Errant European

Brussels Export
Image source: Brussels Export

Etats Généraux de Bruxelles” sounds grander than “Citizens’ Forum of Brussels,” but that is what has been going on over the past several weeks, culminating in an end-of-March final plenary session. I attended one of the conferences last night, “Brussels as an International City,” with a Power Point summary of the brussels-international-city (.pdf) study done by a team of “cultural geographers” from Brussels’ main universities, ULB and VUB.

A city of a little over one million that houses institutions like the European Union and NATO, and almost a third of its inhabitants from other countries – that qualifies as international, so that’s that, right?

Actually, no. Part of the problem is that Brussels – whose name recognition rivals that of Coca Cola, and beats by far the other constituent regions of Belgium (what foreigner, outside of a select few, has ever heard of “Wallonia” or “Flanders?”) and of Brand Belgium itself – is synonymous with “bureaucracy.” The European Union is at once one of Brussels’ major sources of income, and the bane of its efforts to improve its brand or, as was used last night, its “city image.”

People pay good money to visit Brussels, whether on business or on holiday. The more than 5 million overnight stays per annum account for some 30,000 jobs. And yet Brussels struggles with its self-image.

European institutions – ably represented at the conference by several articulate “Eurocrats” (though the often pejorative use of the name shows the challenges facing the image folks) – are only now, more than 50 years into their prolonged “temporary” stay in the Belgian capital, coming to grips with how best to fit into the city that houses them.

Brussels, before it became the de facto capital of Europe, was and remains the capital of Belgium. Oh yes, that’s yet another image problem. Brussels, officially bilingual French-Dutch, probably has many more anglophones than Dutch-speakers in its midst, and perhaps many more Arabophones than English and Dutch speakers put together. Cacophony to some, opportunity to others: The Brussels Enterprise Agency (BEA) tries to put the city’s assets into context for foreign investors, as does Brussels Export (image).

Geographically surrounded by Dutch-speaking Flanders, Brussels’ periphery is Ground Zero in the Belgian language wars, which are really political wars masquerading as linguistic ones. The natural region of Brussels – were it not for the political boundaries that are limited to 19 “communes” in the urban center – would in other metropolitan areas stretch to include its economic hinterland.

So, Brussels has politics (Belgian and European), language (Belgium’s own, plus those of polyglot newcomers), and geography to contend with. A tall order for any city, but an immense challenge given the current morose economic context.

Luckily, the very convening of the “Etats Généraux” and the efforts of BEA and other home town boosters provides cause for hope. After a stint at NATO in the ’90s, we decided to return to Brussels and make it our permanent home. There’s truly no place more international – comforting for lifelong nomadic expats like us. That feeling of allegiance by Belgians and expats alike was evident last night, though several speakers pointed out that the “Méditerranéens” who constitute a large chunk of central-western Brussels inhabitants were largely absent from the Forum. At least the lacunae was noticed.

Far from taking its orphan political status lying down, citizens (and hangers-on like us) of Brussels are starting to look closely at their fate. There’s even a new political party in the making, “ProBruxsel,” which nicely misspells its very name to show bilingual (even trilingual) inclusiveness between French, Dutch, and English-speaking inhabitants. A similarly trilingual forum, Brussels Studies, has ambitions to be a “scientific” (meaning academic) meeting place for serious work on the idea of Brussels.

Brussels has started to identify its brand.

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  1. This is very nice view of Brussels and I like the idea of seacrhing and indetifying its brand. Brussels has many amazing facets, and I believe it desperatly needs more love, care and appreciation by all, its citizens, immigrants and its international employees/visitors.

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