Monday

11th Dec 2017

Integrating Europeans into multi-cultural Brussels

  • Roughly one third of Brussels' inhabitants is from another EU country (Photo: Arild Nybo)

“You want to know what a Romanian woman is doing running an African bar in Belgium?” says Laurentia, a white-haired, former accountant who runs Cap Africa, a restaurant in Brussels’ Matonge area.

“Everyone asks me this! It’s actually rather simple — ici, c’est l’Europe!,” she chuckles and leaves to attend to a table of African diplomats who come to see her every Friday.

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  • People think they come for a year or three, and before they know it, they’ve spent their whole life in Brussels. (Photo: FallacyFilms)

Our conversation is regularly interrupted by patrons entering and greeting Laurentia.

“We respect each other and get along very well," she says. “Africans and Romanians are both very family oriented.”

Freedom of movement is one of the EU’s four fundamental rights. But few people use it. Fewer than three percent of Europeans live in an EU country other than their own.

Brussels is another story. Here, the figure is 10 times the EU average. Roughly one third of its inhabitants is from another EU country. Not all of them are EU civil servants. Brussels’ EU migrants are also dancers, artists, architects, scientists, students, corporate lawyers, fiscal exiles and panhandlers.

Laurentia, the bar owner, followed her electrician husband.

Another third of the city’s inhabitants are Belgians of recent foreign origin, most often Moroccan. The share of ethnic Belgians, on the other hand, has been steadily decreasing since the 1960s and currently accounts for some 30 percent.

Every year, 36,000 Belgians leave the capital. Only 23,000 come back. Three of four children born in Brussels have foreign mothers.

Unity in diversity

Does this make Brussels closer to the European dream of unity in diversity?

Vendula, a young Czech woman working in the European Parliament, recently moved into a high-ceiling apartment overlooking place St Boniface together with her West Flemish boyfriend Sander.

She used to live in London and Paris in addition to her native Ostrava, but calls Brussels ”the ideal European city”.

“You need a while to start liking it. The multicultural mix here works really well.”

Vendula likes her new neighbourhood, which is on the verge of the European quarter and the African area Matonge. But she’s rarely in contact with the black people: it’s ”a question of access”.

"Maybe I should go on a tour! The other day I saw a visitors’ group being guided around the African shops. I’d love to know what to make out of the different vegetables."

Nicole Jocelyn, originally from Haiti, owns a braiding parlour. She has also been the president of Matonge’s merchants association for 15 years.

Like most other Matonge regulars, she lives elsewhere: in Uccle, with her Belgian husband. For her, Matonge is above all the stomping ground for African diaspora.

“Africans live all over Belgium, maybe they are married to Belgians and eat Belgian food every day. This is where they come to feel at home. Here, there is everything an African needs, from food and hairdressers to entertainment and spirituality,” she explains, referring to the two churches located in the area.

But everyone is welcome.

“The mixing mostly takes place in restaurants,” says Willy Decourty, the Socialist mayor of Ixelles. In the commune of 90,000 inhabitants, 170 nationalities and more than 700 eatieries, integration is indeed more of a “salad bowl” rather than a “melting pot”.

Migrants are free to preserve their culture without pressure to ”integrate”.

And indeed, as the ethnic population decrease, what is there to integrate into?

A city shaped by migrants

A resident of Elsene since 1947, Decourty has seen the community blossom to its current state with migrants as an important but not the only driver of change.

The shopping malls around place de Namur were abandoned by Belgian business in the 1950s, then filled with life again as a Congolese community began to form around a nearby dormitory. (Matonge takes its name from a popular district of Kinshasa.)

Chatelain, once the site of automobile making and maintenance, is now home to fashionable restaurants and luxury boutiques, where bourgeois Belgians and Europeans rub shoulders at the Wednesday food market.

The most recent metamorphosis is that of the European quarter. Place de Luxembourg - now home to the European Parliament - used to be lined with squats and artist studios (the latter have since been relocated to Rue Gray).

