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Brussels: A city divided into rich and poor

Many immigrants cannot speak the multitude of languages required for many jobs in Brussels.

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.