I attended a Microsoft workshop in Brussels last week, at a place called the ‘Concert Noble’ which was built in 1873 and is a grand old building near to the centre of town. For some background on the property and a description please see this link. While showing its age, and starting to possibly look a little bit down at heel, the Concert Noble none the less retains a sense of its former grandeur with beautiful inlaid wood floors, high vaulted ceilings with lots of filigree in the corners, the tops of the walls and over the high big double doorways. To get there, I travelled down to Brussels from Rotterdam on the NS train service (the regular train rather than the high speed link), which takes about 1 ¾ hours for the trip each way, and took me right to the central train station in Brussels. Compared to other European train stations, this is not an impressive building to look at (check out the ceiling in the central section of the Amsterdam central station if you want to see something impressive), but it is conveniently located to the main attractions in central Brussels. Having got there, I was a bit disappointed to find there is no tourist information available at all in the station, but the taxi rank was easy to find.
The workshop was held to showcase an announcement by Microsoft of the opening of an ‘innovations’ centre in Brussels, and as such several members of the EU parliament were in attendance as it also provided an opportunity to discuss the level of success within the EU at meeting their agreed commitments on spend levels for basic and applied research. Normally it seems that with politicians the availability of microphones, video and still photographers is usually a bad thing, as it is like giving candy to already hyperactive children! In this instance, with the possible exception of the representative from Ireland, most of the speakers successfully kept to the allotted times for their speeches. In truth there were two people who did stand out, and were worth hearing: Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister of Sweden, and current UN special envoy was crisp and to the point, and also the discussion moderator (Ann Mettler) similarly was quite focused. You can read more about her at http://www.lisboncouncil.net .
Generally it can be said the member states of the EU are not meeting their agreed spending targets for research and this is probably not an isolated issue. As an example, and speaking as an outsider, I would have thought the introduction of the Euro and its benefits was a no-brainer, but its interesting to see recent surveys that call this into question and where only 53% of respondents indicate they are comfortable using the Euro after 4 years. See http://europa.eu.int/comm/public_opinion/flash/fl175_en.pdf . None the less, I admit that I continue to be struck by how amazing a place the EU already is and how much more amazing it could be if they continue to be successful in their political journey. Sitting in that hall was another of those times where the incredibly diverse nature of the EU shone through – it may seem a trite example, but if I were to close my eyes for a moment, it was like spinning the dial on a radio with different stations popping into tune, each playing different music. On my right was a group of Germans, behind me several Italians, a few seats over some French, in front a few Dutch, of course there were many Belgians plus English and Irish, and further away just out of earshot were other nationalities whose speech I couldn’t identify. All of these folks meeting in a room to discuss a shared challenge (although I suspect many of the press were there for the free sandwiches and champagne when it was over !). It will be interesting to see if the EU states can continue to be successful in balancing their national imperatives with their shared interests. Time will tell I suppose.