“The presence of the European institutions makes Brussels one of the most important decision-making centres in the world.”
It is often derided by its critics as a grey city, populated by particularly well-paid eurocrats.
But, as the presence of world leaders for the G7 summit at the start of June testifies, there is rather more to Brussels these days than the somewhat dated stereotype.
Already home to the EU institutions and international organisations like NATO, the city also boasts (after Washington DC), the world´s second biggest press corps.
The presence of the European institutions makes Brussels one of the most important decision-making centres in the world. In their wake, NGOs, consultancies, regional representations, media, and law firms, among others, have set up shop in the Belgian capital.
Last year Brussels hosted the G7 meeting. The leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain, the United States, the President of the European Council and the President of the European Commission (G7 leaders) met in the city for two days. It is the first time that the EU hosts this summit and that it takes place in Brussels.
The decision to stage such a prestigious event in Brussels tells you something about just how far the city has come from that “grey” image its critics seem to take so much pleasure in perpetrating.
As a result, the population of Brussels has also become more and more diverse. In the past few decades, thousands of Europeans and other nationalities have settled in Brussels, sometimes on a temporary basis, sometimes for the rest of their lives.
The Brussels government wanted to know who makes up this international community and how these people live their day-to-day lives in Brussels so entrusted the Brussels-Europe Liaison Office with the task of carrying out a large-scale survey among expats who live and/or work in Brussels.
The idea was to collect information on Brussels’ international community, in particular on the general profile of expats and their cultural and political participation, as little was known about this group, which nonetheless continues to grow.
One of the most telling results of the 9,000 people surveyed was one which revealed that nearly 50 per cent agreed with the assertion that “I like living in Brussels.”
Not bad for a city that will always lack the historic sights of some of its near neighbours such as London and Paris.
During municipal elections in October 2012, the Brussels Region totalled 190,000 EU nationals benefiting from the right to vote. But not all belong to the “international community” targeted in the survey.
They also include, among others, Spaniards, Italians and Portuguese who immigrated to Brussels in the 1960s, and, more recently, Poles and other central and eastern European nationals.
On the other hand, the Brussels “international bubble” also includes numerous non-Europeans.
A spokesman for Brussels-Europe Liaison Office said, “The results will help us identify the gaps and weaknesses that must still be remedied in order to consolidate the status of Brussels as a European and international capital worthy of the name.”
Of course, a huge number of people are involved every day in gathering news about the European or international institutions based in the capital of Europe – something that was brought home most recently in the “wall to wall” coverage of the European elections.
Together with Washington, Brussels is one of the world’s key centres for media coverage. Summits or meetings between heads of state and government, European Parliament sessions and international meetings covering a huge variety of topics are held in the city all the year round.
Brussels is the place where decisions about the future of Europe and of relevance for the entire world are taken.
Apart from covering European affairs and NATO, many journalists based in Brussels also report on developments in Belgium, the Netherlands and other European countries.
Belgium’s geographical position is obviously a major asset, located as it is at the crossroads of Latin, German and Anglo-Saxon influences. Less than three hours by train from Paris, London, Amsterdam and Cologne, our capital is the ideal place for all connections and meetings.
However, it is not all good news, at least on the Brussels media front.
The number of foreign journalists in Brussels has recently declined from previous levels of around 1,400. This is mainly due to the difficulties facing the media industry, in Belgium and beyond. Much information is now readily available on the web.
According to Maria-Laura Franciosi, the president of Journalists@YourService, a rising number of media editors believe that European affairs can be covered just as well from their national desks.
She adds, “Or else they think that EU affairs are too complex or irrelevant for their users. Some media organisations now seem reluctant to keep their correspondents in Brussels.”
“There is an undeniable wealth and variety of first-hand information and contacts that the working journalist can gather here. Brussels therefore remains a magnet for 1,000 journalists from all over the world accredited with the EU institutions,” said Maria-Laura, an Italian who has lived and worked in the city for 20 years.
Whether working as employees or freelancers, most journalists in Brussels come from the 27 EU Member States. But a new trend can now be seen, with an increasing number of journalists from beyond Europe – including Asia and the Middle East.
“This,” said Maria-Laura, “indicates that Europe – and Brussels – is still considered an important point of reference, perhaps even more than before.
Further comment comes from the country´s former Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo, who reflects on some of the strictly non-political reasons to explain the fast-rising status of Brussels as a true international hub.
He said, “Visitors have a high regard for the quality of life to be found in our country. The culinary delights, arts and culture are particularly important in this respect.
“The top-quality infrastructure available in all areas, including logistics, information technology, education, sports, financial services, serves to enhance the comfort of visitors to Belgium.
“Nor is it any coincidence that so many expatriates from around the world should decide to settle here permanently once their assignment is finished in Belgium.”
At which point, this writer should perhaps declare an interest. I came to this city in 2001 with the intention of staying no more than “two or three” years. Nearly 13 years later I am still here and, as the saying goes, “lovin´ it” (well, generally, that is!).
As soon as one major summit is finished, Brussels makes itself ready to gear up for its next international gathering with the expected road blocks and extra security personel out on the streets.
And, with the media focus very much on a new EU administrations that recently took shape, it is little wonder that many believe that Brussels is, finally, living up to its self-proclaimed title as the “capital of Europe”.
By Martin Banks