A new survey of the lives of more than 9,000 EU expatriates in Brussels paints a picture of an estranged community, largely secluded from local residents in a city they consider dirty and unsafe, but somehow pleasant to live in.
By its own admission, the survey sought to clarify whether “the image of the Brussels expatriate who lives on an elitist island actually reflects the truth.”
But despite its proclaimed intention of dispelling myths about the EU expat community, the report ended up confirming a number of them.
Nearly 74% of EU expats who responded to the survey felt that “the international community lives in a world of its own and has few contacts with other Brussels residents”, according to the survey, published on 8 July by the Brussels-Europe Liaison office.
“I don’t know enough Belgians” is a statement more than 60% of respondents agreed with, confirming the impression of EU foreigners themselves, that they live in a “bubble” separate from the city’s native residents. The percentage even reaches 80% for newcomers who have lived in Brussels for less than two years.
No Belgian friends whatsoever
Among those newcomers, 23% say they have “no Belgian friends whatsoever”, a proportion which tends to go down as the years go by, reaching 6.6% among those who have lived in Brussels for more than 10 years.
The Brussels regional government commissioned the survey to find out more about the city’s perceived strengths and weaknesses, with a view to better meeting the international community's expectations and needs. This group represents almost 13% of the Brussels-capital region’s economic activity and 12.7% of total employment, according to figures from the Brussels-Europe Liaison Office.
A previous survey, conducted in 2009, revealed similar trends, finding that young EU professionals had a tendency not to mix with the local population, as many of them believe they will stay only for a short period of time.
"Many Europeans still live among themselves in some parts of the city without necessarily showing willingness to integrate”, said Alain Hutchinson, a former MEP and president of the Europe-Brussels Liaison Office, who presented the survey findings at a press conference on 8 July.
Hutchinson, himself the descendant of a British wartime veteran who settled in Brussels after World War II, admitted he was not surprised by the findings.
“Nothing is particularly surprising to me in there”, Hutchinson said, adding that they confirmed a tendency for EU expats to “live among themselves” in “luxury ghettos” around the European district.
"We know that there are some municipalities in Brussels where there are concentrations of European officials – it’s always been like that," Hutchinson said, noting that “things are getting better” and that the EU population now tends to be more scattered around town than in the past.
A dirty, unsafe city plagued by poverty
The new research was wide-ranging and covered areas like the expat community’s participation in cultural events and local elections, and their broader opinion about the quality of services on offer in the Belgian capital, such as transport and cinemas.
Strikingly, when asked whether they found Brussels dirty, with too much “litter in the street”, an overwhelming 80% agreed (44.5% agreed “completely”).
The EU expat community also widely sees Brussels as poverty-stricken, with 68.2% agreeing with the statement that “there is a lot of poverty in Brussels”. And more than half disagreed with the statement that they felt safer in Brussels than other major European cities, confirming widespread reports of petty crime and theft in some of the city’s neighbourhoods.
A documentary last year by a Flemish film student highlighted the sense of insecurity felt by women in Brussels, who can be frequently harassed or insulted in some streets.
Maybe as a result of this, most expats say they would rather not raise their children in Brussels, with nearly half (46%) saying they would prefer not to enrol their children in primary education here (the percentage climbs to 55% for secondary education).
On the positive side, almost half of respondents agreed that quality of life in Brussels is “better than in other major European cities”. Housing is generally considered to be cheaper (38%) and cultural offerings are seen as “rich and varied” (78%). Expats also agree that healthcare is “of high quality” (60%) and that Brussels is “a gastronomic city” (70%). Women, however, seem disappointed at its shopping possibilities, with only 34% agreeing that Brussels “offers a diverse choice of boutiques”.
When it comes to their choice of transport, expats appear to be greener than Belgian residents: 11.1% choose the bicycle as their main means of transport – compared to 3.5 % of Brussels natives. This is despite the fact that most (51.5%) do not find the city as welcoming for cyclists.
Low participation in local elections
But the low turnout at last year’s municipal election (13.7%) was a particular area of disappointment for Hutchinson.
"It is something that I do not understand,” said the president of the Europe-Brussels Liaison Office, who added: “It is difficult for us to admit that part of the population is not represented at the local level, while they complain that the city is not clean or that they do not like the city’s waste collection policy."
There are some reasons for hope, however, as the participation rate of EU foreigners in last year’s local elections was higher than the European average (about 10%). Foreigners living in Belgium have the right to vote locally, but are required to register in their municipality first. When they do so, voting becomes compulsory, a practice which most respondents singled out as a major deterrent to registering.
In the long run, the survey did reveal a propensity for EU expats to integrate well with the local population. “The longer they stay, the more likely it appears that expatriates will step out of their ‘bubble’ and integrate,” the survey noted.
And when EU expats choose to stay in Brussels for more than ten years, 77% become homeowners, reflecting the attractiveness of the Brussels housing market. (This can also have a negative impact by pushing up house prices, Hutchinson admitted.)
Reflecting on the survey findings, Hutchinson said the integration difficulties of the EU expat community were all but normal: “You know, all the problems we mentioned here [are] quite a natural phenomenon related to the establishment of foreign communities wherever they are implanted.”
“Integration is always complex in the beginning. The roots remain strong when you expatriate," he said.
Language and revenue remains a taboo
Interestingly, the survey deliberately evaded questions about respondents' levels of income or ability to speak one of Belgium’s three official languages (the survey was available in French, Dutch, and English).
“This is always very touchy,” Hutchinson admitted when asked about languages, referring to lingering tensions between Belgium’s Dutch and French-speaking communities.
“In the institutions, everybody speaks English,” said Hutchinson, who conceded that some questions were deliberately left out from the questionnaire because they were “disturbing” – whether for the Brussels regional government or for the EU institutions. “It is clear that not speaking French or Dutch is a handicap,” he noted.
Just over half the respondents said they would like it if the Brussels public administration spoke more English.
Similarly, the survey avoided potentially awkward questions about income.
“The issue has not been addressed,” Hutchinson conceded, noting that the salaries of EU officials were “obviously much higher than the average salary of Brussels residents”.
“We thought the question could be intrusive and discourage participants from participating,” explained Carlo Luyckx, the director of the Brussels-Europe Liaison Office, who is also deputy mayor at the Saint-Gilles municipality. 80% of respondents to the survey were officials working for the EU institutions.
The Brussels EU expat community is estimated at around 100,000 people, or about 10% of the city's total population, according to official figures released in 2009 by the Brussels-Europe Liaison Office.
This number includes those working for the EU institutions but also people working for related entities such as national and regional representations, trade associations, NGOs, consultancies and civil society organisations.
EU expats living in Brussels are often perceived by native residents as a "separate community" of high-salaried, privileged professionals, according to the 2009 survey, released ahead of the European elections.
The research, conducted among young professionals (23-35), found that EU expats living in Brussels have a tendency not to mix with the local population as most of them see their stay in the Belgian capital as temporary.
25 May 2014: Belgium holds a general election (legislative and federal). European elections will take place on the same day (EU expats are eligible to vote).