An international environment, with many young people around and plenty of career opportunities ? Brussels sounds like a perfect place for graduates who want to work for anything that`s got to do with Europe. The weather and the dog crap in the street seem to be the only disadvantages of Brussels life.
Most of those who intend to stay for a short while have a hard time leaving. Getting stuck in Brussels is a frequent topic of discussion for any Eurocrat who spends more than a year`s time in Brussels. Many arrive after finishing studies, at the age of roughly 25. The social environment favours the creation of affectional links between people from different places, after which they risk to hang around a little longer, get married, have children and remain in Brussels much longer than expected. This protocol doesn`t only apply to the EU institution, but also to the variety of industries that revolve around it: press services, the hospitality sector, non-governmental organisations (NGO). Nobody refers to Brussels as particularly stressy or overcompetitive, but the endless masses of people buzzing around the European centre suggest otherwise.
..thinks the European Commission is very welcoming to young people
The Brussels agglomeration is the only region in Belgium that is formally bilingual Dutch/French. The European neighbourhood have other dominant languages. English and French are the dominant languages. French is often preferred for a social chat, while English is spoken for formal meetings or when the presence of a non-francophone requires conversation partners to switch to English. Dutch is only marginally spoken, but some people living in the Flemish outskirts of Brussels do make the effort to get a basic command of the language.
Michalina (26) is a trainee from Poland. She works as a legal assistant and tells me that the use of language is different for each and every building. Hers is predominantly English but that doesn`t keep people from habitually wishing each other `Bonne journ?e` (`Have a pleasant day!`) when they leave the elevator. Michalina confirms my suspicion that language skills may be one of the most important skills required for making career in this European environment.
The average profile of a person working in the European environment includes at least fluency in either French or English and preferably both, followed by a third language which is usually the mother tongue of the person in question, then if possible basic understanding of another language out of German, Italian or Spanish. Dutch will be helpful if they want to participate in local life, but is otherwise hardly ever required.
Jorge (34) from Portugal lists the other requirements that will help people make a career in European politics. He mentions open-mindedness, ambition and capacity to multi-task as important criteria, with networking skills as another vital ingredient. In order to be eligible for working with an official European institution, you further need to pass a strict entrance exam called the concours. Many people try, few people pass. For those who fail there is plenty of work in the industries that float on the political activities. Commissioners, the ministers of the European Union, and Members of Parliaments (MEP), directly elected by the European people, are exempted from passing the concours. Some of them would not even qualify, because they lack the basic language skills.
Till (30, photo) from Germany speaks German, French and English, an average mixture in the corridors of the European Institution. He praises the fact that the European Commission, for which he works, is so accessible to young people. Many people repatriate after a number of years, leaving plenty of place for each next generation. Till further enjoys the open working atmosphere and the good relations between managers and subordinates.
Nicky (25), mixed Italian/British, speaks English and Italian and is taking courses in French. Like many people, she sees her stay in Brussels as a temporary one. She is planning to exchange European Brussels for English Leeds soon. She wants to obtain a masters degree in International Relations and thinks she has served in Brussels for long enough. Nicky is taking a step that does not come natural to many young Eurocrats: deciding that it`s time to move onto something else. Many people fear exchanging Brussels for another place, because it almost de facto means that they will be exposed to fewer different languages and fewer different cultures. The conversation subjects of everyday Brussels life are no longer applicable to their new life. Some people can be scared by the perspective of being forced back into a local daily life that they have outgrown.
Within the expatriate population, the different nationalities mix quite well. The social exchange is in that way similar to the Luxembourg melting pot. With one exception: the international population in Brussels hardly experiences any involvement with the local population. The Eurocrats are a distinct social layer, positioned at the top of the middle class. They are concentrated in a limited number of neighbourhoods and tend to surround themselves with fellow internationals, also for events that do not professionally require them to do so ? like going out in town.
Compared to the overwhelming amount of people from countries other than Belgium, there are moreover quite few local Belgians working for the European institutions. The easiest ways for a Belgian to have exposure to the European subculture would be to either open a restaurant in the European neighbourhood, or to use one of the websites offering Data services. Because of their standard of living, which is estimated by the local population to be rather high, the young and often uncommitted Eurocrats are very popular targets for dating sites and the lonely hearts who are on the lookout for European companion.
Only the expats who settle down and have children are likely to mix in with the local population, mostly when they have children who go to school. Even in that case, odds are small that they will get in touch with the real Bruxellois, because the newly created families are likely to live in the upper class suburbs.
The expatriates are not always welcomed very warmly by the local population. Some officials working for the Commission have voluntarily given up their right to have a special number plate. They prefer to refuse the preferential tax rate for their service vehicles over being recognisable as Commission Officials.
The local population, on its side, also has reasons to be hesitant in their approach to the Eurocrats. The European institutions may add to the economic dynamics of the Brussels region, but the inflow of people from all over the place have inflated the prices of real estate and food. Old traditions of local people dining out a few times a week are disappearing and some locals are forced to move out of the centre because renting becomes unaffordable. The presence of the Eurocrats has also boosted the presence oh high-end present and fashion shop that may look nice to the eye, but are equally hard to afford for those not earning a European salary.
The outlook of the city has also changed. The European institutions are surrounded by buildings that are on the verge of falling apart. Others are demolished and being replaced, while some are being rebuilt behind the original fa?ades. This process of redoing a city in a rather unstructured way even appears to be called after Brussels, it`s known in the domain of spatial planning as Brusselisation.
The presence of the European institutions also influences the rhythm of everyday life. Around each weekend, Brussels Airport is packed with Eurocrats flying to or away from home for the weekend. Current trend: flying home for Christmas and New Years`. Only few Eurocrats will have sufficient roots in Belgium to call it home enough to stay around during Christmas. Summer is not much better, making Brussels one of the few European capitals where hotel rooms are cheaper in summer than in winter.
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