Unity and Division in the Heart of Europe: the Paradox of Brussels

AP Photo/Jim Buell
By Roland Bensted

Brussels, a major international city, tourist hub and home to nearly 1,1 million residents, is often seen as a place of unity. It is the capital of federal Belgium, the heart of the EU and host to NATO, international financial institutions and major corporations. Yet, it is also the central battleground in ethnically and linguistically divided Belgium, the former seat of a particularly brutal colonial empire and a place of significant social divisions, highlighted by its 16 per cent unemployment rate.

That Brussels represents something of an idyll is not disputed. With around 30 per cent of its population being foreign nationals, it is a city of great opportunity and prosperity. Yet, such opportunity and prosperity is not shared by all Bruxellois.

Beyond the charming cobbled paving of the Grand Place, its many museums and the enchanting edifices of Art Nouveau architecture, Brussels plays host to social and geographical inequality, as does the Belgian nation.

Belgium’s ethno-linguistic divisions are highlighted by the fact that a new national government has still not formed, even though the last general election was in June 2010 and in spite of the efforts of King Albert II’s appointed mediators. This puts in sharp perspective the five days it took the UK’s Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties to form a coalition after the May 2010 general election.

A core reason why a national Belgian government has still not been formed is that parties from the more prosperous Dutch-speaking Flanders region want more decentralization, so that Flanders acquires more power. Indeed, some residents of Flanders would even like to secede from Belgium, leaving behind the less prosperous Wallonia in the south. Fear of the secession of Flanders, and the likely breakup of Belgium that would result from this, is a key reason why politicians and citizens from the Francophone Wallonia region almost universally oppose greater decentralization.

At the heart of this struggle, both geographically and politically, is Brussels. Although officially bilingual, French is the language that predominates in the Belgian and European capital. Without Brussels, an independent Flanders would have little viability. Thus, Francophone Brussels is making secession highly unlikely and, therefore, holding together divided Belgium.

Yet, this division does not appear to get in the way of many of Belgium’s political functions. Belgium’s Presidency of the EU Council, which it held on rotation during the second half of 2010, was widely judged to have been a success. And Belgium has been here before; it took 196 days for a government to be formed after the June 2007 general election.

Multiethnic, wealthy and with a buzzing social scene, Brussels for many visitors seems to embody the best of cosmopolitanism. However, rather than harmonious cohabitation, many of the diverse communities live side by side with little interaction. Rich and poor live next door to each other, yet rarely do their paths cross, professionally or socially.

In particular, Bruxellois of North African, Turkish and Congolese heritage tend to have less access to the type of opportunities available in Brussels’ business district or in its multinational institutions. Indeed, many of the top jobs are filled by highly qualified people from across the other EU countries and beyond. For many locals, their chances of joining the army of diplomats, professional political administrators and business executives remain remote.

While visiting Brussels, enjoy your waffles, moules-frites and fruit beer. Visit the pavement cafés; admire the Art Nouveau and the historical and anthropological collections of the museums. But remember that not all Bruxellois get to share in this dream. For the other side of the city, life is harsh; high unemployment and hard graft are the order of the day in a city that has a high cost of living. Yet, as befits a city in which political life carries on in spite of the absence of a government, Brussels, like Belgium, manages to muddle through. 


10 February 2011


Photo Credit: AP Photo/Jim Buell