For those of you not familiar with the European Union’s institutions, the term “EU Bubble” might be somewhat new. If, however, you have spent some time in Brussels or the other minor cities of the EU Bubble, then you will know exactly what we are talking about. It is also called the Euro Bubble, or the Brussels Bubble.
What is the EU bubble?
To get everyone on the same page about what we mean by EU bubble, let’s simplify: it is the social and professional circles surrounding European Institutions. Specifically, the Brussels EU expat community or Brussels EU bubble, is estimated at around 100,000 people. That represents 10% of the population of the city (ref. Brussels-Europe Liaison Office).
This includes those working for the EU institutions but also people working for related entities, such as national and regional representations, trade associations, NGOs, consultancies and civil society organisations. Focusing on the European institutions the most prevalent is the European Commission, but there is also the European Parliament, EASA and EUROCONTROL (both aviation institutions), or to a certain extent, independent institutions such as the European Patent Office and NATO (which, despite not being “European”, have a similar culture). There are more European institutions that we care to give examples for, and plenty of NGOs and lobbies that circle around the EU institutions, so we will leave it at this and just call everyone who has a EU-related job a “eurocrat” and the collective will be referred to as the “EU bubble”.
How is the EU bubble?
The EU bubble is a very strange entity. If we focus, initially at least, in the social life patterns in the EU bubble it quickly becomes obvious that something is off. Let’s look at Brussels, the cradle of the EU bubble and its culture. If you are familiar with Belgium as a country, you will know that it is a multilingual/multicultural country. A lot of mockery has been directed at Belgium: called “buffer zone”, or “not an actual country”, or worse denominations and clichés based on the psychotic tendencies of the Belgian elite in the late 20th century (ahem, paedophilia). What is often also said, is that Brussels “is not Belgium”. Why do they say that?
With the amount of “expats” in Brussels it’s easy to guess why. The common language in restaurants or bars in Brussels is more often English than Flemish or French. It is true that French remains the language of use by locals, but English is still the common language at the institutions and many expats go their entire lives without learning the local languages. I say “expat” here, especially referring to the EU bubble, because “immigrants” do learn French. They need to. Expats are not required to. The horrible social gap between those considered immigrant and those considered expat is particularly obvious in Brussels.
So Brussels, with its offer of restaurants from all around Europe and its little ethnically themed neighbourhoods, is a eurocrat haven. Eurocrats from country X can live in Brussels as if they were still in country X – “but with rain”, in some cases. X-ian restaurants, full of X-ian people, eating X-ian food, talking in X-ian, complaining about how everything is better in X and how “Belgium sucks”. Still, all those expats – living in what we could call a mental theme park – will not give up on their salaries, benefits or status. Not for their country, not for coherence, not for the sunshine.
Multiculturalism is non existent here. Instead of immersing in, and embracing, their adoptive country, they classify themselves and others in stereotypical, national boxes. Boxes of doom.
Why do we call it the EEW bubble?
The reason we call it “eeeewww” is that the EU bubble’s culture is indeed appalling.
The point we were trying to make in the previous paragraph about the mental theme parks and the lack of actual multiculturalism among the Eurocrats can be exemplified with sex. The fact of having a one night stand with someone from a different EU country each week does not make anyone multiculturally aware. Bragging “I like X-ian women” does not give anyone any insight or respect towards that particular country or its people, let alone towards women.
The reason I use a straight male example for this is simple: there is an endemic lad culture ruling the EU institutions.
As exemplified with real life quotes from within a EU institution in the article Things (White) Middle-aged Men Say, the work environment is not only sexist and racist to an extent: the biggest issue is the culture of “untouchability” that those people profit of, since the very first day of their recruitment. The EU institutions in most cases are a retirement haven. Well paid positions for people that have already worked up their careers, and can now lay back and profit from a certain economic status paired with the guarantee that they shall never be fired. Those that join the EU institutions early in their careers generally have two options: to join in the culture, or to desperately find something else. There is a third indecisive group of people though: those that will be initially shocked, then convinced that it can change, then frustrated about the systemic issues, to later try to find the right time to hop off the train.
Joining the tribe
It is not our academic field but we are sure that a PhD in anthropology could bring many evidences to the table about what happens when one joins a new tribe that, despite having an unhealthy culture, provides plenty of resources at a very small effort on our part. “It is a little price to pay”, we will tell ourselves, enduring toxic behaviour all around us.
And even more so, when we are well paid, get decent leave and can’t be fired, we are likely to adapt to everyone else’s behaviour. Especially when that behaviour is convenient for us. If we may be a target of bad behaviour (sexism, racism, xenophobia, etc.) we may decide to play it down as a small handicap in an overall good situation. “I hate political correctness” will be the justification to any outrageous comment. The person pointing out the wrongdoing, considered a party pooper, will no longer be invited to coffee or lunch. Little by little, we will be so immersed in it that we will no longer see it. It does become invisible, just like sexism, poverty, or racism.
A dose of reality
Let’s face it, though. No one will ever become rich by working in a EU institution. They may already be rich, or they may make good investments, or they may bend the system. But no one becomes rich solely on a good salary. However, one may have the false impression that they are becoming rich, just because their spending can increase.
