What’s disappointed me in my first two weeks in Brussels
A freshman MEP from the British Green Party on what’s wrong with the EU capital.
In my first two weeks as a member of the European Parliament, I’ve stumbled into a baffling realisation.
Next to nobody in Brussels has any clue what the European Union truly stands for — beyond a flag and an anthem — and more crucially, where it is heading. And that includes the EU leaders and senior officials soullessly waddling through the corridors of power.
When I arrived in the EU capital, I expected to find it brimming with activity and potential answers to these questions.
Instead, I felt duped: Making a tangible impact on constituents’ lives is apparently not what being an MEP is all about. (Oh, and Belgian hot chocolate is a distinct disappointment.)
When I look at my daily to-do list, I feel as though I’ve left the shores of the real life and stepped into a maze of bureaucracy, needless technicalities and political performance.
Instead of reaching out, people here are burying their heads in the sand” — MEP Magid Magid
MEPs live in a bubble — one where we celebrate politicians who bailed out bankers, blamed migrants and imposed crippling levels of austerity. It’s also one where the slightest bit of difference stands out like a sore thumb. Only 30 of the new class of 751 MEPs are people of colour, and if you look different from your average MEP (as I do), it’s not easy.
I was asked to leave
On my first day at work in Parliament in Strasbourg, I was asked to leave by someone who clearly thought I didn’t belong.
This kind of thing is sadly part and parcel of being black and excelling in any field — my right to be where I am has been questioned since I was elected as a Students’ Union president at the University of Hull, and throughout my time as councillor and mayor of Sheffield.
Your face when you’ve just had someone ask if you’re lost & then you’re told to leave, on your first day at work. ??♂️
I know I’m visibily different. I don’t have the privilege to hide my identity. I’m BLACK & my name is Magid. I don’t intend to try fit in. Get used to it!
— ?MΛG!D (@MagicMagid) July 2, 2019
But beyond my personal experience, what is most infuriating to witness is the racism in the rhetoric and policies of mainstream politicians — whether that’s Italian far-right leader Matteo Salvini launching his inhumane campaign against NGOs saving lives in the Mediterranean, or Brexit Party MEP Ann Widdecombe comparing the emancipation of slaves from humanity’s greatest crime to her vision of Brexit. These kinds of statements and actions — of which there are so many more examples — do untold damage to the lives of marginalized communities across Europe.
I have pitched my tent in Brussels in the neighbourhood of Kuregem, a neighbourhood between Anderlecht and Molenbeek, on the outskirts of the city centre.
Online, the reviews were strange: People said “it’s not safe,” there are “scary people everywhere,” and so on. But when I arrived, I realized those reviews only meant that there are people of diverse backgrounds living there.
I ran my campaign on a slogan of “Immigrants Make Britain Great.” And in Brussels, eating delicious food and enjoying sweet mint tea among the hustle and bustle of Anderlecht, surrounded by the beautiful sound of Arabic blended with colloquial French, shows me that Belgium, too, is richer and better for its immigration.
More MEPs need to realise that the real fight isn’t in the Parliament hemicycle, or in our compact offices — it’s in the communities we represent, and in the hearts and minds of the people who live there.
But instead of reaching out, people here are burying their heads in the sand. And faced with the everyday bureaucracy and contradictions of our jobs, it’s all too easy to do that.
This isn’t the best moment in history to look away or to run out of answers. A triad of terrors is threatening the European project: the rise of the far right, rampant inequality and the climate catastrophe. They call for a radical change from the dull and unjust status quo. More than just a blue flag, we need a blueprint — one to help us overcome humanity’s greatest obstacles.
In Brussels in particular, we need more transparency in the way we make decisions. Our institutions are plagued with convoluted customs, hidden handshakes and backdoor bargaining.
I’ve seen it first hand already. How can we reject the accusations leveled against the European elite that we are out of touch, when the top dogs in our Parliament and Commission are chosen through obscure quid-pro-quo arrangements agreed over Champagne and truffles in Brussels’ finest hotel lobbies?
In brief chats with the everyday Bruxellois — from cab drivers to my barber — it’s clear to me that few know anything about the EU, let alone why they should care. If those working on Parliament’s doorstep are oblivious about what happens inside, you can be damn sure citizens living in the far reaches of our Continent have no idea!
If MEPs elect to preserve the status quo, there’s no guarantee the EU will last much longer — MEP Magid Magid
In Brussels, the go-to answer to a failed system is superficial; try a fresh coat of paint on crumbling walls. We have to be ready to burn down the house if necessary, to rebuild it in such a way that every citizen from Mansfield to Milan truly feels part of and represented by the EU.
Maybe it’s the specter of Brexit that looms over us British MEPs, but I want every member to sense the urgency, and the historic nature of the moment we find ourselves in.
The cohort of MEPs with whom I’m serving will be in Brussels for the next five years. If they elect to preserve the status quo, there’s no guarantee the EU will last much longer than that.
We need to build a Europe that is democratic, compassionate and gifted with an enlivened democratic mandate. We need a radically progressive program, one that puts our most vulnerable first, while protecting future generations from the climate crisis.
It’s a reality we can make happen — and one I will fight for in my mandate, however long that may be.
Magid Magid is a British MEP and former mayor of Sheffield.
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