The growing pains of Brussels

Brussels, metropolis and cosmopolitan

Spanish rates of unemployment, Chinese levels of income inequality and a diversity comparable to that of New York: Brussels has it all. The city is driven by modern dynamics but is governed by institutions stemming from old inter-community tensions. The growing sense of “Brussels” can help to better address the problems.

Younes is one of tens of thousands of people without documents in Brussels. He left Tunisia several months after the Arab Spring began. “A sensible revolt, but it’ll take a while before it brings economic improvements and jobs”, he says. Younes keeps a clear view on things, even tough his life is tough. The odd jobs in construction and on the Sunday market at Midi Station allow him to muster together a couple of hundred euros a month.

He leads us into the Gésu, an abandoned convent in Sint-Joost-ten-Node. Now owned by a Swiss national, it is one of Europe’s biggest squatting houses. Younes himself doesn’t want to live there: “Living with so many ‘difficult’ people is impossible.” However, the place is clearly kept clean. Victor, a Cameroon national who is trying to engage the owner into a second ‘agreement’ (the first ‘agreement’ started in October 2011 and lasted 8 months) and serves as unofficial manager of the Gésu, is exhausted. “Hardly got any sleep last night”, he sighs. “At 3 am somebody started a bonfire in the garden and I had to intervene, which is easier said than done considering the kind of people that sometimes live here”. The Gésu houses 160 people, hailing from every inhabited continent in the world, with the exception of Oceania.

One kilometre down the road from the Gésu is the - expensively - renovated Berlaymont building, headquarters for the European Commission which governs the largest economy in the world. A European Commissioner such as Karel De Gucht takes home €15,000 a month as do the top officials. A stone’s throw from there is the European Parliament. Its 751 members earn €6,000 a month, their 2,000 strong staff have varying wages of up to €5,000 a month. All in all, the European Union has about 40,000 well paid employees. They help to make Brussels rich and force the soaring house prices.

Permanent immigration

Two worlds, so close to each other and yet so far apart. “Typical for the ‘small world city’ of Brussels”, according to Eric Corijn, professor of Urban Geography at the Free University of Brussels. “Brussels has the signature and the presence of a metropolis - connectivity to global networks, enormous diversity…but it is a lot smaller and more liveable than, for example, London.” Just over 1.1 million citizens and yet almost every nationality on the globe. “And the special bit about Brussels is that all these nationalities live close to each other. In Paris, for example, the poor live a long way from the centre”, says Anderlecht resident Nordine Saïdi of the political movement Egalité.

A small metropolis where powerful and vulnerable, poor and wealthy, bitter and hopeful often live very close to each other, thanks to the crescent shaped area of poor districts situated next to the canal in the very heart of the city. This crescent which once harboured the Flemish immigrant workers from the Pajottenland region during the industrial revolution is now inhabited by old and new immigrants from all over the world. This is where the poor enter Brussels. These are the cheaper districts armed with the networks and structures to help immigrants find work and shelter (although that remains a far from easy task). The rich immigrants typically live in the south east of the Brussels region. Brussels accounts for 36 per cent of all immigrants in Belgium.

This permanent immigration highlights one of the current ‘features’ of Brussels: population growth. Since 1995, the city has gained approximately 10,000 people every year. Sometimes it is (much) more than that: in 2010, 55,590 foreign immigrants arrived and 26,184 left. The flow of internal migration on the other hand is negative. More Belgians left Brussels (in 2010) than arrived (-12,819). To complete the picture, in 2010 the natural population growth (births minus deaths) was positive (+9,179).

This continuous influx explains why one third of inhabitants do not hold Belgian nationality. More than half of those belong to the EU15, another 15 per cent come from the twelve new Member States. The increase of the Polish and Romanian nationals are amongst the most significant over the past 20 years, the number of Poles increased from 2,000 to 20,000; the number of Romanians from 700 to 15,000.

The increased immigration of foreigners has everything to do with the increased inequality in the world, alongside the factors that has made the European Union attractive for economic immigrants since the 1990s: globalisation, the fall of the Iron Curtain, the expansion of the union itself. The inequality in global income seeps into Brussels and therefore the city somewhat represents the world in miniature: Brussels is the most unequal of the three Belgian regions. According to the Gini-index, it scored 0.36 in 2007, compared to 0.31 for the whole of Belgium. In wealthy communities such as Uccle or Sint-Pieters-Woluwe, it rises above 0.4. These figures are calculated after taxes, including social corrections and without taking the very low incomes of undocumented people into account. The numbers are evidently drawing ever closer to those of countries like Russia, United States or China.

According to Nordine Saïdi: “Brussels mirrors the North-South global relationship. Most of the wealth is concentrated in a couple of areas, while in places like Anderlecht, Molenbeek, Sint-Joost-ten-Node and Schaarbeek, half of young people don’t have a job. The same ingredients that stimulated the revolt in the Arab countries are also present here.”

700,000 jobs, 100,000 unemployed

According to Christian Vandermotten, Professor of Economic Geography at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, there is no shortage of jobs in Brussels. “The number of jobs increased from 639,000 in 1997 to more than 700,000 in 2006. The recession did take the edge off perhaps, but Brussels is far from suffering in that area.”

During the peak period of de-industrialisation and the middle-class flight from cities, Brussels saw its population decrease from 1,079,000 in 1967 to just 950,000 in 1995. The city’s contribution to the Belgian economy decreased from 16 to 14 per cent.

