Visit: Espace Léopold, Brussels

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This past week I flew to Brussels to visit my sister in Mons and spend a few days in and around Brussels centre / Espace Léopold (the complex of European Parliament buildings).

The European Parliament in Brussels has existed since 1985, though the formal seat of the European Parliament is in Strasbourg. The second seat was built in Brussels in order to facilitate closer relations with the European Commission and Council who were already located here. Brussels is now home to the majority of European Parliament operations and despite the official seat being in Strasbourg, the most sessions take place in Brussels. 12 sessions a year take place in Strasbourg which means that the MEPs and staff travel frequently between the two locations; a somewhat traveling circus. Surprisingly, during my visit I learned that the biggest expense for the European Parliament is not in the travel between the locations (which is 23% of overall costs) but actually in the interpretation and translation required in live parliamentary sessions and documentation (34% of yearly costs).

The Espace Leopold is located to the east of the historic centre of Brussels in the Leopold Quarter. This area of the city is sometimes referred to as the European Quarter as it is home to the parliament and a mass of other institutions involved in the running of the EU.

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Thankfully, due to the recess of the European Parliament between the summer months of July and September, access around the parliamentary buildings was very much open - a completely different experience to that which I experienced in Westminster during recess. As there was no necessity to pre-book onto any of the tours in order to access the buildings, I took a leisurely stroll around the perimeter of the complex before locating the Hemicycle (debating chamber) tour.

The main group of European Parliament buildings sit upon the Brussels-Luxembourg Railway Station. This station used to run at the road level of Luxembourg Square, the public square adjacent to the official entrance to the station. The entrance facade was the only aspect of the station which was retained during construction of the new Parliament. The railway line was moved underground and the historic track lines are now depicted in the surface slabs and drainage channels of the esplanade which runs roughly north-south throughout the Espace Leopold. The Paul-Henri Spaak building (housing the Hemicycle) at the East of the site which borders Parc Leopold, was built upon the old Leopold Brewery site. This building was initially constructed as an international conference centre before being taken over by the Parliament.

 The Brussels-Luxembourg Station entrance with Brasserie Leopold behind circa 1970  (Source: European Parliament Multimedia Centre)

The Brussels-Luxembourg Station entrance with Brasserie Leopold behind circa 1970

(Source: European Parliament Multimedia Centre)

Above: Photos of the construction of Espace Leopold showing the Brussels-Luxembourg station moving underground

(Source: European Parliament Multimedia Centre)

  Luxembourg Square looking towards the Station Europe entrance

Luxembourg Square looking towards the Station Europe entrance

  Tourist in Agora Simone Veil

Tourist in Agora Simone Veil

  Old railway tracks shown in grey slabs and drainage channels on the central Agora Simone Veil

Old railway tracks shown in grey slabs and drainage channels on the central Agora Simone Veil

Once I had taken a quick recce of the surroundings of the Espace Leopold, I made my way to the Paul-Henri Spaak building which contains the Hemicycle chamber. Airport style security and a quick ID check greets visitors and then a few sets of stairs await before meeting a central atrium space which contains: visitor information in every possible language, a selfie machine, and a few models of the complex. From here a lift can be taken to the several floors of the building. I took the lift to the fourth floor where the Hemicycle is. Once on this floor you can walk to a balcony which overlooks the central atrium of the Paul-Henri Spaak building. The atrium contains a large steel sculpture which was designed to depict the interconnections between all European Union citizens. From here I could see the remainder of parliamentary staff scurrying around throughout the building.

I grabbed an audio tour device from outside the Hemicycle chamber and made my way inside through one of the numerous doors around the periphery. These doorways enter onto a tiered balcony which looks over the main floor of the chamber. The term hemicycle refers to the horseshoe style layout of the seating inside which has remained as the layout ever since the EU Parliament began. My first thought on this space was that it was rather dark, but as it was over 30 degrees outside, the lack of glazing was probably a blessing. In comparison to the chambers at Westminster, the space was much more open, the furniture less compacted and the ceiling design allowed for sound to make its way around the space easily.

The tour guide informed us that the EU Parliament are currently in discussions about renovating or rebuilding the entirety of the Paul-Henri Spaak building as it has nearly reached its 25 year life-cycle and apparently does not meet EU safety standards (!?). Proposals to rebuild have come about due to the costly nature and difficulty of reinforcing the existing structure. The main argument behind this is that the building itself wasn't purpose built, it was constructed as an international conference center before the Parliament took it over. I was quite surprised when we were told this as from first perceptions the building, or even the complex as a whole, doesn't feel in any way in need of repair but obviously the day-to-day experience of the staff working there will be different. I will be interested to see what the final decision is (especially alongside the decision to refurbish the Palace of Westminster as oppose to leave it).

  The Hemicycle Chamber

The Hemicycle Chamber

  Hemicycle seating

Hemicycle seating

  Accumulated audio tour stickers on the way out of the Paul-Henri Spaak building

Accumulated audio tour stickers on the way out of the Paul-Henri Spaak building

The next couple of days I spent around the Espace Leopold I tried to get a better understanding of the complex. Overall I think that the public space and the proximity within which you can get to and around the buildings is great. Security is obviously important, but I think the design of the public space, particularly the way the esplanade cuts through the complex work really well. The esplanade wasn't particularly busy with anyone other than tourists at the time I was there and it has gained criticism for being a dead space, but I was informed that they hold up to 40 events on the space each year. The fact that it is there, right in the centre of the complex, is the most important aspect in my opinion. At Westminster, spaces of political expression are all across the road from the Palace and could easily be ignored by those inside. Here, the main public space is at the centre with Luxembourg Square also used for demonstrations. Based on the photographs of protests and demonstrations available from the European Parliament Multimedia Centre, it is unclear as to whether protests are allowed in the central agora as there are some photos showing riot police preventing this - I think this may be when the parliament is in session or there is expected violence. This was the case during a protest by the European Milk Farmers in 2012 where protesters sprayed milk at riot police and fires were made around the complex.

Above: Photographs of protests and events taking place on the esplanade and around the Espace Leopold (Source: European Union Multimedia Centre)

Tom Ardron