The European Union Center is generously funded in part by the European Commission.
This short guide is intended to help young scholars studying the European Union prepare for field research in Brussels. It was originally written in December 1993, and has circulated as samizdat among EU-oriented graduate students since then. This version, specifically updated in September 1998 and hyperlinked to useful web sites, is based on my most recent field experience in Brussels, in June 1998. The guide will be most useful to students of EU policymaking and of the Commission, Council, and European Parliament; it does not contain advice for fieldwork at the plenary sessions of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, or the headquarters of the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.
The first section provides some recommendations about the use of primary and secondary sources in the United States. The second section provides tips for planning your trip to Brussels, including access to the Commission Library, making appointments with interview subjects, and arranging lodging for your stay. Section three then provides some nuts-and-bolts advice about research sources in Brussels, while section four discusses practical aspects of living in Brussels, such as cafes, entertainment, and travel information. In my experience, Brussels is a very pleasant and user-friendly place to live and work; the aim of this guide is to provide some practical advice for making it even more so.
I. Before You Go: Know the Sources
In my experience, the most important thing for an American academic going to Brussels is to know the sources on the EU in general and on your research topic more specifically, and to be aware of what you can get here in the U.S. and what can be gotten only in Europe. This will leave you free to spend your time in Brussels productively researching sources and conducting interviews that cannot be done in the US; it will also save you considerable embarrassment with EU librarians and fonctionnaires.
Most advanced scholars of the European Union will be familiar with the secondary literature on the subject, including the core textbooks like Dinan's Ever Closer Europe and the key journals such as the Journal of Common Market Studies, the Journal of European Public Policy, International Organization, etc. Before traveling to Europe, however, all scholars should make an effort to become acquainted with, and to exhaust, the primary sources on EU law and politics, many of which are now available in US libraries or on-line. I will not provide a complete introduction to EU primary sources here, but I would recommend a number of excellent introductions to EU documentation, many of which are compiled by the EU itself and are available on-line. I would recommend in particular the following guides:
As a general rule, I always make a point of exhausting as many as possible of the EU's official sources (including the Bulletin of the European Union, the Official Journal, and all Commission documents and European Parliament reports) before I leave for Europe. Many, but not all, of these sources are now available on-line, particularly during the last few years, when the EU has begun to post the Bulletin, the Official Journal, and many other official sources on the Commission's Europa page. For the years before the mid-1990s, however, most researchers will have to descend into the printed and microfiche resources of the EU's Depository Libraries in the United States, a full listing of which is available from the EU Delegation in Washington.
In addition to these official sources, it is always a good idea to check the best journalistic sources as well. I would recommend four sources in particular, most of which are available in good university libraries:
Finally, if you want to be as thorough as possible and cast your net widely across a number of official and unofficial sources, I would recommend the following on-line databases:
In short, scholars working in 1998 are now capable of finding at home, and usually via electronic databases, information that earlier scholars had to find, usually on microfiche, in the Commission library in Brussels. By comparison with today's scholars, my generation of EU researchers had to trudge to the Commission through six feet of snow, barefoot. Going uphill. Both ways.
II. Preparing Your Fieldwork in Brussels
Having exhausted every available resource in the United States, you are now ready to plan your fieldwork in Brussels. This involves such arcane matters as making sure your passport is up-to-date, finding a good air-fare, etc., which I will not discuss here. However, there are three key areas where, in my experience, young scholars could use some help: arranging access to the Commission library, arranging interviews with key actors in Brussels, and lining up housing for the length of your stay. The following sections provide some selective advice on all three fronts.
1. Get a pass to the Commission Library
The Commission library is a font of information for any EU scholar, even for those coming from an EU depository library. However, the library is not open to the public, and you must arrange to receive an access card by contacting the library at least two weeks in advance. Fortunately, the Commission library now has a very user-friendly web site, which provides complete details about how to get an access card, the nature of the library's holdings, its hours of operation, and so on. Visit the site right away if you are planning a trip to Brussels, and get the paperwork underway!
