The Towers of Babel

The Towers of Babel

There’s one European Union subsidy that I always encourage constituents to claim. The European Parliament makes grants available for people to come and see its members at work. I suppose the idea is that the encounter might thaw the typical voter’s froideur toward Brussels but, in my experience, the effect is precisely the opposite.

The first thing that strikes the visitor is the monstrous scale. The European Parliament building in Brussels is vast, running the length of several blocks. During my first six months as an MEP, I was forever turning up late to meetings because a part of my brain simply could not accept that it might take fifteen minutes to walk somewhere under the same ceiling.

If you ever traveled behind the Iron Curtain, you’ll remember that the Soviets were fond of using space to signify status—possibly because it was one of the few commodities that they had in plentiful supply. In like vein, the European Parliament has dozens of unused protocol rooms and antechambers and broad corridors lined with portraits and empty reception areas and echoing salons.

A similarly grandiose spirit infuses its security procedures, which seem primarily intended to impress and subdue visitors. Getting into the European Parliament involves waiting and handing over your passport and waiting again and having yourself photographed and waiting some more and then getting a nifty little badge. Dozens of uniformed guards are involved, and very nice people they are. But the security they provide is decorative rather than functional. There have been three robberies in the time I have been an MEP, the most recent of which involved the theft of thousands of euros from the European Parliament’s post office by a gunman.

By way of contrast, consider the diamond exchange in the neighboring town of Antwerp. I struggle to think of any bourse on earth that contains more moveable loot, and yet security there rests with a single guard and an airtight door. That’s the difference between the private and public sectors. The diamond merchants, paying with their own money, employ one impassable man. The MEPs, paying with their constituents’ money, have cohorts of men in uniform, but their building remains permeable.

There’s a theory that you should sell stock in a company whose headquarters become too ostentatious. Any investor applying that theory to the European Parliament would be panicking by now. As public approval for the European Union has plummeted—and, even according to the official Brussels pollster, Eurostat, it is at a record low—E.U. institutions have become more and more lavish. There are uniformed ushers in every corridor, chauffeurs to ferry the MEPs back and forth, thousands of personal assistants, and thousands more permanent staff. It’s almost as though MEPs are trying to convince themselves that they still matter, despite the disdain in which they are held outside.

This disdain can be gauged empirically, at least on one measure. There have been eight direct elections to the European Parliament, and every single one has seen a lower participation rate than the previous one. Turnout has declined, in an unbroken slide, from 62 percent in 1979 to 43 percent in 2014.

Once inside the building, though, you barely have to think of the voters beyond. Here is a little self-contained world, with a hairdresser, several banks, a dry cleaner, a supermarket, a newsstand, and all the rest. You come in through what was in effect a side door—land subsidence obliged the architects to alter their original plan for a grander entrance when the building was opened in 1994—and, like Alice in the rabbit hole, you find yourself in a separate universe.

Except that, compared to the European Parliament, Lewis Carroll’s milieu was logical, ordered, and modest. These buildings are rather more like—if such a thing can be imagined—Franz Kafka trying his hand at Harry Potter. There is even a floor five and a half, which can be accessed by a special elevator from floor five.

The European Parliament, in short, is the European Union’s objective correlative: the thing that expresses, in physical form, the project’s abstract flaws. Prodigal, labyrinthine, constantly expanding, and wanting any sense of proportion, it is the perfect symbol of the whole Euro-racket.

The symbolism becomes apter with every step you take. From the outside, the building looks impressive enough, even if lacking in human scale. The visitor is slightly overawed, just as he is meant to be. You can imagine political leaders from, say, Macedonia coming here and saying to themselves, “Crikey, this thing is serious: maybe we’d be better off on the inside.”

Once you get in, though, you find that things don’t work nearly as well as you’d expected. The lifts are slow, the corridors badly laid out, and it costs a great deal more than you’d been led to believe.

All these things are doubly true—for once the phrase is exactly apposite—because the European Parliament in Brussels is replicated in Strasbourg. Everything is done in duplicate: the semi-circular chamber, the MEPs’ suites, the permanent staff offices, the interpreters’ booths, the chauffeurs’ room, the restaurants and bars (there are, by my count, nineteen such in the two buildings).


