Brussels: A political centre, a city of many faces

It is usually thought of the European Union capital city as a faceless conglomeration somewhere between France and the Netherlands, where heaven exists for bureaucrats that write incomprehensible legal and technical texts, and communicate with citizens in a similar style. Brussels is rarely considered for what it really is; probably a very unique place not only in Europe but in the world and very much comparable to Washington DC. Brussels is much more than just a beehive of officials. It is the center for political events in Europe and one of the most important places for lobbyists from different Member States. Brussels is certainly not impersonal or empty. Brussels are people, students, trainees, lobbyists, politicians, NGO workers and officials.

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Photo: ŠM

It could be said that Brussels is a historically lucky city. Today’s Belgium once lay at one of the most important trade routes from north to south. Then, the Belgian king reigned over vast territories in Africa, including the wealthy resources of Congo. Now, Belgium, which is in itself also an extremely complicated country, is the capital of the European Union. Brussels is often referred to as the gray and uninteresting place. In principle, in my opinion, this is true about the city. Namely, the climate is not the most pleasant most of the year. Heavy gray clouds hang over the city and sometimes it happens that a light needs to be switched on from the morning until evening to at least give a feeling of some brightness. The rain and the wind are not alien in the capital of Europe. Also, most tourists prefer to head to Ghent or Bruge to see Flemish architecture and cuisine as Brussels offers merely a bi-annual flower carpet at the Grande place and over 300 beers in the touristic Delirium bar. No high edge fashion events or concerts really take place in Brussels, rather the capital of Flanders, Antwerpen. In short, why would someone want to move one’s  life to from sunny climate of southern Europe in this dark place with the main tourist attraction of the “Boy who pees”?

It is precisely because Brussels is not only the city. Brussels is a phenomenon, a bubble, an exception. In Brussels live a huge number of nationalities, not only from Europe but from all over the world, and yet, Europeans living in the “Euro bubble” are the most interesting. Interesting because they do not feel that they are immigrants, rather preferring to call themselves “expats”. For them it’s easy to feel at home as a big majority of people living in the European quarter between Rondpoint Schuman and Place Jourdan, is not Belgian at all.  Most of them work for the EU institutions or companies that work in the field of EU affairs. The expats in Brussels are a special community somewhat similar to the Erasmus communities at European universities. They work on their own schedule, have their own habits and socialize with each other. This creates a kind of a sense of belonging, where everybody is different, yet all are the same. A kind of mini-Europe, we could say.

Among these expats are also politicians who sit in the European Parliament, as well as commissioners, heads of offices, consultants, assistants, military attaches, diplomats from embassies, lawyers, lobbyists from various fields, journalists of national media and private businessmen and businesswomen. And let’s not forget the trainees and students who so enthusiastically pursue their studies or their first job in the Euro bubble.

Brussels is the center of the political events in Europe. Not Paris, not London and not Berlin. None of the European countries can today claim that international politics happens in their capitals. Brussels is the most practical destination, as senior officials and politicians meet there almost on a daily basis and use their “free time” for informal discussions and agreements. Let’s not fool ourselves any more and admit that Brussels is the place to be. If a country or a company doesn’t want to be excluded from negotiations, someone must be in Brussels to represent it at the right moment. Each Member State should therefore, for the purposes of their national interests, ensure its presence in the capital of Europe.

In Brussels, your job is a part of your identity. Where you come from is less important than what you do and what is your background. The number of languages ​​is counted in 3+ and every year there are more multilingual Euro babies. The vast majority of expats, especially young people, is extremely ambitious and the atmosphere is full of optimism, as well as the competition and sometimes rivalry, but mostly the feeling that anything is possible. It is not easy to find and get a good job, but it is possible. Maybe not in the first year, but it’s not impossible. Young expats believe that hard work will be rewarded and it is indeed. And although not a day goes by when expats do not complain of Belgium, Belgians and the Belgian system, deep down they know that no other country would be so tolerant towards all of these nationalities and allow them to import their habits, than exactly Belgium (probably partly also due to their non-chalance).

And last but not least, the expats in Brussels are a dynamic group, which may at first glance either offend or charm an outsider. They could be perceived as be too intrusive or extremely open and pleasant. Depending on your perception. They are quick to establish business and personal contacts. Soon, you get invited for a drink and expand your network. Expats continuously argue about political and EU matters, as seen from their own perspective. Although they are probably lost cases in the eyes of their countries’ nationalists, expats do enjoy these kinds of discussions. They have a pronounced ability to try to understand the thoughts, perceptions, arguments and  emotions of my partner. Finally, this is a part of the job.

Brussels is primarily the people and their energy. Without “Europeans”, Brussels would not be what it is. If you visit the city as a tourist or on business, therefore, do not forget to take a walk through the European quarter, eat a delicious grill in the Greek Kosmos, drink coffee at Cafe Italiano …. and finish the meal with exquisite Belgian pralines.

When expat returns to the country where s/he grew up,  home feels like a strange place. Everything is to be started anew, contacts with friends from the past are weaker and instead of rapid invitations to socialize, they are faced with established groups of friends who are not accustomed to the new arrivals. Jobs seem rigid and misunderstandings happen when speaking in your mother tongue. But who could blame anybody. It is difficult to export the Brussels expat ways of life to the Member State. We are aware of this and it should not be the case in itself. We’re trying to understand our conpatriots and learn from them again how to survive in our own country. But at the same time, we cannot eradicate our experience of Brussels. Neither do we want to as this would mean giving up a part of our identity. Therefore, we will be very happy if you occasionally get curious and try to understand how life in Brussels impacts on the individual and how could the the expats contribute their own country when moving home.

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Avtor: Špela Majcen Marušič

I am a first-generation student of European affairs from Slovenia, a proud member of the Charles Darwin promotion at the College of Europe with experience in the European Parliament and the UN Refugee Agency. I believe that a kinder world can be created through cooperation and understanding. We are not as different as we tend to believe. You can follow me on Twitter @SpelaMa.

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