2. Arrange interviews in advance
One of the key reasons to go to Brussels for field research, rather than simply consulting printed resources at home, is to interview key actors in and outside of the EU's institutions. Arranging these interviews is not particularly difficult, but it involves careful prior research, particularly if you plan to visit Brussels only for a short period and need your interviews all lined-up before you arrive. The most important prerequisite to a good interview, which I have already emphasized above, is a mastery of your brief, so that you have a good, clear sense of who you want to speak to, and what you want to ask them.
Once you have mastered your brief in this way, you can and should consult one of the several good directories of the EU institutions and the larger EU-centric community in Brussels. Some of these are official and freely available, others are frighteningly expensive, but may be worth the money if you are looking to interview people outside the official institutions. I would recommend the following four sources in particular:
Finding your interview subjects, therefore, should not be hard. But how do you go about actually arranging the interview? Here, I have found that direct phone calls can be frustrating and expensive, since one almost always gets a secretary at the other end who insists on receiving a fax before she will even contemplate setting up an interview for you. Most of the time, therefore, I try to send a letter to the individual's fax number, introducing myself and the nature of my research topic, asking for an interview, and suggesting a window of a few days or weeks when I will be in town and available. I also leave an e-mail address as well as my return fax number, so that they can return my message. Typically, one gets a response after the first fax, but if not, a follow-up message by fax or e-mail (if available) is a good idea. I generally try to avoid making a first contact by e-mail, which is a bit too informal by Brussels standards, unless I have been referred to someone by a colleague, in which case I begin with "Please forgive me for contacting you by e-mail, but I have been referred to you by Jacques de l'Euro, who provided me with your e-mail address..."
Ideally, you should line up as many of your interviews as possible, down to times, dates, and places, before you leave, particularly if your stay will be a short one. If you plan to stay for a longer period, you will almost certainly continue to make new appointments during your stay, but the rules of thumb suggested above should still apply.
3. Arrange lodging in Brussels
Finding an apartment in Brussels is surprisingly easy, especially if you plan ahead. There are two major considerations to keep in mind as you plan your stay in Brussels.
The first consideration is where in Brussels you want to live. The city is composed of 19 communes, including the center of town, Brussels 1000, which is generally crowded and prohibitively expensive for students. The EU district is located mostly in the commune of Etterbeek, just east of the center, and the area around the Commission is full of studio apartments renting for variable periods and cheap rents. This is where most of the Commission stagiaires, or interns, live, and as a result if you live here you will see lots of Commission people everywhere you go--which, obviously, has upsides and downsides. If, like me, you'd rather get away from the Commission at the end of the day, I'd recommend the commune of Ixelles (Elsene in Flemish), which is just south of the center of town and about a 20-minute commute on the metro. Ixelles is full of good cafés, restaurants and shopping, and many of Brussels' best flathotels can be found here. For most people, the choice is essentially between Etterbeek and Ixelles, and between the two it's hard to go wrong.
The second thing to consider when finding an apartment is how long you are staying. Most apartment buildings will not rent short-term (i.e. less than six months or a year), but others specialize precisely in short-term rentals. Thus, if you are only staying for a month, or a few months, your best bet is to call one of Brussels' many flat-hotels, which rent furnished and fully equipped studios or one-bedroom apartments by the month, week, or even night. A full listing can be found in the European Public Affairs Directory. The admittedly partial list that follows reflects my own rather idiosyncratic experiences, and my personal preference for Ixelles over Etterbeek.
There are many other flathotels listed in The European Public Affairs Directory, many of them well equipped and convenient, so it may be worth your while to search around. (An increasing number of flathotels are now developing on-line websites, although all of the ones mentioned above still take reservations primarily by phone or fax.)
The only problem with short-term rentals is that, while they are generally very convenient, they can also be scandalously expensive, especially on a student budget. A studio apartment can run up to $900 or so a month, and one-bedroom flats run upward from $1,000-$1,200 per month in most flathotels. If you plan to stay longer than a few months, therefore, you may want to look for a long-term furnished apartment, which is surprisingly easy in Brussels, especially if you can take a full-year lease. Gilson and Rusti's both have longer-term, and cheaper, places as well as shorter-term leases, so you may want to call them. Otherwise, The Bulletin, the indispensable English-language weekly magazine of Brussels, has good classified ads, for both short- and long-term rentals, as does the daily newspaper Le Soir.
