Bureaucracy, in pictures

The European Union is, fundamentally, a combination of two things:

1. an optimistic idea, namely that European countries can achieve greater peace and prosperity by joining together, and
2. an enormous bureaucracy.

Optimism’s all well and good, but on a visit to the European institutions of Brussels and Luxembourg, one sees a lot more of the latter. The buildings are enormous, comprising their own quarters of their respective cities; the staffs are huge; and it all costs lots of money, which member states have to pay — in the hope, of course, that their contributions are supporting the Idea.

I paid such a visit last week, as part of the Fulbright program’s annual EU/NATO seminar. Over a day in Luxembourg and a week in Brussels, 30-some Fulbrighters from around Europe were treated to a guided tour (mostly figurative, partly literal) of the major European institutions. (We also treated ourselves to lots of mussels, fries, chocolate, and beer.)

And so I’ll pay the favor forward, as they say, by taking you, my dear readers, on a guided tour (mostly visual) of these institutions and their home cities.

Our first stop was the European Court of Justice, in Luxembourg’s desolate EU quarter. There, we sat in on a hearing concerning a lawsuit by a passenger who was bumped from a Finnair flight due to a worker strike that had occurred two days earlier. (The case, unlikely as it may seem, was actually rather interesting, but I won’t get bogged down in the details here.)

Now, one thing that bears mentioning about the EU bureaucracy is its insatiable language needs. The EU, with 27 member states, has 23 official languages. Pretty much all of its official business, then, has to be translated 22 times. That’s why the Court of Justice’s most prominent buildings, the so-called Golden Towers (and I should note here that nearly all the EU buildings are both modern and ugly), exclusively house the Court’s translators and interpreters:

The hearing we attended was conducted in Finnish — which is to say the lawyers spoke Finnish, while the judges responded in a combination of French and English. The perimeter of the hearing room, though, consisted of interpreters’ booths, where the hearing was insta-translated into English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Finnish (for when the judges were speaking), and probably a couple of others. With the headset contained in my armrest, I listened in English, French, and German — though I spent much of the hearing watching the Dutch interpreter, whose hand gestures were so hilariously exaggerated that it looked as if he were conducting some sort of action-packed puppet show.

Anyway, after a stop at the Court of Auditors and a reception at the U.S. embassy, it was off to Brussels, where the EU buildings weren’t any prettier. See, for example, the European Parliament building:

This European Commission building is certainly a bit friendlier, but doesn’t exactly inspire awe quite like, say, the U.S. Capitol or even the Royal Palace of Brussels:

Our last two days in Brussels consisted of visits to NATO’s diplomatic and military headquarters. We weren’t allowed to bring cameras in, but I can assure you that their designs were not chosen for their aesthetic value.

By contrast, the city of Bruges, where we spent a day of relative leisure, is almost sickeningly cute:

ljh

(The above square, our guide informed us, is the only one he knows of that contains just about every major architectural style: Gothic, neo-Gothic, Roman, classical, modern, and probably something I’m forgetting.)

(If you’ve seen the movie In Bruges, you probably recognize the belfry, above.)

But Brussels also has its prettier parts:

And through it all, I was in good company. Here are a few of my partners in crime, at an Ethiopian restaurant in Brussels (you can only eat so many Brussels mussels):

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