I Have Seen the Future of Europe …

I Have Seen the Future of Europe …

I Have Seen the Future of Europe …

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Feb. 16 1997 3:30 AM

I Have Seen the Future of Europe …

And it looks a lot like bureaucratic Belgium, home of the European Union.

The Eurocrats were thinking ahead when they made Brussels the "Capital of Europe," headquarters of the emerging European Union. Though practically unknown in the United States, the union is one of Europe's biggest stories, an important organization trying to establish itself as a sort of metagovernment for European states. Entertainingly, the European Union is perhaps the sole bureaucracy left in the world that admits that its goal is to expand. And what better place to locate this new enterprise than Brussels, which may be a living preview of the Europe to come: swathed in red tape and pomp, paralyzed by constituency politics, declining at great cost. The European Union couldn't have picked a better home.

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Belgian politics enjoy none of the rowdy intellectual contention of the United Kingdom, none of the nuance-loving literary polemics of France, not even a strong national identity. The primary issue in public debate is who gets what benefits, and while commerce and money are gods, neither is served particularly well. The national infrastructure is fraying, with little renewal: Belgians have a high per-capita income and spend it generously on cars and dining, but what Rousseau called the esprit social seems lacking. Crumbling, generic, enervated, debt-ridden, materialistic ... is this Europe's future?

Brussels is a place where you can take your dog into a restaurant, but not your kids. Where a best-selling product, in an ostensibly Catholic country, is Judas beer. (My proposed slogan: "Taste you can trust.") Where there's no such thing as takeout coffee with lids. Anyone who wants coffee must sit languidly in a cafe, gradually feeling overcome with lethargy and despair.

Other European atmospherics: lobster bisque for sale from sidewalk vendors; excellent public transportation; monumental traffic jams of expensive cars crowding small streets; bare breasts common in advertisements and at beaches, miniskirts being considered acceptable attire for professional women (when, oh when will these enlightened attitudes reach the United States?); notably more pollution than in the United States; notably more government, running higher deficits; lots of well-cared-for historic buildings, such as the built-in-the-14th-century church I attend with my family; prices far too high, except for wine and flowers, which are cheap (European staples, you know); large cemeteries, where thousands of U.S. soldiers rest beneath uniform stone markers; and ubiquitous fresh bread and great chocolates.

Many tongues are spoken here, but multilingualism serves mainly to delineate constituent groups, not to facilitate communication. Southern Belgium, called Wallonia, is French; the northern portion, Flanders, is Dutch. The civic sphere is entirely bilingual, down to abbreviations: Buses and trams are brightly labeled MIVB/STIB, the transit-agency acronyms in French and Flemish. But bilingualism doesn't seem to do much to bring people together. In the Flemish parts of town, most people would rather hear English than French, and in the French sections, Flemish is rarely welcome. Until recently, Belgian politics were dominated by an aging Francophone aristocracy, whose wealth was secured by Wallonian mines. But mining is a dying industry throughout Europe, and Wallonia now produces only 13 percent of Belgium's exports, vs. 68 percent for Flanders. The Flemish have jumped into electronics, trading, and other growth sectors, while the Walloons have stagnated, devoting their energies to demanding more benefits. Their economic power on the rise, the Flemish have pressured for a dominant position in politics. The result is an uneasy compromise giving Flanders and Wallonia semiautonomy.

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Public strikes, particularly ones blocking traffic and commerce, are a regular event here, making it somewhat of a mystery how Belgium maintains its high living standard. In the past year, teachers, students, firefighters, civil servants, airline workers, and others have closed off large sections of Brussels to chant for higher benefits. Ground crews for Sabena, the national flag carrier, ran amok during a 1996 strike day at the airport, smashing the terminal's glass walls and doing millions of francs worth of damage, then demanding more money from the very government that was going to have to pay for the repairs.

What are the protesters striking about? Typical working conditions in Belgium include retirement at 60 or younger, full pay for 32 hours of work, six weeks' paid vacation, and essentially unlimited sick days. Much more than high wages (which a profitable enterprise can bear), such work rules are what stymie the continent's economies, with overall Western European unemployment now at 10.9 percent, double the U.S. figure.

Yet, sympathy is usually with strikers, and cowed politicians give in to almost all demands from almost all quarters. Polls repeatedly show that majorities think government should give the workers more, a legacy of the European class system. Europe is plagued by families that have been filthy rich for generations--based on no useful contribution to society. And a residue of estates reminds voters of the landed gentry's historic role as parasites. But the link between government giving the workers more, and taxes and public debt rising, does not seem to have sunk in on this side of the Atlantic, except perhaps in the United Kingdom, where, perhaps not coincidentally, unemployment is relatively low.

