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Brussels: the transit town where few truly belong

Jean-Claude Juncker might not even live in Brussels, according to the press in his native country – Luxembourg, writes Justin Stares.

The incoming European Commission president is evidently commuting between the tiny duchy and the European Union capital, where he currently spends around half his time. It’s only a two hour journey, by car or train, so there’s a chance Mr Juncker will simply keep on shuttling when his job as leader of Europe begins in a month’s time.

If he indeed does become a part-timer, as the Luxemburger Wort newspaper implied, he won’t be alone. Euro MPs who live within striking distance of Brussels – the British, the French, the Dutch, the Germans – already come as little as possible in many cases. “I don’t want to have two lives. My family are back in London and that is where I want to be. My life is there,” Syed Kamall, leader of the European Parliament’s Conservative group, told me recently. Like many others, Mr Kamall rents a small apartment in the European quarter, which he has shared until now with another Euro MP. It’s a rudimentary affair, he says – a place to kip a few nights a week.

The same reticence to move to Brussels can be found among commissioners too. British High Representative Catherine Ashton used to rush back on the Eurostar because, she said, she just had to watch the latest episode of a talent show on British TV (this anecdote was told to me by a former member of her inner circle). The incoming British commissioner, Jonathan Hill (another aristocrat) asked Syed Kammal for advice on where he should crash out. “I told him , if you’re asking me you’re in trouble,” joked Kamall, who did not offer to put him up.

Unlike most cross-border workers, these politicians do not have to worry about tax regimes, or residency, or health care, because they live under a generous EU scheme.

Officials in the pay of the European civil service are more likely to regard Brussels as home – though even they are subject to job rotation rules. Those that make the EU a lifelong career often end up buying a flat, or a house in Brussels. Many take a spouse from another EU member state and raise a multi-national, multilingual family. For these families, Brussels is neutral territory. While never truly integrated among the Belgians, they still feel at home in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Europe. Some retire here.

Politicians come and go, but the civil service stays, forming its own European community, with a small ‘c’. They mix with long-term lobbyists and even long-term journalists, forming Facebook groups and clubbing together to put on events for their multi-ethnic children.

These people, those that stay, are the real Europeans; over the years their national identity fades and is replaced by a non-distinct European  paradigm with its own jargon, and polished brand of political correctness. Like the children of the US zone next to the Panama Canal – long gone since the handover – the children of this bizarre no-man’s land will feel even more rootless if the EU ever does cease to exist.

You can follow Justin on Twitter @JustinStares or on Tumblr here


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