU.

See also


  1. Demey, 2007: 175-6
  2. Demey, 2007: 177
  3. The plan was that it would be a "European district" between France and Germany, and institutions would move when the status was agreed. But three years later Saarbrücken voted massively to rejoin West Germany, cancelling the European district plan and maintaining Luxembourg's position.
  4. Demey, 2007: 178-9
  5. Demey, 2007: 187
  6. Demey, 2007: 187-8
  7. Demey, 2007: 190-3
  8. The EIB moved to Luxembourg in 1965
  9. Demey, 2007: 193
  10. Demey, 2007: 196-8
  11. Demey, 2007: 199
  12. Demey, 2007: 205-6
  13. Demey, 2007: 207
  14. European Navigator Seat of the European Commission
  15. European Commission publication: Europe in Brussels 2007
  16. The European Quarter, Brussels-Europe Liaison Office (2008-07-20)
  17. Demey, 2007: 209-10
  18. Demey, 2007: 211-2
  19. Parliament's website
  20. Demey, 2007
  21. All above figures from E!Sharp magazine, Jan-Feb 2007 issue: Article "A tale of two cities".
  22. Demey, 2007: p.216-7
  23. Bertha von Suttner - a visionary European. Opening of Bertha von Suttner Building, Committee of the Regions – ECOSOC. Brussels, 8 March 2006
  24. The EESC and CoR building at 99-101 rue Belliardstraat renamed Jacques Delors Building
  25. Brussels' EU quarter set for 'spectacular' facelift, EurActive
  27. Buildings that speak ‘to Europe and the world', European Voice 12.03.09
  28. Brussel Nieuws. Brussel verruimd de horizon. Retrieved on 2007-12-11
  29. Promenade des Européens, EuroBru
  30. McKinsey CEO Calls for End of Belgium, Resigns Brussels Journal
  31. Crisis in Belgium: If Flanders Secedes Wallonia Disintegrates Brussels Journal

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