Welcome to Expatland
What does Brussels sound to you? Do only beers, fries and Mannenken Pis come to your mind? Dozens of perspectives can describe Brussels and the Brusselian life. But if you have a look at demography, the Belgian capital is definitely a very interesting city.
Brussels has been identified as the second worldwide city for expats last year, just after Dubai. Based on the World migration report 2015, De Tijd reported that 62% of the Brussels inhabitants are born abroad or are part of families that moved to Brussels. Only Dubai is more based on migration, as eight inhabitants out of ten are from abroad.
Although these statistics could be criticised -as you can be born abroad and have the Belgian citizenship- it is worth considering another figure from the Belgian statistics office. This year on January 1st, about 777,000 Brusselians were Belgian citizens and 414,000 were foreigners. It is then a very significant figure: it proves, in fact, that Brussels relies on migration and expats.
The people who move to Brussels are also quite young: Salvatore Orlando, Head of Expatriates at BNP Paribas Fortis, pointed out that “those from 18 to 35 years old represent about 30% of the expats“, making of Brussels a very dynamic urban area.
This fact is obviously not that surprising, if you consider that Brussels is one of the capitals of the European Union and a very important place in the international relations -as it hosts the NATO headquarters. Thousands of peoples have moved to the Belgian capital over the past years in order to be enrolled in the EU institutions, NGOs and hundreds of lobbies Brussels-based. People from all over the World have also decided to come only to get a job with absolutely no link with politics, as the institutions have made Brussels a very dynamic place with economic activity. In every sector, you can easily work with a rich variety of people, coming from all over Europe, Africa or Asia.
The expats who live in Brussels are however mainly from the European Union. In 2015, 8 EU countries hit the top 10 of foreign nationalities in Brussels, according to national data. The French citizens were at the top of the rank: about 61,000 French used to live in the Belgian capital. At the second place there were Moroccans (about 39,000), then Romanians (about 34,000) and Italians (about 31,000). Congolese people closed the top 10 rank with about 9,000 nationals.
House of cards
The statistics about the job sector may seem impressive, but you should keep in mind the number of people who work in the EU and International bubbles. As Le Figaro explained two years ago, the EU and International institutions directly generate from 13 to 14% of the jobs in Brussels. From 38,000 to 41,000 people would thus work for the Brussels-based EU institutions and organs. 4,000 people would also work at the NATO headquarters, a bit outside from the city centre. And about 24,000 people would work for lobbies, regional and diplomatic organisations as well as EU media etc. Just to keep in mind, Brussels is the second most important place of influence in the World, after Washington.
When you talk about the EU and International bubbles, you should also take into account all the trainees and unemployed people that look for a job in Brussels. They are hundreds and hundreds and they all come from all over the EU. And if you haven’t properly experienced the phenomenon yet, you should pass by Schuman, Arts-Loi or Luxembourg a couple of minutes at 9.00 am or 6.00 pm in any working day from Monday to Friday. You will then realise what the “EU bubble” term actually means.
To enter into this International labour market, the foreigners need to speak several languages, as Salvatore Orlando confirmed. “Speaking three languages is almost compulsory, and some of them speak four or five languages. It is a very competitive market“, he said.
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Attractive cultural life
However, it is not all about diplomatic and political issues. Brussels is an international and cosmopolitan city, but it is also very famous across the for arts and cultural events. As you probably know, Brussels usually hosts many concerts and artistic manifestations: the Belgian pride has grown quite a bit over the last years and got very famous; the Brussels Summer Festival makes the Belgian capital very active in summer, while Bozar hosts many exhibitions and musical events, such as Balkan Traffic and the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival. Moreover, many alternative places are quite valued and prized for those who want to be part of different communities. Brussels is probably not as famous all around the World as Berlin is, but it is definitely worth living here if you are an artist, whatever the sort of art you aim to be involved in.
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A student city
Last but not least, Brussels is also a massive student place, and thousands of foreign students are enrolled at the Brussels-based universities (ULB, VUB, Saint-Louis) or schools (hautes écoles). More than 8,000 foreign students are based in the Belgian capital, which represents a significant part of the student population. Several courses are taken by the foreigners, especially since of them are given in English. The courses and options offered are numerous, but the most popular seem to be in the health or architecture sectors.
Some years ago, the Belgian public administration found that about 20% of the students in the Wallonia-Brussels federation (32,000 people) were not from Belgium! And most of them (a bit more than 50%) were from France.
A city for expats… but improvement is still possible
Brussels is therefore definitely a city of expats and for expats. Should you have a walk in the city centre, or in all the communes in the Brussels-Capital Region, you will certainly meet with French, Italian, German or Portuguese citizens. Those communities have made this city as attractive as it is, developing and highlighting Brussels’ charm. Workers from all over Europe are present in many economic sectors, and all the nationalities and foreign citizens have come with their expertise and skills to make Brussels great (again?). Many students, especially those who are involved in EU politics and law, aim at staying in Brussels and are used to staying at least a couple of years once their diploma is over. The foreign artists work, live and pay their taxes in Belgium and the health practitioners basically stay some years in Belgium to earn experience.
But it is not only about the expats that come to Brussels to offer expertise to the Belgian capital. Brussels is also a very good place in terms of meetings and opportunities.
Although there is no doubt about the strong links between Brussels and the expats, there is still an issue in terms of integration. The EU bubble is sort of closed and many “Eurocrats” do not often mix with the Belgian citizens. The Italian, German and Spanish citizens know each other well in Brussels, but becoming friends with Belgian people could be a sort of big deal today. Although the city and the civil society are used to setting up many events to mix and gather the different communities, some efforts are still needed from the individuals. The way is however not as long as it seems. Making the Belgian and the EU capital as diverse as possible in every neighbourhood and every working area and event definitely can be a reality.
Should United in diversity also be the Brussels motto in the future?