Rick Steves: Brussels is the unofficial capital of Europe

Brussels, the capital of Belgium, offers visitors many enticements
BY RICK STEVES Published: January 20, 2013
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Last October, the Nobel Peace Prize was given to 500 million people who have, for the last 65 years, made a conscious decision to live together in peace and harmony: the European Union (EU). In the words of the Nobel Committee, “The EU has helped to transform most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace.”

Who could possibly be more deserving of a peace prize? When your grandparents were kids, Europe had been wracked by 500 years of virtually uninterrupted warfare. Today Europeans are mocked for their pacifist ways. What a transformation!

The prize money — about $1.18 million — will go to help children who are victims of war zones. The traditional 18-carat-gold medal will likely end up on display in the EU's unofficial capital — Brussels.

Just as the EU has transformed Europe, it has also transformed Belgium's capital. Once a minor trading hub, Brussels today is multicultural, hosting politicians and businesspeople (and immigrants) from around the globe — and featuring a world of ethnic restaurants. The city hosts 400 embassies (the USA has three here, one each for the EU, NATO and Belgium) and every sizable corporation has a lobby in Brussels.

The EU is literally changing the demographic makeup of the city. As the EU tries to accommodate its 23 official languages (and it does, in some ways), the practical language of governance has become English. The EU has had such an impact on Brussels that some say in a generation, English will become the city's first language.

A short bus or Metro ride from Grand Place is the European Parliament, a sprawling complex of glass skyscrapers with a cacophony of black-suited politicians speaking all the different Euro-languages.

The 785 parliament members (who also meet in Strasbourg, France) represent 27 countries and shape Europe with a $168 billion budget.

To welcome visitors, the EU recently spent about $30 million on a high-tech center — the Parlamentarium. The only way to get inside the European Parliament itself is to join a free, 45-minute audio guide tour. The slow-paced audio guide — with helpful video illustrations — dryly takes you through the history of the EU, as well as its current structure and procedures.

You'll learn how early visionary utopians (like Winston Churchill, who in 1946 called for a “United States of Europe”) led the way as Europe gradually evolved into the European Union.



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