We the people: Eric Corijn on Brussels

A city is nothing without its people. And people are nothing without a voice. In what is arguably one of the most ambitious projects we’ve ever undertook, we interviewed 25 leading locals and got them to open up about their capital city. People who live in the city, work in the city and use the city. People who are the city. And, beneath the grumbles and grievances, a deep-rooted love for Brussels shines through. This is what we, the people, have to say to you Brussels.

Here’s the discussion we had with Eric Corijn, respected cultural philosopher and social scientist. Find 24 other opinions about Brussels in our last edition.

On the creation of Brussels as a Region 25 years ago.

It gave a political and administrative structure to the city at large. Up to that moment it was basically the federal state that was leading the actual 19 municipalities with a very loose collaborative structure but which were basically run as municipalities. So what you had was a federal state running the capital city aspects of Brussels and then 19 localities dealing with the local. And in that respect yes, I think that creating a government for the core city was absolutely a big step forward.

On origins of complexity.

Don’t forget that we were in a period of rapid urban decline, of rapid suburbanization. In 1968, Brussels had more than 1,5 million inhabitants and up to the 1990s we lost more than a hundred thousand net inhabitants. Which was in fact the effect of a suburbanization of middle class people looking for housing, or better housing, and who moved to the periphery. And by periphery I mean the most wealthy provinces of Belgium, Vlaams Brabant/ Flemish Brabant and Brabant Wallon, which form the ‘greater Brussels’ you could say but, in fact, do not contribute to its financing and infrastructure development infrastructure. And it’s a very specific feature of Brussels, this reliance on a much more American model of suburbanisation. In a way, you could say that our elites are anti-urban. The upper middle and middle classes prefer life in the periphery, on the outskirts of the city. It’s really a mentality thing. It’s family based, individual housing – the typical ideal of an individual family home with the garden around it. Then, we also experienced a massive shift from industrial to post-industrial city, with Brussels today primarily a service economy – 91%! Back in the 70s, Brussels was still manufacturing, not on a very large scale, but with lots of breweries, with the tobacco industry… All these rather important manufacturing industries that declined rapidly and today account for just 7% of employment. Take, for example, the European Union. At the start, it had 300 staff members and today it counts 42 000 people working for the European institutions directly. If you take into account all the spin-offs, we’re talking about 100/105 thousand jobs related to the international functions of the city. So there’s been a truly rapid shift towards a service economy in Brussels but which has not necessarily benefited the Brussels inhabitants. Consider, for example, that out of the 750,000 jobs in Brussels, more than half are taken up by non-residents, commuters who use the city but don’t live in it. That means 365,000 daily commuters who all live in this Brussels periphery, 365,000 people getting rich and leaving the poorest population to pay taxes in order to finance a subway for example.

On Brussels structural peculiarities.

In Brussels you have nineteen municipalities and they all have mayors and different political coalitions. To give you an example: the introduction of Villo, the city bikes, the regional minister pushed it but not all the municipalities agreed to have them. And so you have this duality between the Region and the municipalities which can sometimes lead to tensions. You could on the other hand say that there’s an advantage to this: each mayor wants to have a swimming pool or a sport center in his municipality, so if you compare Brussels to other cities in Belgium you see that the distribution of infrastructure is more equally distributed than in other cities where traditionally the center holds a lot. Demographically, the city is rather peculiar too. One third of Brussels residents have no Belgian ID card. More than half the Brussels population has no Belgian references. And this is really is Brussels’ most important and unique feature: it’s a mosaic of minorities. More than 60% of Brussels households are multilingual. People fall in love outside their communities, outside their linguistics borders, and so what you have is a city that functions a lot with lingua franca. French remains the most spoken language in Brussels and English is the second intercultural language. Flemish comes in third, by sheer force of its institutions, because a lot of people go to Flemish schools. But in Flemish schools, the majority of pupils aren’t Flemish. So the Flemings are a minority in their own school system. And that’s a typical Brussels peculiarity.

On criticism.

Overall, Brussels suffers from that tension between local, regional and federal politicians. It has really become a world-class city as far as connectivity with the world is concerned, as far as the international functions are concerned, it’s comparable with London, Frankfurt, Paris! But it does not have the type of leadership and vision the city demands and deserves. That being said, there’s been a shift of late, especially now with the new government, of competences being shifted from the local to the regional level and any observer of good governance would recognize these shifts as going in the right directions.

On structural ambiguities.

The official capital of Belgium is Brussels the city, not the region. It’s the Brussels capital region. But there’s this ambivalence of course. The king works in “La Ville de Bruxelles” so ambassadors or foreign heads of state who visit don’t come to the Region of Brussels, the come to the city of Brussels.