III. Doing Research in Brussels
No guide can prepare a researcher for the cultural gaffes and the many false steps which are an inevitable part of any fieldwork experience. Advance preparation can minimize slip-ups, but never eliminate them. Nevertheless, I've included some basic advice for doing research in Brussels, under the following headings: intro to the EU district; the Commission library; other information resources; and advice for interviews.
1. Welcome to the EU district, namely the area of Brussels which is host to the various buildings of the Commission, the European Parliament, the Council Secretariat, and the various Permanent Representations of the member states to the EU. For most purposes, your metro stop of choice will be Rond-Point Schuman, from which point radiate the various buildings of the EU institutions. If you want to get an advance look at Euro-land and its institutions, check out the Europa web page's Virtual Tour of the EU Institutions, which will give you a good sense of the architecture, if not the culture, of the EU. The European Public Affairs Directory mentioned above also has excellent and detailed maps of all the EU buildings in the area, if you can afford to buy a copy. More general maps can be found in any good guidebook.
As you will see, none of the EU institutions is housed in a single building: the Commission has its main (temporary) headquarters in the Breydel building, but the various functionnaires of the Commission are scattered all over the Schuman neighborhood and beyond, and so you should make sure to get the specific address of anyone you plan to interview, and leave yourself time to find the place. Ditto for the European Parliament, which is mostly located in the new Leopold building but still uses older buildings on the Rue Montoyer and the Rue Belliard. The Council Secretariat is now mostly in the immense Justus Lipsius building on the Rond-Point, but the Perm Reps are located all over the area, each requiring a special search with a good local map. Once again, leave yourself time to find your building, and bring your passport with you for the security people at the entrance to each building when you show up for your interviews.
2. The Commission Central Library
Far and away the best place to start your research is the Commission Central Library, located at 1 Rue Cortenbergh, right at Place Schuman, which is the center of the EU quarter in Etterbeek. The library itself is located deep in the bowels of the building, and you'll need to present your laissez-passer to the guards at the entrance, who will tell you (in French) how to get there. Basically, you go up to the first floor and follow the signs.
There are two separate public rooms in the Commission library: The reading room (marked "salle de lecture") will be on your left as you come down the hallway, and the catalog room will be across the hall on your right. Start your visit by entering the reading room; the door to the room is kept closed, but just go ahead in, and don't bother to knock.
Find a seat in the reading room, and take a few minutes to explore. At one end of the room, near the door where you entered, you will see a smaller room where the reference librarians are located, and where you can request books; at the far end is another small office, with two librarians who can help with current periodicals. Copy cards can be purchased in various denominations from a machine about halfway up the room; the price is currently three Belgian francs per page, which works out to about eight cents a copy. Elsewhere in the library you'll find reference books and recent issues of a large number of journals and a huge selections of newspapers from the various member states, plus the International Herald Tribune for the homesick.
Americans, as a general rule, don't make a great impression at the library. In my experience, it's best to observe three simple rules which most Americans violate. First, although American grad students are used to dressing down to go to the library, I always wear at least a jacket and tie, both because most of the other readers are, and as a sign of respect to the librarians, who will take you more seriously. Second, and for the same reason, I always begin by speaking French rather than my irritating nasal American voice; if your French is not stellar, you can ask whether they mind your speaking English, which they won't. And third, never walk up to a librarian and say you're looking for books on EU environmental policy or whatever, because they will cut you dead and tell you to find your reference and get the code first. Those are the "don'ts" of the Central Library, in my experience.
