Brussels: A city divided into rich and poor

BRUSSELS — The city that claims to be the capital of Europe may lack the romance of Paris or the glamour of Rome, but to most international visitors Brussels appears to be a prosperous, comfortable place, famed for its cozy bars and gourmet chocolate.

With its economy boosted by 30,000 well-paid European Union officials and an attendant army of lobbyists, campaigners, journalists and company executives, it’s no surprise that Brussels is one of the European Union’s richest regions.

Only inner London and Luxembourg are better off, according to data released in February by the EU’s statistics agency.

However, figures published just days before by the Eurostat hinted at a starkly different Brussels. The city has the highest unemployment rate in western Europe, at over 17 percent.

Within the EU, jobless lines are longer only in the overseas outposts of France and Spain and parts of the former East Germany.

“Brussels is a paradox, a rich city with a poor population, with neighborhoods where the inhabitants are for the most part unemployed,” explained Jean Faniel, an expert at Belgium’s Center for Socio-Political Research and Information.

“It’s a city divided,” Faniel told GlobalPost.

The Saint-Josse-ten-Noode neighborhood is a couple of blocks walk from the steel and glass monoliths that make up the EU headquarters, but it’s world away from the leafy suburbs to the south and east where most Eurocrats make their homes.

On a warm spring lunchtime, its tightly packed streets of 19th-century row houses fill with the scent of mint tea and grilled kebab. Arabic pop tunes blast out of Lebanese snack bars and the red brick walls are plastered with advertisements for Congolese rumba bands and cut-price phone calls to Morocco.

Saint-Josse is the smallest and poorest of the 19 municipalities, known here as “communes” that make up the Belgian capital city.

“This commune has the youngest population in Belgium and the highest unemployment,” said Ahmed Medhoune, the commune’s alderman in charge of employment policy. “We have the lowest revenues and the highest density of people. We have 25,000 people from 140 nationalities living in 1 square kilometer. ”

Like many things in the linguistically divided kingdom of Belgium, Medhoune and Faniel said, a large part of Brussels’ unemployment problem can be chalked up to language.

Although an estimated 80 percent of the city’s 1 million inhabitants are French-speaking, the capital is officially bilingual. From the police force to high street stores, employers demand that staff are fluent in both French and Dutch — the language spoken in northern Belgium. English has become a prerequisite for jobs in the cosmopolitan labor market surrounding the EU, NATO and other international bodies.

Those requirements, Medhoune said, exclude thousands of people in Saint-Josse and other largely immigrant neighborhoods who often speak Arabic or Turkish as their first language.

“English, Dutch and French have an economic value, they are the languages people need in professional life, these youngsters have a language which does not have such an economic value,” he said during an interview at this office in Saint-Josse Town Hall.

To fill the city’s need for highly qualified, multilingual staff, 200,000 commuters flood into the city every day from the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders, along with another 100,000 from French-speaking Wallonia.

“These people take what jobs there are in Brussels and so we find that there is not enough work for the people who live in there,” said Faniel, the think tank researcher.

About one-third of Brussels residents are foreigners. Among the two-thirds who are Belgian, Medhoune said many, like himself, are of immigrant background. Belgium does not gather statistics on ethnicity so exact figures are unavailable, but the councilor points out that the most popular name for boys born in the city is Mohammed.

Despite the high youth unemployment, Brussels has largely avoided the frequent outbreaks of violent social unrest that blight Paris’ rundown suburbs. However, Medhoune warns that young Muslims risk sliding into crime and political extremism unless the capital of Europe takes action to improve their situation.

He wants the EU and other employers to hire local staff with minority backgrounds. Belgian authorities need to overhaul the education system to eliminate effective school segregation and ensure inner-city kids get the skills they need to compete in the job market with rivals from privileged areas.

“In Brussels we have educational apartheid, there’s no other word for it,” Medhoune said.

“That’s one of the great problems of Brussels. People support diversity, but they want selective diversity. They want Moroccan restaurants, Moroccan cafes, but they don’t want their kids in the same school.”

More GlobalPost dispatches on divided cities:

O'Malley's peace efforts help cities see what they can learn from each other

More GlobalPost dispatches on BeNeLux:

Is chocolate recession-proof?

Belgian killer painted his face like "The Joker"