Brussels stakeholders call on expats to shape EU capital

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Non-Belgian residents of Brussels should be granted the right to vote in regional elections, concluded a conference in the city last weekend convened to discuss the future of Europe’s multi-faceted capital.

Attendees also called for the ‘global city’ of Brussels to become better coordinated with neighbouring regions of Belgium. 

The conference gathered all the major Belgian political parties, except Flemish nationalist group Vlaams Belang, to discuss the relationship between the French and Dutch-speaking communities of Brussels. 

Despite obvious differences, politicians and civil society representatives reached agreement on a number of key issues, including: 

  • The need for strong institutional coordination between Brussels and its natural hinterland, particularly French-speaking Brabant and Flemish Brabant (in which the city’s airport and much of its ring road lie). 
  • The need for bilingual lists in Brussels elections, ensuring that voters are not forced to choose from exclusively French or Flemish-speaking candidates. 
  • Non-Belgian residents of Brussels should be allowed to vote in such elections, and should be consulted in discussions on the capital’s future. 

Multinational, multilingual Brussels 

Over half of the Belgian capital’s population is of foreign origin, and almost half of its households are multilingual, reported the Brussels Citizens’ Forum. 

But Brussels “is not yet a model sustainable city, it is not truly a place of intercultural dialogue, and it is not a place where there are equal opportunities for everyone,” its final document concluded. 

Indeed, non-Belgian EU nationals resident in Brussels have the option of registering to vote in their adopted country in European and local elections to the ‘communes‘, but most prefer to vote at home or not at all. 

Such residents do not have the right to vote in elections to the Brussels regional parliament, which has a bigger role to play in shaping the city’s future.

Minister-President of the Brussels Capital Region Charles Picqué said the region's areas of competence needed to be defined more clearly. 

Outlining a possible vision for the future, he called for the establishment of a Council of Ministers to allow Belgium's three regions to better coordinate their work, and one electoral constituency to bring together the Brussels region and surrounding area. 

Asked by EURACTIV about practical plans to allow non-Belgian EU nationals to participate in regional elections, Brussels Capital Region Economy Minister Benoît Cerexhe said there was general agreement to move in this direction, mostly likely early in the Brussels Parliament's next mandate after the EU elections. 

Brussels Citizens' Forum coordinator Alain Deneef called on the upcoming Belgian EU Presidency to promote Brussels as a "real" capital of Europe. He said Brussels must work harder to fully integrate its working classes into the city's policies, particularly "l'Europe d'en bas" - citing residents of Turkish and Maghreb origins - and "l'Europe d'en haut" of expatriate Eurocrats and other professionals in EU circles. 

Deneff mentioned Brussels in the same bracket as other major multi-ethnic cultural centres, like London, Berlin and New York. He also compared the Belgian capital to Toledo in the Middle Ages and Sarajevo before the wars in the Balkans. 

Last Saturday's (25 April) Brussels Citizens' Forum (États généraux de Bruxelles) saw over 2,600 stakeholders from across the area take part in some 18 workshops. 

Ahead of the meeting, seven months of intensive consultation took place between representatives of the Brussels region's different linguistic, political and professional communities. 

In total, ten representative organisations were behind the process, including major trade unions CSC-ACV and FGTB-ABVV, employers' association BECI, cultural platforms, environment associations, and three think-tanks which deal with the European and sustainable future of Brussels: Aula Magna, Manifesto and BruXselforum. 

The Belgian capital's three main universities - VUB, ULB, and Faculté Universitaires Saint Louis – provided academic guidance, and used the gathering to announce a new joint venture: the Brussels Studies Institute. 

Meanwhile in March, European Commission Vice-President Siim Kallas presented plans to give the EU quarter in Brussels a "spectacular" facelift, announcing the winners of a competition to revitalise the area by giving it a more "symbolic" and "human" feel (EURACTIV 06/03/09). 

  • 4-7 June 2009: Elections to the Brussels Capital-Region and European parliaments. 
  • July-Dec. 2010: Belgian EU Presidency. 

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