It is well-known that the more we earn, the more we spend. Without our lives becoming any significantly better, by the way. There is a threshold of what a decent salary brings in terms of quality of life, after which any extra salary generally brings more expenses with no extra happiness. We buy more expensive things or live in a more expensive house, but we are still working to pay the bills. That is not being rich; that is glorified proletarianism. But this is how the current economic system is so efficient: the last few decades have been enough to make workers forget what they are, to make them believe they are part of the ruling class. And when applied to many of the Eurocrats, to confuse them about their class. Many EU institutions deal with NGOs and with international aid programmes, and still the level of detachment from reality that they broadcast when talking about politics and class struggle is appalling. And surely this is not just a problem of the EU institutions; it is quite generalised in our current society. But one can see in the EEW bubble how expats and immigrants are not the same. One can see how people earning 10,000€ net a month disregard demonstrators as lazy and incompetent, with no merits of their own.
We brought up an example about sex before, and it was intentional. We want to talk about sex, because it is a very significant topic at the EEW bubble. Despite a large majority of Eurocrats being well over 40 – and well over 50 in some institutions – there is a high-school-like horniness among those. It feels, especially in Brussels, like the entire (EU)city is on Erasmus.
On one hand there are the trainees: hundreds of them flock to Brussels every year to do internships at the EU institutions in the hope of getting a job offer – or at least to count on naming those fancy institutions on their CV later on. We could talk about the ridiculous remuneration scheme for trainees, who often perform full time jobs that tick off the tasks that their superiors get paid to do, but in the end traineeships are always a bit of an abuse. After all, Brussels is an affordable city in comparison to other institutions – such as Geneva for the UN trainees, who apparently do not get paid at all.
Trainees are often young and hungry, and they have fun. One can understand why they do behave as if they are on Erasmus: many of them actually are, this is their first experience abroad and they are in the appropriate Erasmus age.
But what is a bit more distressing is their superiors behaving as if it is an Erasmus. At work and outside.
Here is a testimonial:
“When I first arrived in the city for my first proper job – not a traineeship – I was only 24. I had a lot of experience abroad, had two master’s degrees and did not find the parties at Place Lux alluring at all. But what was even less alluring was the men in their 30s, 40s, and even 50s sometimes, that would hit on me, and any other young woman, at bars. Their business cards were used as a catch. One could almost always see a EU institution written here and there, but they would definitely voice it out in any case. Sometimes they were contractors, and they would make sure to explain to you that they could be permanent staff but that they earnt more money this way, so they refused.
And what does a 24 year old, with her own means and brains, care about a balding, ageing, misogynist man, will you ask? Well I wonder too. Their playbook seem to state that “the more aggressive they were, the higher the chance of getting gullible girls”. Sometimes they even promised interviews for jobs, even though I had never mentioned or shown any interest – for them or their jobs. Sometimes they realised I had a better job than them and they flipped, easily, into a begging-for-a-job attitude. This was all frustrating, as the only reason I was monosyllabically answering their questions was because I was waiting for the waiter to notice me and take my order.
This was at the time when I still thought that I needed to care for unknown men’s feelings and never be rude. Today I would probably just tell them to f*** off.
This behaviour repeated itself constantly until I left Brussels. Permanently. Never have I been harassed at bars of any big city as in the EU circles”.
These are examples of the EEW bubble in social, non-work-related environments.
At work, this behaviour is even more EEW.
Sexual harassment at work
As mentioned before, the untouchability of some Eurocrats is something to be concerned about. The endemic lad culture at the EU institutions prevents any sort of self-reflection on behaviour. Any remark will be disregarded as outside of the aforementioned lad culture, and will be considered with animosity, if at all. As said before, “I hate political correctness” is such a bad boy statement, playful even. And with that they feel as if everything is justified, in the name of fun and flirting and joking.
In the work environment, sexual harassment is rather common in the EU institutions. Ironically enough, the EU Gender Equality Agency is full of middle-aged men that prey on young female colleagues in Vilnius (to show that we do not target Brussels but the EU institutions themselves, wherever in Europe we may find them). In this article by Politico you can further read some testimonials.
A systemic issue
We know that in many organisations, if not most, any remark on gender, age, race or origin is a serious offence that can lead to the dismissal of the employee, or employer. However, it seems that the European public sector has not gotten the message yet. We talk about Brussels being the cradle of the EEW culture but the reality is that it does not have anything to do with Brussels, or Belgium. It has to do with the EU. With the public institutions. With people earning over 200k€ a year to hang around corridors like gangsters in a park, waiting for victims to either scorn or sexually intimidate. The younger, the better. In contrast, some big private companies in Brussels, including banks and other institutions with a bad rep, have a zero tolerance for this kind of behaviour. Any remark on race, origin or gender would, in its mildest form, end in a warning from the top (i.e. CEO). How is it possible then that the public institutions are not doing anything to stop or punish this type of behaviour? Surely these other companies aren’t managing the situations better out of kindness or decency. It is just what needs to be done. Like letting an ambulance pass you on the road. What is wrong with the EU and why aren’t we talking more about it?
Maybe it is also the reason behind the low number of women in positions of power in the EU institutions. Maybe lots of heads need to roll – out to pension – before anything can truly change.