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Europe

Brussels: Closed for the summer

An entire city coming to an almost complete halt in the summer may seem normal to some. But for Andrea Rönsberg, caught in Brussels, the extent to which the EU capital shuts down is a little disconcerting.

It seems as if the city has been turned to mute. Or as if a vinyl record (remember those?) is set to half speed. The usual hustle and bustle of commuter traffic in Brussels almost disappears, from one day to the next, as soon as the calendar turns to the month of August.

That's a welcome relief, of course, for those who have not left the city (including yours truly), as well as for bus drivers steering their vehicles through markedly less chaos than usual.

"It's much calmer", says Abdel, who even finds time to chat as he turns into the Schuman traffic circle close to which many European institutions are located. "It's like in Paris," he adds, telling me that he drove buses there before coming to Brussels, "driving gets much better when everybody is gone for the summer."

Upsides and downsides

Being driven also gets much better: Even at the commuter prime-time of 8:30 in the morning, it's possible to find a seat and enjoy a relaxed journey to the EU government district.

But - as always - there is a downside. Public transportation runs on a vacation schedule, meaning that a whopping twenty minutes may pass between buses. Those buses that do run are likely to meander along hitherto unknown routes because somewhere along the way, streets are closed off for construction.

Construction site in Brussels

With fewer commuters to clog up the roads, other traffic obstructions materialize

And while supermarkets keep their regular schedules, bakeries, restaurants and all sorts of specialty stores close. Not for a week, not for two weeks - but for a duration of four to six weeks, they put up signs telling customers to take their business elsewhere (unfortunately, they make no suggestion as to where exactly one should go to buy bread, or eat out). Only a few die-hard business men seem to stick it out.

"The other florists in the area close at various times in the summer," says Alain Vanden Bemde who runs a flower shop in the residential neighborhood of Uccle, "but I always keep my shop open. There are fewer people, but those who have stayed have more time on their hands and may decide to completely re-do their garden," he says.

But Alain brushes aside the idea that, with competitors closed for the summer, huge profits come his way during the month of August. "I do a lot of flower arrangements for the European institutions and for various embassies and permanent representations," he says, "and they're basically gone for the summer."

Gone for the summer? Mais non!

The notion that the European institutions have closed shop along with florists and bakers, though, is one that Mina Andreeva seeks to dispel. "The European Commission never stops working," says Andreeva, who is the body's deputy chief spokesperson.

"Every week, there is a commissioner who is the guardian of the commission, so to speak, and even the president of the commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, is right here in the Berlaymont building," Andreeva told Deutsche Welle, adding that the refugee crisis and the ongoing talks on a third bailout program for Greece were keeping her and colleagues busy.

Screenshot of the European Commission's announcement for the midday briefing

No foreseeable events for Monday - but one swallow doesn't make a summer

Realities on this Monday, though, seem to contradict Andreeva. With renovation work going on in the press room, the regular midday briefing takes place in a room only few journalists show up in.

"That's cute," says a French reporter back from vacation upon entering an almost empty room. "Should we have a picnic instead?"

It takes Andreeva under a minute to complete her statement, and only a few minutes more to answer questions. Yes, the commission is aware of the deteriorating situation of the migrants in Calais and welcomes the cooperation between Britain and France. Yes, the commission takes note of the re-opening of the stock exchange in Athens, and no, there is no comment on market developments.

"I like to work in the summer because the pace goes down," says one reporter who has worked in Brussels for the past 10 years but prefers not to be named.

Then again, he warns, covering the Brussels beat in the month of August may backfire.

"Just because the city is quiet, that's no guarantee we get to lay low," he says.

"We've had very busy summers," he adds, and starts counting off: "The war between Russia and Georgia took place in the summer of 2008, we've had the debt crisis flare up in the summer time and again these past years, and last summer, the EU was deciding on sanctions against Russia which gave all of us a lot to do," he says.

Of lost ships and Cecil the Lion

But this year, the EU/Brussels summer seems to have entered calmer waters now that thefrenzy of special meetings on the Greek debt crisis has abated.

Though Mina Andreeva says in the absence of major political stories, Brussels journalists still come up with something.

"One summer, we had an arctic ship that had disappeared and everyone was asking the commission where it was," she says.

One reporter seems to be thinking exactly along these lines, as he comes up to a small group of us chatting after the briefing.

"Have you asked about Cecil the Lion yet," he enquires.

How to turn the killing of Cecil, Zimbabwe's most famous lion, into an EU-story - that would be something to think about next time I wait for the bus. For now, though, this next shop is closed as well.

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