The European Parliament in Brussels. via

One of the grievances that Thomas Jefferson laid against George III in the Declaration of Independence had to do with the location of parliamentary assemblies: “He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant . . .”

Well, George III had nothing on the European Union. The European Parliament meets mainly in Brussels, but must hold twelve legislative sessions a year in Strasbourg. It also has a third formal seat—again, complete with semi-circular chamber, etc.—in Luxembourg, for reasons that are too complicated to explain here.

Every month sees a mass exodus from the Belgian capital to the handsome Alsatian town. It’s not just the 700 MEPs who move, but the committee clerks, the interpreters, the chap who advises your secretary about how her pension works—the whole circus. At the same time, fleets of trucks carry trunks back and forth, emitting clouds of the carbon that MEPs keep legislating against in every other context.

Why the trunks? Well, they date from the analogue age, when MEPs needed to move their files with them. Nowadays, of course, the trunks are redundant: we have computers in our offices which, when switched on in one place, pick up precisely where they left off in the other. But, in a neat metaphor for the entire E.U. scam, a labor force has grown up around transporting the trunks. There are lorry drivers and removal men and administrators whose livelihood depends upon the monthly peregrination. And the European Union, as we all know, exists primarily to employ its employees. And so, month after month, the empty trunks are shuttled back and forth—with, just occasionally, an assistant’s washbag or pair of shoes inside.

Why meet in Strasbourg at all? Well, if the European Union’s first function is to look after its bureaucrats, its second is to keep the French happy. Strasbourg was originally chosen because it symbolized Franco-German reconciliation. A Francophone island in German-speaking countryside, the city has changed hands four times since 1870.

Both neighboring countries—or, rather, politicians in both countries—like the symbolism as well as the convenience, and are determined to keep the Strasbourg sessions. In 1992, the French even managed to write a clause into the treaties specifying that there must be twelve plenary meetings in Strasbourg every year. No one could remember having agreed to such a thing in the negotiations, but it somehow found its way into the final text.

Of course, MEPs could simply meet in Strasbourg permanently and cut out Brussels. But that idea is heretical to believers in a United States of Europe, who want to concentrate all their government bodies in one federal capital. For them, spreading out the institutions among different countries is a throwback to the idea that the European Union was a club of nations rather than a superstate-in-the-making. Many of them dream of Brussels eventually transcending the nation-state, and becoming a kind of Vatican City. If Belgium were to break into separate Flemish and Walloon states, they believe, then Brussels—which doesn’t fit neatly into either Flanders or Wallonia—could become a kind of Washington, D.C. under direct European Union jurisdiction.

The Brussels and Strasbourg parliaments, though both monstrous, differ architecturally. Strasbourg is the more menacing in appearance—if for no other reason than its uncanny resemblance to Bruegel’s Tower of Babel. The shape and scale of the two edifices is so similar that there is a long-standing rumor to the effect that the architect was directly inspired by the Flemish master’s work, now hanging in Vienna. Be that as it may, the parallel is eerily apt. The Tower of Babel was a symbol of the overweening ambition of which human beings are capable. It was brought down, as the European Union will eventually be, by irreconcilable differences among peoples who spoke different languages.

How long must we wait for that happy outcome? It’s hard to say. There is, as Adam Smith observed, a deal of ruin in a nation—or in a union. Plenty of powerful interest groups are making a handy living out of the European Union: not just the Eurocrats, but the NGOs and charities and big corporations and consultants and contractors who parasitize it. Milton Friedman was on to something when he wrote of “the tyranny of the status quo.”

Still, the day must eventually come when the European Union and its institutions are one with Nineveh and Tyre. Perhaps the buildings might be put to more productive use: I’ve always thought that they have the right sort of dimensions to be universities. Perhaps they will be preserved as monuments to the megalomania that seized Europe’s leaders in the second half of the twentieth century. Perhaps— particularly in Brussels, which will soon have a majority Muslim population—they might be turned into madrassas. Or perhaps they will simply be left to crumble, like the statue of Ozymandias.

So, if you get the chance, visit them while you still can. Look upon the European Union’s works. And despair.


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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 6, on page 28
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