What you should do is come with a series of references for books, journals, COMdocs, etc. Once you've settled in the reading room, walk over to the shelf where the newspapers are kept, and you'll see two piles of request forms marked "visiteurs" and "fonctionnaires." Take a stack of visitor forms and your references into the catalog room across the hall, where you will find a number of terminals set up to receive ECLAS, SCAD, and other electronic resources. If you run your search on ECLAS, which is the Commission's library database, you will find a code (or cote in French) at the bottom of each entry, which is what you will need to retrieve a hard copy of the source. Having found the code, you can then fill out the forms, and present them to the librarians in the reading room. Your books will come in about twenty minutes. If you are looking for a journal, you can ask the librarians to see a copy of their journals catalog, which lists all journals received by the library alongside their codes. If you need a COM doc, simply use the regular number (COM(85)310 for example), and specify that you want it en anglais. Similarly, for the Official Journal you can simply write OJ along with the date of publication, followed by en anglais. You can also get old issues of Agence Europe and European Report. Note, however, that the library does not have access to Lexis-Nexis, so you are advised to run any Lexis searches in the US if you can.
Overall, the Central Library is a mine of information if you use it properly, and is much easier to use than most US depository libraries, which do not specialize in EU affairs. In my experience, it is almost always possible to find all of the official, printed sources you might need in the Central Library; the other libraries (the Council, EP, and ECJ libraries, generally limited to staff use), and the DG archives, therefore, should be reserved for specific, hard-to-get documents unavailable at the Central Library.
3. Other sources for written documents
Right around the corner from the Library entrance on Rue Cortenberg, on the Rue de la Loi towards the Parc, you'll find the Librarie Européenne, or European bookstore, where you will find the best selection of general EU books and reference sources in town, as well as a very selective collection of official EU documents like the Treaties, White Papers, etc. The books here are woefully expensive, but you will find stuff here that you won't find anywhere else in town, much less at home, so most visiting scholars do a lot of financial damage here. The bookstore also stocks all the major directories mentioned above, so if you didn't buy one in the States, now is your chance. Another excellent bookstore is Waterstones, the English-language bookstore located downtown near the de Brouckere metro stop, which has an EU politics section on the second floor; and Libris, the French-language bookstore located in the Galleries Louise in Ixelles. If you have a book budget, you will have no trouble spending it in Brussels.
Another useful stop, while you are still at the Rond-Point Schuman, is the Infopoint office. It's right on the circle, you can't miss it. Generally, Infopoint is just a PR place with glossy brochures, but the people behind the desk can sometimes be helpful with more specific questions. And the free EU maps can help to decorate an otherwise empty apartment.
Moving out from Schuman, each DG has its own documentation center or archive, the address of which can usually be found on that DG's homepage on Europa. As a general rule, you should look in the Central Library first for any given document, since chances are that you'll find it there and because the documentation centers are generally understaffed and should therefore be used only as a last resort. The documentation centers also vary from one to another. Most will have large selections of journals for the use of the fonctionnaires, as well as piles of recent COM docs which are free for the asking (they also have old COM docs on fiche, but these are better gotten at the Central Library). In addition, you may find the archivists willing to let you look at unofficial documents which are not available in the library, but this depends on the subject, the archivist and the DG, with the less important or "low politics" DGs being more likely to let you snoop around. Once again, however, archivists will tend to be most impressed, and most helpful, when they see that you've done extensive research elsewhere and have come to them with very specific and well-informed requests.
4. A few tips for Euro-interviews
Interview technique is a difficult issue on which to give advice, in part because each researcher adopts his or her own style, and in part because larger questions of ethnography, participant-observation and research design enter into the picture. However, I would offer a few Brussels-specific tips for students conducting their first interviews in Brussels:
IV. Living in Brussels
The best thing about Brussels, regardless of what most of the French might say, is not that it is easy to get out of the city on the weekends. After living there for the better part of a year, it occurs to me that Brussels is in fact a great place to live, more so than to visit. Outside the Grand Place, much of Brussels is indeed as ugly as people think, largely because of the gung-ho development of the city during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s which tore down whole neighborhoods to put up, among other things, EU office buildings. Still, behind the modernist and slightly grungy facades, Brussels is actually a great metropolitan city, yet it is far less expensive than other Northern European cities like Paris, London or Hamburg. I actually enjoyed Brussels, and in my experience most people who stay long enough to know the city also enjoy it.