The pendulum swung back in the 1990s. Under neo-liberal globalisation, cities vied for capital and rich consumers. Brussels did so by becoming the centre of decision-making for the European Union, the headquarters for NATO and that of most Belgian governments. All of them (as well as their subsidiaries) require lots of highly skilled workers, found mostly outside of the city. More than 60 per cent of the jobs in Brussels are filled by non-Brussels inhabitants.

‘Most of the wealth is concentrated in a couple of areas, while in some places half of young people don’t have a job. The same ingredients that stimulated the revolt in the Arab countries are also present here.’
Result: 28 per cent of the Brussels population lives under the poverty line, which is much higher than in Flanders (10 per cent) and Wallonia (17 per cent). And the differences within the Brussels region are even higher: the median tax declaration in Sint-Joost-ten-Node is only half of that in Sint-Pieters-Woluwe. In Sint-Joost-ten-Node, 10 per cent of the active population live on benefits, compared to 1 per cent in Sint-Pieters-Woluwe. Unemployment reaches Spanish or Greek levels - 30 per cent - in Molenbeek and reaches 40 per cent amongst the youth. Brussels has more than 100,000 unemployed; 35 per cent of the non-EU youth did not finish secondary school.

“I too left school at 16”, says Nordine Saïdi, now working as a supervisor with handicapped persons. “Why? I don’t know. It didn’t interest me anymore. Now I know it is a miracle that I have a job, probably because I’m good with the disabled. Mind you, I make €1300 a month; graduates doing the same as me earn €2200. That’s what I try to tell young people in the poor districts: there are consequences if you don’t finish school.” Saïdi is glad he has a job. “Takes me out of my neighbourhood every day and broadens my view. Most of my friends never got off the street.” The street: signifying unemployment, drugs and sometimes crime.

Saïdi sums up the poorer districts’ mutual sentiment in one word: “Hoegra, Arabic for humiliation. Since 9/11, racism has worsened considerably. When we leave our neighbourhood, we are checked and monitored. My parents have lived here for forty years but still don’t feel like they are Belgian citizens. That’s sad.”


The population increase and move towards a service-economy with highly skilled labour will both continue. By 2060, there will be around 1.5 million people living in Brussels. Will they all be able to find a house, a school, a job? Can Brussels be an enjoyable and sustainable city in times of climate change? Does Brussels have the structure and the means to achieve this? Conversely, the population increase is not so dramatic in itself. Even with 1.5 million people, the population density increases from 63 to 85 per hectare. In Paris it is 200.

Then there are the finances. Due to the enormous number of commuters, the majority of the Brussels ‘living complex’ (the area and the people linked socio-economically by employment) is outside of the Brussels region. This is also a result of the old Flemish wish to keep the ‘ink stain’ of French-speaking Brussels as small as possible - reason why the surface of the Brussels region has been politically fixed fifty years ago and can not be changed.

Professor of Social Geography at KU Leuven, Christian Kesteloot states, “About 60 per cent of the Brussels living complex is outside the city. In foreign cities in neighbouring countries, this is between 20 and 40 per cent.” The financial effects are there. Moreover, the income in some areas around Brussels has increased threefold since 1976, while in large parts of Brussels it has hardly increased at all. “And yet the poorer Brussels region pays for the security and mobility of the rich inhabitants of the surrounding areas, which is unsustainable,” explains Kesteloot, who pleads for a new negotiated agreement between Brussels and its wider surroundings.

According to Eric Corijn, “Brussels is an economic machine doing a pretty good job, but mainly for the surrounding areas. All of these commuters pay taxes where they live, not where they work. Either this is compensated by agreeing to split the taxes between the areas of residence and the work place, or through road taxes and city improvements - making the access roads narrower – which would lead to the commuters paying individually”.

Corijn points out that both Flanders and Wallonia only contribute in a limited way and that those contributions are pre-destined for mobility and security. “There’s also a need to raise the living standards of the poor inhabitants, an economic project based on the available talent and activities across the crescent. For example, in all European cities, old industrial buildings are reused for cultural purposes. We could do the same here, but here the typical Belgian solution to communitarian tensions between Flemish and French speaking Belgians isn’t helpfull for that kind of initiatives. Culture and education are competences linked to the communities (of Dutch speaking and French speaking Belgians, jvd) while economics falls under the regions (Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels, jvd). This makes aligning efforts quite difficult”.

This brings us to the governing structures that emerged from the past inter-Community conflicts and have failed to adapt to new challenges. “Nevertheless, we can still see some movement”, Corijn reveals. “Both the population and the cultural world are beginning to think of ‘Brussels’ rather than ‘Flemish’ or ‘French’. This is also a trend seen with politicians like the new mayor of Brussels Rudi Vervoort.”

Everybody agrees that education is crucial to empowering the youth. Multilingualism is key. Yet education falls short. Nordine Saïdi continues, “I had Dutch in school for several years, but it was always the same sentences over and over again. The teachers themselves barely spoke Dutch.” Education is a prime example of how the political communitarian structures - so typical for Belgium - blocks an optimal solution. In Brussels, each community organizes its own French and Dutch schools, and there is almost no cooperation. Imagine the Flemish and the French education systems working together and exchanging the necessary teachers to make every Brussels inhabitant a trilingual citizen.

Finally there’s sustainability. Green mobility and climate friendly housing call for enormous investment. These can drive a lot of jobs. Leaving the car behind can also open up space for inhabitants to enjoy things together, making it a better place to live. Brussels is definitely not a frontrunner there. Underneath the metropolis is a mostly hidden structure of rivers and streams, hills and valleys. Architect and sociologist Pierre Vanderstraeten states, “A sustainable city should take advantage of these assets. Transform the valleys into green passageways, both to allow cyclists to enter the city and to act as green lungs in times of climate change.”

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