Berne, Brussels and Vienna – tales of three cities (2015)

In less than 30 days in October 2015 I spent some time in three European cities attending meetings on three related themes: securing land tenure rights in rural communities, preparing programmes for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and discussing priorities in advisory services for tropical forestry. The meetings were held in a huge conference center called the Kursaal on a hill overlooking Berne, in the basement of the Metropole Hotel close to the Grand Place/Grote Markt in Brussels and at the Austrian Forest Research Institute (BFW) located in wooded parkland at the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna.

Traveling to and from these gatherings got me thinking about the world I’m living in as the 21st century advances and in particular about the unity and fragmentation of Europe, so I decided to write some notes. I have been to all three cities in the past: Brussels many, many times since the 1970s – I was interviewed in the city for a job at the beginning of 1980 – Berne for the first time in 1975 and Vienna also around 1980, en route from Istanbul and Budapest back to London where I was living (briefly) at the time. They are also cities on the fringes of the German sphere of influence in northern and central Europe. Oddly, although I have flown backwards and forwards across the country frequently in the last couple of years traveling from Copenhagen to Geneva, I haven’t set foot in the Bundesrepublik (also a federal republic) for ages.

Berne is where the bits of the Swiss confederation – the 26 cantons – are glued together. There were elections to the parliament, which meets in Berne, in October 2015. The right wing, UDC or SVP, won around a third of the votes making Switzerland probably the most extremely nationalist country in Europe, though the Danes, Hungarians and Poles are close runners for the title too. The depressing scenario is made all the more acute as the country oozes wealth.

13th Century Zytglogge in Berne – where Einstein dreamed of relativity


The other major cities in the confederation were found to be either too French (Geneva) or too German (Zürich), so when the cantons were coming together, Berne was the ”natural” choice for the capital. However, the beauty of Switzerland is not only in the mountains, but also in the decentralised power of the cantons and of local government. Berne is relatively unimportant in terms of taxes and services. Somehow it seems logical that although all the surrounding countries belong to the EU, the Swiss are neutral and ”independent.” Their system of regular referenda on important policy decisions is also a useful reminder of the power of informed consent, which must underpin democratic government. Sadly, Swiss populist extremists are using all the mechanisms of decision making to pursue their bigoted agendas; such that refugees from Syria and North Africa have found out that Switzerland is a country to be avoided despite the shortages of unskilled labour, which would otherwise seem to make it a good place to settle!

As the un-official capital of the European Union and the official bi-lingual capital of a strange divided state called Belgium, the sprawling and ugly agglomeration of Brussels is all about the tension between fragmentation and unity. The city is a largely French-speaking enclave within the largely Flemish-speaking province of Brabant. But as waves of immigration in the past half century have transformed the ethnic composition of the region, Arabic and English with a fair sprinkling of German and Italian have become equally important lingua franca. So when you enter a shop or launch into a conversation, which language do you choose? Why, French of course! Nonetheless it is good to see that every street sign is in two languages.

The ugliness of the city is due to suburban decay in parallel with urban renewal schemes undertaken in the randomised, ”semi-planned” manner of the Belgians. There is an anarchic current in the culture of this curious country, kept at bay with the rule of money and the Catholic Church. René Magritte and the surrealists were probably at home on the streets of Brussels, where umbrellas float in front of mirrors, the restaurants serve the most diverse food on the planet and the Emperor Leopold’s ghost is visible in the royal monuments and parks, mais ceci n’est pas un pays!


It seems an odd choice for the focal point of a giant unification project. Perhaps the EU is doomed to renewed fragmentation, under the pressure of the wounds and traumas of the Middle East and North Africa. The failure of European external relations has become increasingly apparent… the latest manifestation of our retreat from enlightened consciousness can be summed up as: we bomb, therefore we are.[1]

1100 kilometres to the east, Vienna is a central European city where the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire seems to lurk in the mortar of every building. My visit was too brief for serious assessment; but I did get a superficial impression of a buzzing metropolis with some appealing characteristics: a good transport system, big parks and fine-tuned gastronomic habits involving the consumption of lots of cakes and schnitzel! My German skills are limited, but the forestry people I spent 48 hours with were happy to share their stories in English.

We were shown around the vast Schönbrunn Palace, which was the summer residence of the Emperor and Empress in the period of Hapsburg glory and modelled on Versailles. We had dinner in an ethnic restaurant and discussed the history of the city in the light of the recent surge of refugees that resulted in an extraordinary suspension of direct train connections with Germany. Which led to conversations about the special relationship between the two countries and to consideration of the Anschluss, which was the defining event in pre-second world war Vienna. This was when Hitler returned to his homeland after annexation and the fate of thousands of Austrian Jews was sealed. The liberal world of a city famous for innovation in the social and psychological sciences, for music and fine arts, was transformed into a citadel of hatred and violence.[2]

Portraits of Austro-Hungarian ladies at the Schönbrunn Palace


After these trips I went for a week to San José in Costa Rica. It was some contrast! But Central America also suffers from the phenomena of “statelets” and nationalists. Maybe the territorial imperative is an unavoidable constant of human social organisation. But I fear that it will lead to downfall and collapse… especially when faced with atmospheric warming that is entirely oblivious of the borders and frontiers that ant people are scurrying to re-construct!

Back in Geneva – the ultimate globalised city where the United Nations vies with private banks to attract people from all across the earth – it is amusing to reflect on the notion of borders. The city is surrounded by France (Ain and Haute Savoie) but since Switzerland has been in the Schengen zone for the last ten years or so, the borders are ”open.” At least until recently, when the massacre of innocents in Paris resulted in a state of emergency in the neighboring départements and to bizarre sightings of heavily armed soldiers peering into the cars of Geneva’s shoppers hell-bent on saving money by stocking up on the other side…

Death riding a donkey on a sundial in Geneva’s old town


[1] An idea borrowed from Matt Carr:

[2] A moving study of the period is by George Clare, writing about the “Last Waltz in Vienna” (Macmillan, 1981), from the end of the empire in 1914 to the Anschluss in 1938 and about the fate of his family many of whom ended their days in the Nazi camps scattered across central Europe in the 1940s.

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