Most of the guidebooks, unfortunately, concentrate on the ugly and official center of town and the rather unexciting tourist monuments. One notable exception is the Time-Out Guide to Brussels (Overlook Press, 1998, $14.95), which features chapters on the suburbs as well as useful lifestyle chapters on Brussels for kids, Brussels for women, and gay Brussels. The book also has good maps of the city, including the EU district in Etterbeek. Additional information can be found on the official website of the Belgian Tourist Office in the Americas, which has useful, up-to-date pages on events, accommodations and more. My comments here are therefore brief, and aimed that the medium- to long-term visitor to the city.
1. Cafes, bars and restaurants
Restaurants are nightmarishly expensive in Brussels, prohibitively so for students on a tight budget. It is possible, however, to have a very good and inexpensive meal at a cafe or bistro (see below), and the Commission offices in Schuman are surrounded by a mass of decent and cheap lunch places. For lunch, if you are really poor, I recommend La baguette magique on the Rue Archimède, where you can get a cheese sandwich and a gaufre (waffle) for only BF90. The downside is that the place is tiny and is unbelievably crowded from noon onwards. Somewhat more relaxed, but still cheap, is the aptly named Rond-Point Schuman right on the circle, where you can get a sandwich and a beer or coffee for about BF120. There are also lots of good Italian and Chinese restaurants around, if you can afford to drop BF400 for lunch. After hours, you'll find lots of good places to go for a drink around Schuman, most notably James Joyce on the Rue Archimède and Kitty O'Shea's pub next to the Berlaymont, both of which fill up with fonctionnaires after five o'clock. The Wild Geese opened just a few blocks away in 1995; it also fills up with Eurocrats around 5 pm, and later on with young stagiaires looking for company. On a more sedate note, there is also a coffee bar at the top of 1 Avenue Cortenberg where you can go for a FB20 cup of cappucino overlooking the Place Schuman, although you'll have to stand up, alongside everyone else in the building, to drink it.
Most of the best cafés and bars, however, are found outside Etterbeek, near the Grand Place, the Place du Grand Sablon, and in Ixelles. The best and most reasonably priced, in my view, are Le Perroquet in Sablon, and Amadeus, L'Ultime Atome, L'Amour Fou and Malte, all of which are in Ixelles, and all of which serve good and reasonably priced food as well as Belgian beers, coffee and drinks. Conway's, also in Ixelles, is the American expat bar in Brussels, if you are into that kind of thing, and Pablo's serves very good but pricey Tex-Mex food and drinks. Le Roi d'Espagne in the Grand Place and A la morte subite nearby are both famous and pricey tourist spots. Most of them are listed in the Time-Out Guide and other guidebooks, or in the pages of The Bulletin.
If you can, get a place with cable TV, because the Belgians do cable better than anyone else in the world. Belgian channels are, by American standards, fairly low budget and boring, but with cable you can also get CNN, Euronews, MTV Europe, Arte, BBC1 and BBC2, French channels (TF1 and France 2 and 3), and German, Italian and Spanish channels as well. I've never felt more connected to European politics and culture than when I had access to Belgian cable.
Regarding movies, EU fonctionnaires love Brussels because movies here are shown in the original version, with bilingual subtitles, instead of the dubbed versions that dominate elsewhere in Europe. This is, therefore, a great place to follow French, German and Italian cinema, as well as American films (which are, however, released here considerably later than in the States). Big multiplex theaters like the Acropole in Ixelles and De Brouckere downtown offer a special student rate of BF180, as well as a Carte privilege good for four movies for BF620, which makes the movies in Belgium cheaper than in most US cities. Be aware, though, that you're supposed to tip the person who takes your ticket BF10 per person, and you may have to pay for the toilet as well, so bring change with you.
Both TV and movie listings can be found in The Bulletin and in Le Soir, especially the Wednesday edition.
