Tensions have been higher than usual in recent months between the Belgian and expat communities here in Brussels, after a series of articles by foreign journalists based here were seen as disparaging the city.
In May, a two-page spread by the Brussels correspondent for the French newspaper Libération, which called the Belgian capital 'ugly, dirty and dysfunctional', kicked off the storm. Since then, the Belgian press has seemed singularly obsessed with the outsiders' impressions. Much of the Belgian media's coverage has expressed outrage that the expat community, who have come to Brussels to work in and around the EU institutions, are so often complaining about their host city.
It was in this context that today the ‘Brussels-Europe Liaison Office' - a body which was set up by the city government to improve relations between expats and the natives - finally released the long-awaited results of its expat survey. The survey, which was conducted in May of last year with about 10,000 respondents, was meant to have results published last September. The year-long delay had sparked speculation that the results were being suppressed because the responses from expats were just too rude. Given that the liaison office has the job of improving relations, it would have been rather embarrassing to publish a survey where the expat population vented their dissatisfaction.
As it happens, the results were largely positive. The headline figure, which the liaison office was eager to highlight, was that 75% of the respondents said they "like living in Brussels". Contrary to the idea of an completely separate and elitist ‘eurobubble', the responses suggested the expat population is more integrated than often thought. Only 12% of respondents said they have no Belgian friends. More than 60% of respondents feel they know too few Belgians, and just 18% said they felt no need to meet Belgians.
Almost half of respondents said Brussels has a better quality of life compared to other major European cities. 78% of respondents described themselves as “enthusiastic” about the cultural life in Brussels. About half are members of a local organisation.
“Expats are greener, more sociable and better integrated than thought,” declared the liaison office. “And their attitude to Brussels does not differ so greatly from that of Brussels natives.”
'Dirty and unsafe'
But though the respondents' assessment of their integration and their own life quality were upbeat, their assessment of Brussels itself was less rosy – and much of it reflects the same sentiment found in the Liberation article.
81% of respondents said Brussels is a dirty city. Only 29% of expats said they felt safe in Brussels, with 68% saying there is “a lot of poverty” in the city. Only half of respondents are satisfied with the city's public transport.
The views on Belgian commerce are dismal. Half of respondents said the city does not offer a diverse choice of shops. Nearly 40% rated store staff as ‘poor' or ‘very poor', and about half rated their interaction with Belgian telecoms companies the same.
And though they indicated that they do have Belgian friends and participate in local activities, the survey respondents still see themselves as living in a separate world. 74% of respondents said they feel that the international community “lives in a world of its own and has few contacts with other Brussels residents.” Only 26% identify strongly as "Brussels residents". 68% identify instead as part of the "international community".
The expats also appear to think the native Belgians don't like them very much. Just 44% said they feel that Brussels natives are welcoming to non-Belgians. 96% of the expats said the presence of the EU is positive for the city and its economy. But 74% said that Brussels residents do not recognise the EU's importance to Brussels.
But perhaps the most stinging rebuke came in this response: only 41% of expats said Brussels is the best place to host the EU institutions. By comparison, 82% of the Belgian respondents (who took a shorter survey as a control group) said Brussels is the best place.
What does it all mean?
One must be careful about concluding too much from an unscientific survey. But we can at least say that the results show that the relationship between the expats and the city they've come to call home is more nuanced than some of the caricatures that have been bandied about in the Belgian and French media in recent months.
A picture emerges of an expat community which is frustrated by the city itself, but happy with their lives here. They are conscious of the perceptions many local people have of them as a separate and arrogant community, and they don't always feel welcome. But based on their activities and their friend circles, the expats seem to actually interact with ‘local Brussels' more than they think.
Perhaps what should be born in mind is that unlike ‘immigrants', who may have come to Brussels in search of a better life, ‘expats' as defined by this survey have come for professional reasons (though this is a rather arbitrary separation of categories). They are EU citizens and have therefore come to work in, influence or observe the government institutions that affect their lives and their home countries. The fact that these institutions are in Brussels is incidental. And it would appear that 60% of the expats would prefer it if the EU institutions were based somewhere else.
Brussels isn't like other big European capitals. Many expats who move to cities like London or Paris do so out of a love for or at least an interest in that particular city. The job follows the move. In Brussels, most of the expats have come specifically for work. This can result in frequent grumbling by people who feel stuck here for professional reasons. This grumbling can often offend the native Belgians, who feel it is rude for a guest to complain about their host.
Perhaps what is needed is more understanding on both sides. As the survey results show, the situation is far more nuanced than first meets the eye. Most expats in fact enjoy their lives here. But there are many aspects of life in this city that can be enormously frustrating, particularly for someone who doesn't feel they are here voluntarily, but rather for professional reasons because this is the EU capital.
And though they like their lives here at the moment, Brussels appears to have convinced few expats to stay long-term. When asked if they would like to stay in Belgium after their professional career ends, 41% answered “certainly not”. Half said "maybe". Only 6% said they would certainly like to stay.
Changing the response to this last question might be the true test of success for the liaison office.