Brussels’ EU Quarter may never be the same again.
Deep into a second lockdown, the home of many EU institutions and their staff is a radically different place these days. The sidewalks are no longer bustling and the streets aren’t clogged with traffic. Instead, it’s a ghost town.
EU civil servants are overwhelmingly working from home, not the office; drivers have left their cars behind (if they go out at all); many cafés and restaurants are closed, and some will never reopen; and several real estate projects have been put on hold.
Even when Belgium lifts its confinement measures designed to contain the spread of the coronavirus, many city officials and locals believe the district won’t ever return to how it was.
Teleworking has revolutionized this business-driven (soulless, many would say) area in such a way that even the EU institutions — not known for embracing change at a fast pace — have started rethinking how they will operate in the future. It has also led local tourism officials as well as residents’ associations to step up their fight to make the district a friendlier and more livable place.
“The impact of the COVID crisis here is quite significant, and we don’t have a crystal ball of what the long-term effect of it will be, nor the scale of the changing working environment,” said Patrick Struelens, a senior adviser at Visit Brussels, the Belgian capital’s main tourism office. “But we can assume that homeworking is here to stay.
“The reality in the quarter will be a lot more diverse than it is now, with maybe fewer workers, maybe more people that will live there, and that can be a more positive thing,” Struelens added.
Belgium, which at one point had the highest rate of coronavirus infections in Europe, went into a second lockdown at the end of October, first closing its bars and restaurants before shuttering shops and ordering people to work from home if they can.
The effects of the two lockdowns have been devastating for the EU Quarter’s cafés, restaurants and shops, which rely almost exclusively on the around 50,000 civil servants from the EU institutions who work there, plus a similar number of lobbyists and staff at NGOs as well as journalists (POLITICO’s offices are on Rue de la Loi, one of the area’s busiest streets in normal times) and others.
There are few chauffeur-driven cars on Rue de la Loi now. Opposite the European Parliament, Place du Luxembourg — better known as Place Lux — which is normally a lively hangout for MEPs and assistants, is now home to rows of closed cafés. On Schuman Square, a letter taped to the door of Caffè Vergnano and signed by “Giuseppe,” who used to work there, includes a tribute to “my dearest clients” for “your smiles, your anger, your stories that have become mine.”
Caffè Vergnano was just one of the 427 businesses that went bankrupt as a result of the first lockdown in the three Brussels districts that include parts of the EU Quarter, according to Hub.Brussels, the Brussels Agency for Business Support. That figure could rise because many firms have received emergency financial aid to try to stay afloat.
Véronique Kohl ran the restaurant Chez Mauricette on Rue Belliard, serving 120 to 140 customers a day for the past six years. “We lost between 30 and 40 percent of our revenue” during the first lockdown, Kohl said. After being forced to close and lay off her staff in March, Kohl decided not to reopen when confinement was lifted in May and put the restaurant up for sale.
“It’s not a residential area here, we have expensive rents, we must buy goods, and I couldn’t even pay myself,” Kohl said. “Telework will perhaps not be for everyone, but it will be much more widespread, and this can only have economic repercussions for the district.”
The bustling Rue Froissart, which runs along one side of the Council of the European Union’s headquarters, has lost almost 50 percent of its daily foot traffic, according to Hub.Brussels, and the figure’s almost 40 percent on nearby Rue Archimède, which is lined with restaurants, most of which only opened at lunchtime to cater to EU staffers.
“It is catastrophic,” said Alain Hutchinson, the Brussels government’s commissioner for Europe and international organizations and a former MEP. “Now, telework has really become the rule … All of these institutions, visitors and civil servants who have been bringing life to this district for years are closed, literally.
“I don’t know what the repercussions of all this will be because we’re all in a state of uncertainty, but for now it is a deserted place,” said Hutchinson, who’s part of a network involving EU institutions, trade representatives and local politicians that meets regularly to discuss the situation in the EU district.
No more office blocks?
Even when Eurocrats do return to work, and restaurants reopen to feed them, many officials say homeworking will change the quarter’s urban planning choices and the district’s image of being unfriendly, soulless and reliant on the EU institutions. Many also predict that it will profoundly reshape the work environment and real estate policies of the EU institutions themselves.
The European Commission is working on a “wider and more generalized use of telework” and will continue efforts to ”reduce office surface,” one Commission official said. “The Commission will assess how to make the best use of its surfaces, taking into consideration new ways of working,” the official added. The European Parliament also plans to renew its teleworking rules and is “evaluating” its expansion, taking into consideration “the environmental costs, the use of space,” a Parliament spokesperson said.
Residents and local associations say the EU Quarter must adapt to the post-coronavirus era as it can no longer afford to be an exclusively business-oriented area filled with office blocks.
That will require a major change in thinking. Over the course of more than a decade, local authorities and property developers embarked on an ambitious revamp of the quarter to expand the amount of office space while also building more homes and places for socializing. In 2019, a new tower called The One opened with almost 30,000 square meters of office space and more than 9,000 square meters of housing. A planned makeover of Rue de la Loi (which is already lined with offices) includes another 240,000 square meters of office space.
Other major urban planning renovations, including a mooted facelift of the Schuman roundabout, now come across like projects from a bygone era. According to its online presentation, the unremarkable roundabout will be turned into a “generous public space” and a “meeting place for nationalities, cultures, languages” sheltered under a donut-shaped roof.
Marco Schmitt, president of the residents’ association of Quartier Leopold (the formal name of the EU Quarter), sees an opportunity to make changes to the area.
“After COVID, you can no longer have more than a hundred people working in the same space,” he said. “All of this was part of the thinking before, but it has become a reality now.”
Last month, Schmitt wrote to Brussels premier Rudi Vervoort asking him to “urgently” put in place a halt on the construction of offices. “The experience of remote working has led to significant consequences on people’s movements, on air quality, on housing and commercial activity,” Schmitt wrote. “In these conditions, going back to how we build buildings before COVID is no longer foreseeable.”
Yet for many of those who live nearby or who don’t work for the EU institutions, the pandemic has brought an unusual, and welcome, calm to the area.
“The atmosphere is much more livable, there’s less traffic and fewer Eurocrats,” said Pierre Picard, a teacher who lives on Rue de Toulouse, near the Schuman roundabout. “It’s nice because it’s hard to get some neighborhood life in here.”
A year ago, Felix von Zwehl, a German lawyer, opened the Newton Boutique Hotel Residences, a group of serviced apartments just a few steps away from the Commission’s Berlaymont HQ.
While hotels nearby experienced a dramatic drop in customers following the first lockdown, von Zwehl kept afloat thanks to diplomats who prolonged their stay in Brussels because they come from areas that imposed a quarantine.
“We’ve had an occupancy rate of up to 70 percent,” he said. “The COVID crisis hit us hard but we have been less impacted than others.”