It’s around 8pm and the place is going like a fair. I am squeezed between an East European couple on one side and a Spanish pair on the other. The waiter delivering many forms of cooked mussels is French but he is speaking to us all in flawless English. So why does this place feel so unmistakeably Belgian?
The thing that bugs me about the anti-European crew is their claim that Britain will lose its identity if it becomes a truly paid up member of the EU. I think that must be a perverse form of envy. Compared with the bland chain store uniformity of the average British town centre, most European towns and cities seem to have a wonderfully civilised and individual sense of place. Brussels is not at all like London or Paris or Barcelona. In some way that it is hard to pin down, it is an international city with a local atmosphere.
Maybe it is something to do with the beer. Belgium makes over 400 different beers (served in nearly as many different glasses); that’s one for every day of the year and a few over as the tour guides always remind you. Or maybe it is because Brussels, like a lot of other European cities, actually still takes pride in making something of their own at all. The smell of chocolate and vanilla is everywhere and – though international chain stores line the pedestrian shopping centres – the cobbled streets round the Grand Place are crammed with small, independent shops, cafes and businesses.
We pay for our mussels and Belgian beer and walk through pavement cafes still serving seafood beneath patio heaters though Christmas is less than a month away. We’re heading for the Cuban bar, Che Habana, though we’re told it really only comes to life after midnight. I hadn’t expected the capital of Europe to be such fun or so stylish. Each arcade is competing for the most innovative lighting display and every shop window is exquisitely dressed. That jewellers’ across the street turns out to be another chocolate shop with a queue of tourists waiting for their individually hand-made treat. Is this sense of pride what the Europhobes really fear?