3. Mass transit
Depending on where you are staying and the length of your stay, you may want to get some sort of mass transit pass. Buses, trams and metros all cost FB50 for a single ride, with transfers allowed within one hour of stamping your ticket. In other words, it's expensive. You can save money by purchasing a book of ten tickets for BF290. A monthly abonnement for all three forms of transportation costs about BF1200, or about $35, and represents the best deal if you are staying for more than a few weeks. Be aware, though, that monthly passes must start on the first of every month, so you may want to use single tickets or books for a while if you arrive mid-month. Single tickets and books of ten can be bought in any station, but monthly passes can only be bought in certain stations (Porte de Namur being the most convenient from downtown), and you will need to bring a passport photo for a monthly pass. Student passes are available only for the entire academic year, beginning in September, so you'll probably get stuck paying the normal adult rate.
If you plan to be in Brussels for a while and want to work out, you have a number of good options. Most of the hotels around the Grand Place have ritzy and mind-numbingly expensive gyms, but you can also find more reasonably priced gyms elsewhere in town. If you are living in Etterbeek near the Commission, Winners' gym is supposedly good and is frequented by a lot of young fonctionnaires, although I haven't heard great things about their aerobics. I myself went to California Gym in Ixelles, near the Place Flagey, which is small but friendly. The owner, Bianca Cioni, is a former Belgian aerobics champion, and has opened a terrific salle d'aerobique, with multiple classes a day and very good instructors, including herself. Combination memberships good for both the salle de musculation and the salle d'aerobique are available for about BF2500 a month, which is about the average price for a gym membership in Brussels. I really liked California Gym, and I recommend it even if you don't live in Ixelles.
5. Bringing the Family
Kids and Brussels are a fine mix, but only if you plan ahead. By comparison with most US cities, Brussels is relatively child-unfriendly: most restaurants have no high chairs and no non-smoking sections; the streets are cobblestoned, making strollers difficult; and the city's parks are generally laid out for bourgeois contemplation rather than juvenile frolicking. By and large, children seem to stay primarily in the home in Belgium, and are relatively rare in public places. Nevertheless, my two-year old son had a wonderful time in Brussels, going on trams and trains, eating waffles and french fries and chocolate, and running around the Grand Place and the Galleries Louise shopping mall.
If you are travelling with small children, I would recommend staying at the Residence Hanovre, mentioned above in connection with its large apartments and nearby park. You should also pick up up a copy of The Time-Out Guide to Brussels for additional tips on Brussels for kids. If you have a television, you will probably have a hard time finding Sesame Street and other familiar favorites from home, but the BBC is available with Teletubbies and a number of other children's programs in the mornings and afternoons. Perhaps most importantly, be sure to bring a raincoat and a warm jacket for your kids, even if you travel in the summer; Brussels can be rainy and chilly, especially in the mornings, and you don't want to be trapped indoors for lack of proper gear!
6. Day and weekend trips from Brussels
Finally, it is true that it's easy to get out of Brussels for the weekend, and that from Brussels you are within striking distance of Paris, Amsterdam, Köln and other cities in Northern Europe. Intercity trains east to Germany leave about once per hour from all three Brussels stations, and trains to Paris leave, from Gare du Midi only, about as often. If you're on a budget, however, the best bet is to stay within Belgium, where you can take advantage of the weekend rates effective between Thursday evening and Monday morning. Under the weekend rates, the first person travelling gets 40% off the usual weekday fare, and any additional passengers travelling together get 60% off. A round trip to Antwerp, therefore, is less than BF300 on the weekends, whereas a trip to Paris, for which there is no weekend rate, costs around BF2000. There is, in other words, a strong financial incentive to explore Belgium rather than crossing the border into neighboring countries. Antwerp, Leuven, Ghent and Bruges are all Flemish cities within an hour's train ride from Brussels, as is the Walloon capital, Namur. A bit farther away, but still less than a BF500 round-trip, are the somewhat blighted Walloon city of Liège and the various shore towns, of which my favorite is Oostende.
In any case, living in Brussels should not be seen as punishment, but rather as a chance to spend some time in a diverse and cosmopolitan city that is, in the end, far greater than the sum of its parts.