Come, walk through the EQ!

May 12, 2024

Come with us on a walk through the European Quarter of Brussels. 

The European Parliament elections are looming next month (June 6-9), so we ought to know a little about how ‘Brussels’ works and what we are voting for. Admittedly, the workings of the EU institutions can seem distant, foreign and boring. Yet so much happens there that shapes our European way of life, whether we realise it or not.

Our votes for the decision makers – or lack of votes – will influence the values by which tomorrow’s Europe will be shaped. If we do not exercise our right and duty to vote, surely we have no grounds to criticise ‘Brussels’. So, let’s tag along in the footsteps of those who joined our walk through the EQ prior to the opening of the 2024 State of Europe Forum on Friday.

The first question you may ask is how Brussels became the EU capital. To which we could answer: geographical proximity would make Brussels an obvious choice. Belgium is a small, non-threatening land bordering four of the five other founding states: France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

However it never was actually chosen. Once the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was established in 1951, temporary arrangements were made to house the offices and gatherings in Luxembourg and Strasbourg. After the ECSC was expanded into the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1958, it was decided to rotate the chairmanship of the new institutions among the ministers of each of the six member states (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and The Netherlands). As the first in alphabetical order, Belgium went first. 


Berlaymont Convent, just east of Brussel’s city centre, had spacious gardens offering room for expansion. So it became the site of a large 13-storey cross-shaped building, still known today by the original name, for housing offices. Over time, the six member states, then nine, then twelve, then fifteen, were unable to decide which city this capital should be. Rotating staff and departments to other countries was realised to be impractical. So, by default, Brussels became the permanent capital of the EU – because Belgium starts with the letter B!

Berlaymont is now the headquarters of the European Commission, the first of the three EU institutions we visit. The Commission is the executive branch of the EU, led by President Ursula von der Leyen who lives and works on the 13th floor. Politically independent, the commission proposes new legislation and implements the decisions of the other two main institutions, the Council of the European Union, and the European Parliament.  

Initially the Commission shared the building with the Council and the Parliament, but as the EEC expanded, became the European Community and later the European Union, the institutions separated and spread into other buildings in what is now called the European Quarter. 

We now cross the Schuman Place roundabout from Berlaymont to the Justus Lipsius Building, named after a Flemish philosopher. This has housed both the European Council (composed of heads of governments and states) and the Council of the EU (made up of the cabinet ministers of member states and their counterparts – e.g. finance, agriculture, environment…). These functions now spill out into nearby buildings too. As the European Council, heads of states or governments together define the EU’s general political direction and priorities. They do not, however, adopt EU legislation. That is the task of the cabinet ministers meeting as the Council of the EU.

[Just to make it more confusing, the Council of Europe (CoE), set up in 1949 to protect human rights, democracy and the rule of law, is not an EU institution. Based in Strasbourg, the CoE now has 46 member states after Russia’s expulsion following the invasion of Ukraine in 2022.]

Discussions and debates

A downhill walk from Schuman Place leads us to the wrought-iron gates of Leopold Park, where we make the short gentle climb towards the House of European History. The secular narrative told in this museum begins with Greek mythology and jumps over the centuries of Europe’s Christian conversion to the Enlightenment, overlooking the true source, inspiration and soul of Europe’s identity, cultures and values.

As we crest the rise beyond the museum, the conglomerate of buildings housing the European Parliament (EP) appears above the trees. The EP is the only directly-elected EU institution and represents over 450 million European citizens. Much work is carried out here in transnational, cross-party committees, while the most important debates and voting occurs in the plenary chamber, or Hemicycle (see photo above). 

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) – for whom we will be voting shortly – debate and decide on proposals from the Commission. Legislation has to be passed by both the EP and the Council of the EU before becoming EU law. 

At the heart of this constant process of European democracy are discussions and debates, in 24 languages (!), seeking to arrive at consensus for the welfare of all in Europe and beyond. As Winston Churchill once said: “Jaw, jaw, jaw is better than war, war, war.”

So let’s take our privilege and responsibility to vote next month seriously.

Till next week,

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