Brussels is a complicated city

To merge the 19 municipalities of the Brussels-Capital Region into a single one may be a no-brainer. But the negative consequences may outweigh the benefits.

Brussels is a complicated city
The idea of merging Brussels municipalities is older than Belgium itself. Before 1795, eight municipalities formed an administrative unit, and proposals to merge were put forward already back then. However, not much progress has since been made, even when Belgium saw municipal mergers happen across the country in 1977.

I recently took part in a Trivia night, and lo and behold, one of the first questions that came up was ‘Which is the Capital of Belgium —  the City of Brussels or Brussels-Capital Region’.

The panicking face of the other teams did not come as a surprise to me.  As a steadfast Brusseleer, I obviously knew the difference and the answer (The City of Brussels). But to the many other self-described residents, it came as a confusing question, that exemplifies the complicated nature of the city — or Capital-Region —  we call Brussels.

It may come as even more of a shock to some that a city that hosts about 1.22 million inhabitants, is also home to branches of government at the municipal, regional, federal and European level, along with nineteen CPAS organizations and six police zones. Such dizzying numbers of administrative layers are, to put it bluntly — a bureaucratic quagmire.

Once Upon Municipal Mergers

Municipal mergers are not a new phenomenon. It is happening and has happened in countries like Germany, France, Japan and even in many parts of Belgium.  Similarly, an attempt at simplifying Brussels administration has happened in the past. In fact many times in the past - the idea of the merging of Brussels municipalities is older than Belgium itself.

Before 1795, eight municipalities formed an administrative unit. And ever since, creative ideas were entertained and proposed to solve the problem, such as a ‘Gross Brussel’, a State Commissariat, and a ‘Union of Cities’. However, not much progress has been made in concrete terms in the Capital, even when Belgium saw municipal mergers happen across the country in 1977.

Having said that, there are a few options available in order to solve the Brussels administrative conundrum, each having its respective pros and cons. The first one is a complete merger, or the total merging of the 19 municipalities, into a singular entity.  A variation to that is a partial merger, or a partial merging of the municipalities into three to ten entities.

And finally there is a third option that calls for a redistricting of the borders of the 19 municipalities without merging any municipalities whatsoever.

The Flemish Effect

One of the main fears of the entire merging of the municipalities, is the increase it might lead to in terms of administrative costs, and the financial difficulties that might befall the remaining municipalities.

The results of a relatively recent study by the economist Geert Jennes for the economic think tank of KU Leuven showed that the costs outweigh the benefits. The second fear is that it may play into the hands of the desires of the Flemish Movement, which holds the belief that they are underrepresented in Brussels.

In effect, those feeling the most marginalized, tend to be the most vocal in asking for municipal mergers. Yet for Brussels politicians, that spells out a serious risk of reigniting separatist tendencies that could threaten the fabric of Brussels, and Belgium.  It is for these reasons that the complete merger, or even partial merging of the municipalities scenarios are most often rejected by Brussels politicians.

One Size Does not Fit All

An argument against the partial merging scenario is that some municipalities are already too large to merge with others - e.g. the municipality of Schaerbeek is already home to a population of 132,000 inhabitants, and a merger with another municipality would impact its comparative advantages in comparison to other municipalities.

Currently the debt per inhabitants for communes like Woluwe Saint Pierre and Schaerbeek comes to about 1400 euros per inhabitants while for the commune of the City of Brussels and Saint Josse it comes down to over 3300 euros per inhabitants.

And so that leaves us with a third path - the redistricting of the communes. Such a scenario is one that I personally believe would bring a breath of administrative fresh air to Brussels.  Communes like Uccle and Ixelles could change their borders to match more the realities of their respective municipalities, and the City of Brussels could modify its borders to make its already outsized shape more compact, and bring further efficiencies in its administrative affairs.

A Simplified Brussels

If a solution to the over-bureaucratic Brussels has not been found yet, it is not for a lack of trying.  But there is a path forward, one that could bring more efficiency to the city, without launching an economic catastrophe for the municipalities and their inhabitants, nor a political crisis that could question the existential nature of the city.

The path forward may not be the most ambitious one, but it surely would be a responsible one.  And who knows, maybe by the time for my next Trivia night, the answer to the question ‘Which is the Capital of Brussels’ may be the no-brainer question everyone knows the answer to.

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