On a blustery afternoon, three German tourists emerge from the Brussels metro, seeking the very heart of Europe in all its grandeur.
Puzzled, the visitors re-check a map that flaps furiously in the wind. Could this unkempt roundabout really be the home of the EU, that great European project born out of the horrors of World War II?
Sophie, a student from Berlin, is visibly alarmed at the “Office for Let” signs that dominate what she assumed would be a more worthy crossroads for world geopolitics, akin to Washington’s National Mall, or Moscow’s Red Square.
“It isn’t interesting. It’s nothing really. It’s just buildings, signs. I can’t imagine that this is where politics goes on,” she said, slowly taking it in.
Welcome to the Schuman roundabout (also known as ‘Piazza Schuman’), the traffic-snarled home of the core institutions of the 28-nation European Union.
>>Read: Piazza Schuman!
They include the hulking glass-and-steel Berlaymont, headquarters of the European Commission, and the flavourless Justus Lipsus, built in 1995, where EU leaders meet late into the night several times a year, in order to discuss crises like Greece, and the refugee crisis.
“It’s ugly today. What should be the most emblematic square in Europe, what is the most televised place in Europe, is unfortunately not a place that tourists want to spend any time in,” said Pascal Smet, the Brussels transport minister who is in charge of revamping Schuman.
“The roundabout doesn’t give Brussels a good image, nor Europe in fact,” he said.
A new hope
There is some light at the end of the tunnel for the area, which is named after the EU’s founding father, Frenchman Robert Schuman.
After eight agonisingly slow years of work, the new Schuman underground and railway stations are due to be opened by Belgium’s King Philippe in December.
It will include a new direct line to Brussels Airport, which officials hope will give the area a boost — even if many think it will just enable the 40,000 eurocrats who work around Schuman to flee the city even more quickly at the week’s end.
Schuman “will soon be a calling card for Brussels and for the European Union,” said Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva, a former World Bank economist from Bulgaria, who is in charge of dealings with the city.
Alain Hutchinson, a former MEP, who is in charge of the city’s relations with the EU, said there was real hope Georgieva could change things as she was “not afraid to take decisions” that would build links between the EU and Brussels.
In fact the story of the Schuman roundabout, as with so many things both Belgian and EU-related, is one of byzantine governance and haphazard planning.
The Schuman eyesore exists “because from the start, it was never sure that the EU institutions would come for good and stay and expand”, said urban historian Laurent Vermeersch.
Smitten by the automobile, the city’s post-war bourgeoisie abandoned art-deco townhouses to the wrecking ball and cashed out for the suburbs.
“It was the office developers who shaped it and they only cared about delivering to plan and profit, and not how the city would look in 20 years,” Vermeersch said.
Urban planners even have a name to this blindness to old-world beauty: Brusselisation.
Efforts to improve Schuman have been made harder because both Brussels — a largely French-speaking capital in a predominantly Flemish-speaking area of Belgium — and the EU, are known for confusing layers of bureaucracy.
The European institutions have “the habit to say the institutional complexity of Brussels doesn’t make things easy”, said Hutchinson.
“It’s true… but on the European side, it’s not any easier.”
Meanwhile, the years of building work have compounded the struggle to give Europe’s heart a transplant.
“In reality, Schuman is big hole filled with tunnels, which makes things difficult,” said Smet, the Brussels minister.
Worse still, snaking around the place are thousands of vehicles that make Brussels one of Europe’s most congested cities, second only to London.
And when it’s not traffic, it’s protests. Last month, angry farmers occupied Schuman on tractors before being teargassed by police, followed a week later by demonstrations against taxi app Uber.
For now, Schuman continues stuck in its half-life, as unloved as the great European project is increasingly proving with voters.
“There’s no unemployment for window cleaners that’s for sure,” says a pensioner from southern France to the rest of her group, to uproarious laughter, as they gape at the glass buildings around them.
Brussels resident Leonardo Velez, a computer expert on a tour of the city with his family who struggled to cross the roundabout, had a more artistic suggestion.
“They should put some monument up in the middle. That would be nice,” he said, surveying the windswept void around him.