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Brussels is complicated, but the EU institutions too

An interview with Mr. Alain Hutchinson, Brussels Commissioner for Europe.

By: N. Peter Kramer - Posted: Monday, April 27, 2015

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by N. Peter Kramer


At the beginning of this year, in its pursuit to strengthen its role as the Capital of Europe, the Government of Brussels’ Capital Region decided to appoint a ‘Brussels Commissioner for Europe and International Organisations’, Alain Hutchinson. 

Mr Hutchinson calls the initiative to maintain and further develop the direct relations between the regional government, the EU institutions and the numerous other international organisations based in Brussels, only logical after nearly sixty years of European and international presence in Belgium’s capital. Up to now it was the Federal State of Belgium that had the exclusive and official prerogative of representing Brussels interests in its Host Nation Policy. However, after six successive reforms of the Belgium State into a federal state with three regions, the Brussels Capital Region will formally participate in this Host Nation Policy via its own commissioner. Goals will be met by simplifying processes and raising efficiency in issues which Brussels faces as the host region. 

‘Our mission is to welcome all EU institutions and international organisations on Brussels territory and ensure their deployment in harmony with the development of the Brussels Capital Region and the needs of its 1.2 million inhabitants’, according to Hutchinson. Balancing these two sometimes conflicting interests will not always be easy; but as a former Member of the European Parliament he knows ‘Europe’ and as a former regional and local politician the Brussels side of the coin.  

Given that EU institutions and international organisations, ranging from NATO to all kinds of NGO’s, count for 17 percent of employment and for 10% of the GDP in the Brussels region, it is clear how important the presence of all these organisations is. But their presence over the years also caused friction with Brussels inhabitants, especially in that part of the city now known as the ‘European Quarter’, around Rond-point Schuman and Place Luxembourg. Many rows of nice houses in good condition have been pulled down to make way for dull high rise office blocs. Restaurants, bars, shops in the European Quarter are closed for the weekend resulting in empty and deathly silent streets and squares where no sign of life can be found.  To bring this part of Brussels back to life is one of the challenges for Commissioner Hutchinson. Born and bred In the Belgian capital, he is optimistic and points to new apartment buildings springing up in the area. The beginning of the return of residents to the European Quarter is visible.

Place Luxembourg: a good example

Place Luxembourg, in front of the megalomaniacal buildings of the European Parliament, is more or less the lively entrance of the European Quarter coming from the direction of the historic city center. On ‘Place Lux’ (as it is called by the users) the Parlamentarium is situated, the visitors center of the EP. It took 6 years to build it at a cost of €21 million.  In 2014 the centre attracted 360.000 visitors and became the 3rd most visited attraction of Brussels. At the moment the House of European History is in the making. After long deliberations European History will start in 1946; European history before this year is ‘too complicated’ to show, was the conclusion of the EP committee responsible for the preparation. Anyhow, it will bring even more visitors to the area.  

‘Place Lux’ is lively and busy during the week, with a peak after 5 pm on Thursday when hundreds of parliamentarians and their staffers are celebrating the end of the workweek and no traffic is possible on the roundabout. However the square doesn’t have the modern contemporary look users and visitors may expect. One of the projects for the Brussels Commissioner is to coordinate a real upgrade:  regulations for bars and restaurants, the centre of the square needs a thorough rethink and proper signalisation for the busy traffic is also much needed. 

‘Brussels is complicated, but the EU institutions too..’

Mr. Hutchinson agrees that Brussels is a complicated administration, 19 independent municipalities which make up one of Belgium’s regions, Brussels-Capital Region. Nevertheless the agreement is that the Commissioner will act as single point of contact for all EU institutions and international organisations. He will be consulted on any public authority project of the region. ‘But’, the Commissioner says, ‘the EU institutions are also complicated. I discovered that there was not much of coordination between them regarding Brussels subjects. They are used to each talking for them themselves with Brussels.’ All the more reason for him to start a regular high level contact with European Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva and the Secretary-Generals of the European Parliament and the European Council around his table. ‘We decided to meet every half a year, next time will be in September; such a high level contact smoothes the way for the civil servants to organise and execute the practical work’.  

Important role for Press-Club Brussels Europe

‘Brussels is the largest press centre in the world and currently includes 945 journalists accredited with the European Commission and the European Parliament and approximately 270 accredited members of the “technical press” (cameramen, photographers, etc.), totalling some 1.250 people working in international media in Brussels. During European summits these numbers increase and between 1200 and 1700 journalists apply for accreditation with the Council’, the Commissioner states. ‘Unfortunately a number of media organisations believe that European affairs can be covered just as well from their national desks and seem reluctant to keep their correspondents in Brussels. I think this is a mistake. There is an enormous wealth and variety of first-hand information and contacts on hand here in Brussels. The importance of the Press-Club Brussels-Europe in this matter is unquestionable. Although still very young it must become the global Brussels media hub where not only journalists meet, but where lots of other people gather and can interact : policy makers, business people, diplomats, etc  For this reason, the initiative to create a “diplomatic platform” is more than welcome; a forum where the EU is at the heart of the debate, but where the ties with Brussels should be emphasized whenever possible.”

The Expat Welcome Desk 

Commissioner Hutchinson didn’t want to forget to mention at the end of the interview the Expat Welcome Desk: a free, independent and public service offering assistance with any practical or legal problem to people who settle in the Brussels Capital Region as part of their activities within and around the EU and international organisations. 

How to contact the Expat Welcome Desk of the Brussels Commissioner? Call +32 (0) 2 430 6614 or mail info@commissioner.brussels and ask for an appointment.    


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