As the working day draws to a close, Place du Luxembourg - the square in front of the European Parliament in Brussels - fills with people. Among the crowd are lobbyists, on the hunt for networking opportunities.
Place du Luxembourg - or Place Lux as it’s known - was described by one former Member of the European Parliament (MEP) as the "beating heart of EU Brussels." On a weekend, you'd be forgiven for wondering why. The picturesque square is lined with rows of cafes and bars, but aside from a few bumbling tourists, the place is all but deserted.
Come here on a weeknight, however, and it’s transformed: Hundreds of young professionals from the neighbouring European Parliament gather here to discuss the latest EU gossip - over a drink or two.
The MEPs and their assistants are joined by swarms of diplomats, company executives and journalists, all armed with stacks of business cards … and endless small talk. As the cocktails, wine and beer start flowing, the networking begins in earnest.
The 'K Street' of Brussels
In the last ten years or so, as the powers of the European Parliament have expanded, so too has the presence of lobbyists and lawyers in the streets surrounding Place Lux. The area has been likened to K Street in Washington DC - a well-known center for think tanks and interest groups. With thousands of people working in the parliament, it has become a natural place to make contacts and have a good time.
Here, it’s handy to be multilingual: With people from all 27 EU member states working in the European institutions, you’ll hear a different language at every table. You won’t find many "real" Bruxellois venturing out here - it's almost become an expat enclave.
Letting off steam
The funny thing is that it's hardest to find a seat on a Thursday night - not Friday as you might think. That’s partly because everyone's taking advantage of cheap happy hour offers, and partly because most of the parliamentary business takes place from Monday to Thursday, to allow MEPs time to travel to their constituencies for the weekend. So Thursday's the day when everyone's keen to let off steam.
Ralph's Bar encapsulates the spirit of Place Lux. If you pass by there early on a weekday evening, you’ll see people dressed in smart office gear, with wine or beer glasses in hand. They gather in small groups around the tables on the terrace. And if the Brussels weather is looking a bit grey - as it often is - there are waterproof coverings to keep the rain off.
Apparently those who frequent Ralph’s tend to be on the right of the political spectrum. The left-of-center crowd heads to the Pullman - which is the bar right next door. When I was there I couldn’t tell the difference to be honest. If you’re at all involved in the European machine, you may even spot some familiar faces in the crowd.
If, however, you’re more interested in the food than the politics, there are the cafes and restaurants clustered around the square, which offer food to suit most tastes - though perhaps not surprisingly some of the menus are a bit pricey.
Once you’ve had your fill of all that Brussels babble, you can easily hop on one of the buses which run through the square, whisking you away from the European quarter and into the center of the city. Or perhaps if you're a VIP you’ll just take a cab from one of the taxi ranks.