Building a better Brussels: Why expats should vote in the 2024 local elections

"A mere 17% of internationals eligible to vote actually do so. This means we are missing out a chance to make our voices heard in our communes’ approach to public works, housing, education and more."

Building a better Brussels: Why expats should vote in the 2024 local elections
Credit: Belga

As the new year unfolds, many of us are setting resolutions to improve ourselves and our communities. For the international residents of Brussels, especially those working around the European and international institutions, let me suggest one: registering to vote in the municipal elections of October 2024.

Brussels is a unique city, boasting a vibrant international community. In fact, 7 out of 10 people in Brussels were born without Belgian nationality - many in the city feel as Moroccan, Turkish, Congolese, Italian or French as they do Brusseler. Indeed, I myself fall into this category - European, Irish, Brusseler.

This melting-pot of a populace is not just a statistic; it's a driving force of the city's society, economy and culture - and where better to house such a diverse city than in a country that’s home to so many languages and identities? Together, we make Brussels a more interesting and beautiful place to live. And while the international institutions and the surrounding community of think tanks, lobbies, journalists and service providers can feel insular, it is important to remember we are no less a part of the city than any other community.

International contribution to Brussels' economy

The contribution of internationals is evident across Brussels. International institutional presence contributes up to 20% of the city's economy and accounts for 23% of regional employment, equating to more than 162 000 jobs. Despite the throwaway accusation that those in this international community do not pay taxes and therefore should keep their opinions to themselves, the majority of international residents do pay taxes. Even those with institutional income tax exemptions contribute economically through other taxes - not to mention as friends, neighbours and active members of the community. Internationals are, undeniably, part of this city’s rich fabric.

Yet, despite their substantial economic and social contributions, international residents face an unjust limitation: the inability to vote at the regional level, where many important responsibilities lie and strategic decisions are made. This is a significant oversight, considering our collective impact.

That said, we do have a vote - at the municipal level, which is important and influences neighbourhoods and people’s lives directly - it’s just that we don’t use it. A mere 17% of internationals eligible to vote actually do so. This means we are missing out a chance to make our voices heard in our communes’ approach to public works, housing, education and more. This lack of participation also makes calls for a regional level vote ring somewhat hollow. This year, a bumper election year for Brussels presents a pivotal opportunity to change that narrative.

Voting in Brussels may seem daunting. Many are afraid to register because of Belgium’s mandatory voting rules, despite their being nearly never enforced - indeed, not one fine was handed down after the last election. Others are reluctant due to the complexities of its governance, language barriers, and a lack of familiarity with the political landscape. That’s why, in 2023, we founded an NGO that helps internationals bridge that gap between ambition and action.

Restless Brussels, a project I am proud to be a part of alongside an excellent and dedicated team, aims to make it easier for you to connect with the city we have made our home. In the ten months since our foundation in May last year we have been busy connecting people with their neighbourhoods, organising events in English and introducing international residents to the influential ideas, movements and people that are shaping our adopted home. In the 15 events so far we have reached 500 people across 8 communes - and we’re just getting started.

These events are more than informative; they're a testament to our community's eagerness to engage. Since addressing these barriers, Restless Brussels has been growing with well over 1000 signed up to follow our work, debunking the myth that internationals see Brussels as a place they are passing through and are indifferent to the city’s affairs. Not only that, but we are joined by many Belgians too - people who are restless to see the city they care about improve and who recognise this ambition in our community. Wherever we’ve come from, as Brusselers we can together achieve a better common home.

The power of citizen engagement

Whilst it’s crucial our role in this city is acknowledged, it is equally important that we are aware of those we live alongside. As we bring expertise, energy, and ideas, we must also integrate respectfully - listening to and connecting with other communities. Our participation in municipal elections is not just about having our say; it's about being part of a larger dialogue, contributing to a city that's grappling with issues like multilingualism, gentrification, climate resilience, and inequality.

This year is transformative for Brussels and Belgium at large, with federal, regional, municipal and European elections. Recent attempts to make Brussels more sustainable and liveable have led to polarisation. Dialogue has become increasingly unproductive and fraught as people take extreme and reactionary positions. Your vote has never been more critical.

EU nationals are eligible to vote in their commune, while non-EU residents need to wait five years and/or pursue Belgian citizenship. Registration is open until the summer of 2024, and you can easily register using the ItsMe app. Voting in municipal elections is a stepping stone towards greater involvement in Brussels’ civic life. It's the first step towards pushing for a regional vote, amplifying our voices in decisions that affect us all.

Our involvement in the city’s elections is vital - and voting is the gateway to broader community participation, the life’s blood of any healthy democracy. It is ironic how often we, as members of the EU bubble, discuss the importance of democracy whilst failing to participate in the democratic life of our own city. This year, let's change that.

Our New Year's resolution at Restless Brussels is to persuade as many as possible to register to vote and participate in the civic life of their city. It's about making our voices heard, contributing to the place we call home, and standing up for what we believe in. Let's make 2024 the year we turn the tide: increasing international voter turnout and setting the stage for future participation in regional elections.

Maybe instead of only focusing on the future of Europe, we can focus on the future of Brussels too.

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