Corinna Hoerst / Nov 2016
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
These days it seems Brussels is no longer in fashion. It stands for everything that is wrong with Europe: political elites, public discontent, bureaucracy, population divisions, financial inefficiencies, and terrorists. Descriptions have either reduced the city to a quaint tourist attractions with culinary highlights, referenced the monstrous shiny buildings that house the European Union institutions and its bureaucrats or people refer to its dis-functionality and divisions as emblematic of the country Belgium as a whole where language and political partitions lead to inefficiency and chaos.
Yet, Brussels is much more than bureaucracy, traffic, dirt, and crime. This city is housing a myriad of communities characterized by different nationalities, religions, socio-economic groups, professions, and different reasons for coming to Brussels in the first place. It creates a context for a myriad of spheres of people, influence and power. It means independence as well as interdependence. Like Olympic circles these groups are closed – because of their professions, nationalities, etc. - yet overlap with others meaning that the one cannot exist without the other.
A core group of Brussels’ people come because of the European Union, driven by the idea of a unity among European states which will no longer engage in war with each other but ensure stability and prosperity and a realization that the sum of the European states are more influential globally than it’s single parts. These people are either working in the EU institutions or in institutions that are engaging with them – public affairs, advocacy, law firms, companies, associations, membership organizations. Others are working in multinational organization such as the International Trade Union Confederation, World Customs Organization, and The North Atlantic Treaty Organization which saw a value in being closer to the European Union.
Countries from all over the world are sending their diplomats to Belgium, the EU as well as NATO ,adding to the multinational character and layers of impact in the city. And then there are the individuals who have come to Brussels for the opportunities that this diverse, international space provides: designers, art dealers, social entrepreneurs, financial advisors, and others, serving the needs of these various national groups. And among this diversity we haven’t even mentioned the Belgians themselves, divided by languages, foreigners from North Africa who came attracted by Belgium’s own ‘guest worker’ schemes in the 1950s and 60s and settled for good with their families as well as the Congolese diaspora tied to Belgium through former colonial ties.
Being a foreigner, or expatriate in Brussels means that you will never be alone because you will always meet someone who speaks your language. You will never feel like a minority because all people here are part of a marginal, sectional group. The city takes time to grow on you. Few people imagine living in Brussels like they would do in London, Madrid or Prague. Yet, there is something about the city and its people. While modest and unpretentious, it is a cosmopolitan and international place of politics, international affairs, business, philanthropy with ample means of diversion through art, culture, culinary delights, nature as well as access to the rest of Europe. Brussels is also the first major city in Europe in which no nationality, no ethnicity, no culture is the majority and dominates. Brussels flourishes on the variety of people. It’s strange mixture of a Mediterranean laissez-faire and a somewhat Germanic obsessive focus on order, process and rules creates a unique blend of cohabitation. The multiple layers of international circles and group of influence create multiple centers of power and weight that need each other, yet also compete with each other. Together with the in-ward looking Belgians, it creates a space for individuals to carve out identities removed from the national norms back home. And it provides opportunities for people who value and practice inclusiveness, collaboration, who adapt, who have emotional intelligence that enables them to excel in finding compromises.
Brussels has always been an international cultural hub situated at cultural crossroads which date back until the Roman Empire. The openness and diversity can still be felt and experienced today. While one feels part of it, there are also many ways that one never does. In some ways, Brussels is about a tale of many cities in one place – it is a Belgian city, a European, an international, a transient one - bound by neighborhoods, nationalities, languages, social class, professional affiliations. As foreigner, by no means, will you ever have a complete feeling of belonging, yet with the lose connections to the town comes an incredible freedom to shape, create something of your own, develop an identity which ties you again to this place in unique ways.
This unique context of Brussels requires distinctive leadership styles. It is a place of opportunity for both men and women and in desperate need for new perspectives , engagement to create a new appreciation for Europe and solutions for its future.
This article is part of a larger book project, Women Leading the Way in Brussels, co-authored by Corinna Horst and Claudia de Castro Calderinha, to be published by John Harper Publishing in early 2017.