Welcome to the ‘Empty Quarter’

22nd August 2008, Comments 0 comments

The European Union’s headquarters becomes an eerie ghost town in August

Brussels -- A stone's throw away from the European Union's head offices, the EU information centre in Brussels is large, well-painted, covered in the blue-and-gold EU flag -- and shut.

"The documentation centre is closed from Aug. 1 to Aug. 31," a printed notice stuck to the door reads.

Welcome to Europe's HQ.

Out to lunch

The European Quarter in the Belgian capital is dominated by two immense office buildings: the headquarters of the council of EU member states and the offices of the European Commission, the EU's executive arm.

Around that double hub, shops, bars, cafes and restaurants have sprung up like mushrooms to serve the roughly 21,000 bureaucrats and diplomats who work in the two institutions every day.

But in August, an eerie silence descends on the quarter as droves of EU staff head off on their summer breaks.

"The council's policy is to encourage staff to take their holidays in July and August," Victor Flavian of the council press service told DPA.

The policy is meant to maximize the amount of work the EU can do by minimizing the number of staff who are away at other times.

‘It’s dead’

For the dozens of businesses which surround the EU's double HQ, it presents a financial nightmare.

"It's dead: 75 percent of our customers are away and they're all on holiday," said Michel, the barman at Irish pub Kitty O'Shea's, nodding at the commission offices just across the road.

"From a business point of view, it makes life harder because there just aren't as many people passing," said waffle salesman Yazid, who runs the Delice Gaufra stand in the Schuman metro station directly beneath the commission.

Across the quarter in August, pavement cafes are all but empty, bakeries and corner shops are shuttered, and even the Schuman station -- usually crammed with commuters -- echoes forlornly.

For some, it is a chance to catch up on administration, personal chores and all the jobs that have been on hold since Christmas.

"When it's busy, we're with the customers," said Michel as he re-arranged the array of Bottles of All Nations lined up behind the bar. "When it's quiet, we have a chance to organize stuff."

Taking a break

For others, like hairdresser Mohsine, whose salon l'Hair du Temps faces the commission, it is a chance to plan a holiday themselves.

But for those who stay behind, August is a curious mixture of tedium and tension, as skeleton crews man their posts in case something happens which needs a quick reaction.

The August break is "good, because it allows you to plan ahead but it's not so good because some people will still want a haircut, and you don't know when they'll come in, so you have to stay open all the time and wait," Mohsine said.

"If big things happen, we react: we've even held emergency summits if it's been really urgent," Flavian agreed.

And with experts predicting an intense September as EU leaders seek consensus on sensitive issues like defense and migration, the motto of Brussels in August should perhaps be "eat, drink and be merry, for in September we start again."

If you can find anywhere that's open, that is.

-- Ben Nimmo/Expatica

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