As in most of Europe, state-sanctioned monopolies drag down Belgian economic activity, and government barriers to entrepreneurs are much worse than anywhere in America. Sabena loses money even though it has government-protected air routes, a high percentage of business flyers, and the highest seat-mile prices in Europe.

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The ossified state of European telecom monopolies would stun American Webheads. One reason Slate is not a national obsession in Europe (as, of course, it is in the United States) is that Internet use remains a luxury here. The phone monopolies have priced out 800 access. Belgacom charges 5 cents per minute for connections to any Internet service provider, making the connection more expensive than the provider's service. Ten years ago Robert Reich, having seen the French Minitel experiment, warned that Europe would beat the United States to the next communication revolution--instead, U.S. Web entrepreneurs left Europe in the dust. Now European telecoms and communication bureaucrats spend their energies on blocking innovation and searching for ways to monopolize a new enterprise whose entire soul is decentralization.

These rapacious European phone monopolies have given birth to independent call-back services. Once registered, you dial a number in the United States, where a computer with caller-ID recognizes you after one ring. You hang up to avoid a Belgacom charge, and the computer calls you back, providing you with a stateside dial tone so you can dial as if you were in the United States. Call-back services allow me to call the United States for 70 cents a minute, vs. the $2.60-per-minute Belgacom charge, and make it cheaper to call Antwerp--just 40 miles away--via California than directly. Naturally, European governments want to tax call-back services out of existence. Supposedly, the European telecom market will deregulate in 1999, and in anticipation of being phaser-blasted by true competition, Belgacom just sold 45 percent of itself to a consortium led by Ameritech. Foreign managers will now be blamed for cutting the deadwood.

In a sense, all European governments are angling to shift the blame for financial reality onto someone else via the euro. In theory, national currencies such as the pound, mark, and lira will all disappear, replaced by one universal tender. A unified currency makes economic sense, but trade efficiency is only one motive for many governments. Participation in the new currency requires nations to cut their national debt below 3 percent of GDP. A dirty little secret of Western Europe is that it has gone further into hock than the United States. U.S. public debt was down to 1.4 percent of GDP in 1996, and may drop below 1 percent this fiscal year. Germany, France, and Belgium all are running public debts at 3 percent or more, and Italy is at 7.4 percent. European national leaders know they've got to tackle their deficits, but none of them wants the heat for cutting featherbedding or generous social-payment systems. So the euro plan allows them to blame foreign interests for required reductions.

But will the spooky level of Belgian corruption rub off on the euro? Observers consider Belgium the second-most corrupt European state, trailing only Italy. Last year, the Belgian secretary-general of NATO had to quit over charges that his Flemish Socialist Party accepted $50 million in bribes from a defense contractor. Police recently arrested two other top politicians and raided the headquarters of the French Socialist Party in connection with bribes from another defense firm.

The European Union's Eurocrats have worthy ideas, such as persuading the continent's governments to agree on harmonious environmental and immigration policies. But the real overriding goal of the union and its executive arm, the European Commission (there's also a European Parliament here, but we can skip that), is self-aggrandizement. In conversations, Eurocrats are frank about their maneuvering for more money and empire: to wrest "competence," or jurisdiction, away from national governments and vest it in Brussels is the open objective.

The union's command center is a cathedral to bureaucratic power, the only diplomatic structure I've ever been in that actually looks the way Hollywood depicts diplomatic life. At State Department headquarters in Foggy Bottom, paint is peeling in the halls and people with titles like "deputy director" work in chintzy little Dilbert cubicles. At the marble-clad European Union headquarters, even midlevel Eurocrats have large, plush suites with leather chairs and original artwork on the walls. Ranks of big black-glass BMWs and Mercedes limos are parked at the structure's circular drive, motors wastefully idling. Landing a job in the Brussels Eurocracy has become the career goal of many of Europe's best graduates.

The European Union's behavior synchs with its opulent circumstances. Meetings are held in secret, and few public-disclosure regulations apply. This is the future of European government? Just how competent the new organization may be is on display at Berlaymont, the first European Commission headquarters. Forerunner of the current sumptuous building, this vast skyscraper now sits near the center of Brussels unoccupied, its entire outer structure swathed in heavy tarpaulin. Berlaymont has been closed for nine years after an asbestos scare and a botched cleanup: European taxpayers have paid $50 million so far merely to keep the building closed, with air pumps running around the clock to prevent any fibers from wafting out. A mountain of scientific studies has shown that asbestos in walls is almost never dangerous: The only dangerous thing is trying to rip it out because that causes fibers to become airborne--exactly what has happened at Berlaymont. And if the European Union can't manage its continent any better than it manages its own buildings ...

Fortunately, Berlaymont isn't in my neighborhood, but a patisserie is. Bakeries are easier to find than gas stations in Brussels, and the neon bakery sign I can see from my office window often calls out to me the way signs for cocktail lounges once called out to earlier generations of writers. Think I'll answer now.