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Brussels' Justus Lipsius building, site of euro summits, is no Palace of Versailles


In 2009, an installation depicting European stereotypes by Czech artist David Cerny caused a diplomatic scandal at the Justus Lipsius building, site of the nineteenth summit to save the euro, held on June 28-29.



BRUSSELS – The Treaty of Versailles, at the end of World War I, was penned in France’s magnificent Versailles Palace. The Dayton Accords, ending the bloody Bosnia war, was signed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio — after being crafted, infamously, over endless fast food deliveries. Then there are President Jimmy Carter’s historic Middle East peace accords, forged at the Camp David retreat, a fitting milieu of rolling lawns and foraging deer.

But perhaps no event in modern history has inspired as many summits as the euro zone’s debt crisis. The current one is the nineteenth since debt first began seriously challenging the currency bloc several years back. And yet the main venue for these talks — the site of today’s dramatic pre-dawn pact to save the euro — seems to evade the popular imagination.

Perhaps it’s better that way, for the euro zone’s sake.

The main summit site, the Justus Lipsius building, seems a fitting metaphor for the grand dreams — and the divisive, over-wrought and bureaucratically addled reality — of the European project.

Justus Lipsius is the squat, seven-story headquarters of the European Union Council, part of a cluster of massive, architecturally uninspired office blocks at the heart of Brussels' EU neighborhood. Opened in 1995, the granite-and-glass monolith contains 24 kilometers of corridors, and office space the size 500 basketball courts.

The Guardian once described the headquarters as a "bunker-like eyesore."

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The building’s lobby is dominated by a bronze-colored bust of Justus Lipsius, a 16th-Century philosopher born just south of Brussels. The EU's decision to name the building after Lipsius' was unrelated to his reputation as a giant of neo-stoical thinking. Instead, the name comes from the rue Justus Lipsius, which was demolished to make way for the EU building.

The block usually functions as a permanent home for the EU council's staff and hosts the regular monthly meetings of EU ministers handling foreign affairs, finance, justice and other dossiers, but it is transformed every few months when summits are held there.

Brussels-based journalists complain at the overheated and overcrowded press room, and its remoteness from the lofty, closed-door negotiations conducted in the building's upper-floor inner sanctums.

For first timers, however EU summits can be a pleasant revelation.

"I'm completely blown away by the facilities, the tools which the European authorities have provided for journalists," says Cliff Hughes, executive producer of Jamaica's Nationwide News Network, who was making his EU-summit debut this week. "The briefing room facilities are absolutely first rate. You guys ought to love working in Brussels."

The building has occasionally hit headlines in its own right. In 2003, hidden listening devices were discovered in delegation rooms used by ministers and leaders from Britain, France, Germany, Italy and several other EU nations.

The brouhaha led to a number of lengthy investigations, but the culprits were never named. EU officials intimated privately the intelligence service of a Middle Eastern nation were suspected of planting the bugs, but the Europeans decided to let the issue drop quietly rather than trigger a diplomatic incident.

The building's vast, glass covered atrium is converted into the working area for about 1,800 journalists covering media EU summits. It is often decorated by art works supplied by the country holding the EU six-month rotating presidency.

They usually pass largely unnoticed, but in 2009, Czech artist David Cerny caused a diplomatic uproar when he unveiled a giant sculpture with his personal representation of each of the 27 EU nations.

The Netherlands objected to being perceived as a drowned landscape in which only the minarets of mosques remain above sea level; Romania reacted against its image as a Dracula theme park; Italy was unhappy at a display showing its blue-shirted players trying to have sex with soccer balls; and France bristled at being represented as a banner emblazoned with the word "Greve!" the French for strike.

Outrage was greatest in Bulgaria which Cerny chose to represent as a filthy, Turkish-style toilet. After official protests, that part of the work was covered by a sheet.

Just like the currency bloc that it serves, the Justus Lipsius building's days of glory are now numbered.

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A new purpose-build EU summit center is currently under construction next door. The Europa building will comprise an egg-shaped central construction surrounded by a cube of wire-like framing. 

The new building's appropriately excessive 240 million euro price tag should help concentrate leaders' minds, if they are still debating the debt crisis when it opens.