Written for the European Youth Media Days‘ guide.
Brussels, the city of suits
A few years ago I was walking through Brussels with Lithuanian exchange students. They had just arrived from Brussels airport and were devouring the city with their eyes. Smilté, a vivid outgoing girl with a very curious temperament, asked me surprised: “Are all people in Belgium walking around in suits all the time?”
Looking around I realised the first time Brussels was filled with men in suits and picture perfect ladies. Each day thousands of them travel to Brussels to work in one of the local, regional, national or international institutions and firms. Only 1 million people actually live in Brussels. Finding a home in Brussels is challenging: high real estate prices for small living space. For companies the situation is even worse: multinationals fight with the international institutions over the few office space available. There is only one way to get: paying the demanded excessive rents.
Everyone wants to be in Brussels
To explain the massive presence of all the international and national institutions in Brussels there is only one rule to remember: along with powerful institutions come the powerful people and the money.
Let’s start with the Belgian institutions. Belgium is a federal country, with a complicated structure that is hard to explain in a few lines. Basically this means that each of the three language groups in the country (Dutch speaking, French speaking and German speaking) has its own government and parliament. Which means Belgium has seven different governments of which five have their own parliament. The federal government, the Flemish government and the Brussels Capital government all have their institutions and supporting services in Brussels. On top of this, all eleven Belgian political parties have their headquarters in Brussels. Luckily the Wallonian institutions and the German speaking community decided to stay away from Brussels and planted heir institutions in the French speaking part of the country, leaving space for other those who wanting an acre of highly sought after office space.
As Brussels is hometown of the European Union and its institutions (European Commission, European Parliament, the Council, the Committee of Regions, the European Bank, etc.) the city is attractive to other institutions and powerful companies. So along with the 18.000 people who are already working for the EU right now, come the 15.000 lobbyists.
Every self-respecting multinational has an office in Brussels, ça fait chic. 5000 lobbyists have an accreditation to freely move around in the European Parliament, whereas there are only 750 members of Parliament. So there are 7 lobbyists for one MEP. Seventy percent of the lobbyists work for an international firm, 20% are society-related organisations such as NGO’s and 10% of them defend the interests of the member states. Recently the Commission proposed to force lobbyists to publish the source of their funds.
But not only firms want to be in the centre of Europe: the headquarters of the NATO are situated in the outskirts of the city, the United Nations have a department in Brussels, the World Bank has an office in the capital of Belgium and 190 embassies wave their flags in Brussels.
So next time you see a suited man or woman walking in Brussels, realise you are walking on powerful soil.