On municipal mentality.

You have to understand that in Belgium the municipal autonomy is an integral part of mentalities. There’s a very strong medieval citizenship mentality that still prevails today and which, basically, believes that the real democracy exists in the local powers and that all the power structures high above are strangers.

On comparisons to other cities.

Brussels is not a big financial sector like London, New York or Tokyo. We don’t have big banks in Belgium anymore. At the other end, Brussels is a very important political center because it’s really the political center of the European Union and so we have three times as much diplomats as in other capital city. Brussels is for instance the world capital of lobbies. We have more than 25,000 registered lobbies in Brussels. And that makes Brussels exist at a level comparable to that of New York or Washingtion. The European functions are really important and make it a global player and allows it to emerge from this Belgian environment in a certain way. It’s a very specific and peculiar city and I don’t think you can really compare it to any other.

On education challenges.

A third of Brussels kids leave school without their diploma. That’s exactly between 28 and 30 percent. So there’s a structural problem. The problem is that there’s no Brussels school system. It’s a Flemish and a French-speaking school system. And most of the teachers don’t live in Brussels, they live in their single family houses in residential zones and then come into this very complex system to teach the youth. So there’s somewhat of a gap between the needs and what is being supplied. Then, in my view, what is essential is that we revisit the content too, the school curriculum. It’s far too removed from the actual school population: yes little Jean can relate to his grandfather having gone through the Second World War and why he needs to be taught about it, but what about little Mohammed? Shouldn’t he also be taught about his own history? My view is that you should enlarge the scale of the vision and adapt it to the population. You don’t and can’t educate within a country only, you educate to live in a world city. When you think about it, and given our linguistic duality, it is crazy that there’s no multilingual education in Brussels. What you need in Brussels is a place where multilingual education exists, where you get geography in French and history in Flemish.

On employment challenges.

The Brussels’s economy is actually not doing that badly. If you have a region of 1,1 million inhabitants and you have 715,000 jobs on offer that’s quite a good ratio! But the majority of those jobs are not for Brussels residents, which is insane when you consider that we have 110,000 unemployed people. And with the unemployment rate at more than 20-22% in the Region, 30% for the youth and reaching a staggering 50% in certain popular neighbourhoods, this has to be a priority. In Molenbeek, in Kureghem, in some areas of Schaerbeek, if you have a third of the population under 25, unemployed and without a future you really have a big problem as a city. And the problem is they’re putting all their resources in trying to adapt these young kids to the labour market as it is and that’s unrealistic. You cannot make of every young kid a trilingual translator for the European union.

On housing challenges.

The housing in Brussels is too expensive and there’s not enough. More than 50% of people rent their place and in the city it’s even worse, something like 80%. And when you take the demographic boom that we know today, 140,000 people are expected to be added by 2020, that’s an average of 20,000 a year. This translates into a need for 7,000 new constructions to be added every year, and for the moment they only manage 4,000 at most. Policies need to be shifted to address this growing problem.

On mobility.

Brussels has been transformed over the last 50 years into a car-friendly city in a certain way. For the most part, people living in the periphery and wanting to use the city in a certain way have been setting its agenda. People who are very strong politically and thus profess strong resistance to any attempts at taxing their use of the city. But first and foremost Brussels should be improved as a habitat for living, for people living here with kids. Brussels is too much a city for the users and not enough for the inhabitants.

On a public figure for Brussels.

My bigger concern for Brussels is the emergence of metropolitan leaders. The Brussels leadership is too contained and too defensive. It is contained by locality on the one hand and contained by the Belgo-Belgian defensive system on the other. What we need is a voluntary leadership that goes for it, that takes the lead even in Belgium, that says to the other Belgians regions “Look, we are the world city, we are the capital of Europe.” We need a multilingual cosmopolitan leader that can invite Obama and say “Come and see we are New York, we are the Manhattan of Europe.” Like every young Frenchman in secondary school wants to visit Paris, all the Europeans should at least, before they are twenty, want to visit Brussels and see something about Europe.

On key Brussels moment.

I would refer to the year 2000 when Brussels was Cultural Capital of Europe. I think it was really a turning point in the Brussels consciousness. The theme was the city, which is also very important, and the Brussels people wanted to express Brussels. And to me the biggest achievement was the birth of the Zinneke Parade, on whose board I serve. It’s not a tradition, it’s not expressing the history, the great history and repeating it, it’s not a carnival, no. It’s really an artistic product of the moment in a certain way, expressing the destination, the destiny of Brussels – and the destiny of Brussels is a hybrid destiny. And that’s what’s been projected by the Zinneke Parade, that the future is hybrid.