Now the square buzzes after work, pub terraces overflow into the sidewalks as people pour down from nearby offices to meet and eat and catch the last of the sunlight.

Modernisation has not been without it problems though. In post-war years, urban renewal was made to fit the needs of commuters.

Motorways were cut through the city centre. Art nouveau buildings were destroyed to make space for drab office buildings.

Whole neighbourhoods emptied as Belgians fled the ravaged city to the suburbs and further afield. The population dwindled, reaching a record low in 1996. However, this also had a positive side-effect: cheap housing was easy to find for newcomers.

Brussels stopped shrinking in the late 1990s. Today, some 1,184 000 people live here officially. This figure excludes the around 30,000 waiting to register; 2,000 homeless; 11,200 diplomats; 16,500 undocumented migrants, and those who avoid making Brussels their legal home.

The metropole is expected to reach a population of 1,258,000 by 2020. This implies tougher competition for the city’s limited resources, particularly housing.

Nowhere is this more of an issue than in cosmopolitan quarter of Elsene. It has become the most popular — that is, expensive — municipality in Belgium for house rentals.

The commune strives to stay attractive to a wide range of dwellers, especially those with children. But today, big families compete for living space with high disposable income single households.

Some of the conflict is alleviated by a housing policy under which the commune acquires and rents out own property, but resources are limited.

Philippe van Parijs was born in Molenbeek, a commune in Brussels, “when it was still referred to as little Manchester instead of little Marrakesh”. His grandfather was a mayor.

But Van Parijs, a professor of social sciences and philosophy at the universities of Leuven, Louvain-la-Neuve, Harvard and Oxford, also has one foot in the international community, with a British wife. (At one point, our conversation is interrupted by his young granddaughter. ”She’s one of two kids in her class with Belgian heritage”, he remarks).

“[As the uptown gentrifies,] people are squeezed into the ’Poor Crescent’, around the Canal area. Some go further, to Haaren for instance, but moving beyond city borders is made difficult by the fact that it’s Flanders all around, and one needs to speak Dutch to live there,” he notes. But Dutch is the least spoken language in Brussels.

Meanwhile landlord, naturally, choose to rent their houses to wealthier tenants. This is not EU citizens' fault - but still they have a responsibility towards the city.

Integrating Europeans

Willy Decourty, the mayor of Ixelles, says the commune of Ixelles used to throw welcome parties in the local art museum. But these never drew much of a crowd and eventually came to an end. The current integration policy consists simply of “reaching out an open hand to anyone who comes here with an open mind”.

The mayor is careful not to blame anybody, embodying the spirit of respect that he calls key to ensuring the harmony in his commune.

“For some Europeans, life in Brussels is like eternal holidays. People think they come for a year or three, and before they know it, they’ve spent their whole life here. In the meantime, they should care for the city, it’s the responsibility of all.”

Philippe Van Parijs agrees.

“There is a tendency for institutions and citizens to regard themselves as guests. They expect hospitality and all the rights, sometimes in an arrogant way. But what would you be without us?”

They seem to think that Brussels would be little without the EU institutions, he notes, but actually 'EU business' accounts for 12-14 percent of the city's GDP.

EU residents should at least pay taxes (EU civil servants pay a lower community tax and do not pay for the upkeep of the city), know languages (French, the language most widely spoken in Brussels; English, lingua franca of business; and Dutch because it’s the first mother tongue in Belgium) and vote in the communal elections (only 15 % of those on the electoral roll bother to show up at the polls).

Van Parijs is also a fervent supporter of extending federal voting rights to European citizens.

“More and more powers are delegated from communal and national level to regional level. You cannot assume joint responsibility for the city unless you have real rights.”

For the moment, there is no bottom-up movement to support his campaigns. And it’s a challenge to convince people to pay Belgian taxes, which are second highest in Europe, and to learn the languages.

But the philosopher remains optimistic. Multiculturalism is what makes the city thrive, he says.

“It’s a very welcoming city. You can feel at home even if you weren’t born here. And when Brussels becomes part of you, doing something for Brussels is doing it for yourself.”

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