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The case for English in Brussels

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On paper, Brussels is one of the most international cities in the world, with huge amounts of civil servants, lobbyists and other expats that now call it their home. Roughly one-third of the inhabitants of the Brussels Capital Region are not Belgian citizens, and over 50 percent have foreign roots. Brussels is one of the few bilingual capitals in the world, as well as the self-proclaimed ‘Heart of Europe’ – an epicenter of global political compromise. Unfortunately, in real, everyday life, Brussels all too often remains Bruxelles, a small, chaotic French-speaking city in western Europe with divided communities, an incomprehensible bureaucracy, no clear vision for the future, a failed mobility-plan, and a closed mind towards international opportunities.

Basically, today’s Brussels is not personifying the ‘European Dream’.

When my wife went to register herself in the population register five years ago (she’s American), the municipal clerks of the ‘foreigners office’ informed her in French that none of them spoke English. This is not uncommon in Brussels. Many expats are attracted by the international image of the city, but their hopes on a quick integration get shattered when, upon arrival, they have to deal with an almost exclusively monolingual French-speaking government administration, often hostile towards foreigners.

Who is to blame? As with most societal problems, there are multiple factors to consider, and we can’t just blame the Brussels administration (which is what most Belgians do for a variety of issues). Just to give an example, in the run-up to the October 2018 municipal elections in Brussels, most of my international friends, neighbours and family members couldn’t care less. They had the right to vote, but weren’t following the debates, didn’t know the different Belgian political parties, and often only vaguely remembered there was an upcoming election at all. On election day, I was the only voter in my entire building, all my neighbours being foreigners. In a way, this made me feel like an old school nineteenth century dignitary, with a top hat and fancy walking stick. It was as if I was surrounded by a bunch of uneducated peasants, all of them oblivious to the intrigues of local politics in Brussels.

This piece is not about the apathy of expats and immigrants towards Brussels’ politics, nor the apathy of Brussels politics towards foreigners. Instead, we will focus on positive solutions that can impact everyone’s life for the better. To put it plainly: Brussels needs to adapt to its international inhabitants, so that they can better integrate in Brussels.

Trilingual stability

English is promoted as a good solution by many influencers, such as Prof. Philippe Van Parijs and Vincent Kompany. They have repeatedly spoken in favour of the English language as a key to the Brussels deadlock and as a means to more job opportunities for its youth. The neutrality of the English language could indeed help smoothen things over between the two major linguistic groups. Because for more than a century, the precarious linguistic situation in Brussels has resulted in a negative spiral of tensions between Flemish and French-speakers, which in turn has impoverished the city. Simultaneously, adopting English as a third language in Brussels would be a very symbolic act towards the international community in Brussels, and the world for that matter. It would make the city more attractive for international business, especially with the current Brexit situation. On top of that, guaranteeing trilingual (FR-FL-ENG) education in Brussels would prepare the coming generations for the international reality in the job market.

Prominent academics, such as Bruno De Wever of Ghent University, have been calling for the integration of the English language into Belgian politics for many years, claiming it could help bridge the existing gap between political parties and communities. The use of English could reunite Belgium and Brussels, and help Belgians overcome more than a century of linguistic friction.

In the meantime, local politicians in Brussels keep their heads firmly in the sand, neglecting to look further than their own maison communale. At times, it certainly feels like village politics, albeit characterised by the infamously conflicting levels of power. It's amazing how the people’s representatives keep pointing fingers at each other, seemingly stuck in a ‘catch 22’ situation. The municipal representatives blame the regional parliament, the regional parliament blames the federal government, the federal government blames the municipal representatives, and so on. Aware of the public's contempt, these actors desperately attempt to divert the electorate's anger towards their political adversaries. In short, linguistic politics in Belgium are a minefield, and communities tend to embrace linguistic freedom when it suits them.

Is it possible?

Amongst young people from different backgrounds, English has already become a lingua franca, a common language that everyone speaks. This is also the case for professionals of all ages: English is the language Flemings speak with Spaniards and Frenchmen with Germans. Whether we like it or not, the world is getting smaller and within that process, Brussels is becoming its own international entity. Although ties with Flanders and Wallonia should of course remain close, in 2019 Brussels is no longer the other two regions' little plaything. However, it has been in the nature of certain powers to develop a stubborn adherence to the status quo, ever since Belgium was created as a monolingual French-speaking state in 1830. The famous quote “La Belgique sera Latine, ou elle ne sera pas” dates from this period, basically meaning non-latin languages were a threat to Belgium’s unity. However, the recognition of Flemish as an official language and the gradual application of linguistic laws eventually gave Flemings language equality. This goes to show that Belgium can exist as a multi-lingual nation. Moreover, it demonstrates that it is possible to add official languages without setting the parliament on fire.

The current unofficial status of the English language in Brussels bears a striking resemblance to the situation in Belgium prior to the Equality Law of 1898, by which Flemish was vaguely recognized. It was the Plural Voting Law of 1893 which largely provoked the political necessity to recognise the Flemish language five years later. This law had created a new group of voters – all Belgian men above 25 now had one or more votes – but since many new voters only spoke Flemish, politicians had to use Flemish in order to reach them.

In modern-day Belgium, EU citizens have been granted the right to vote in municipal elections since 2000, while non-EU foreigners have been able to vote since 2006. EU citizens can also vote for the European elections. But so far, the influence of foreign voters has been insignificant in Brussels (around seven percent), due to a lack of interest and engagement. If everyone would have registered and voted for last October's municipal elections, the foreign electorate would have accounted for around 30 percent of the total Brussels vote – 80 percent of the foreigners in Brussels are EU citizens – making them an untapped goldmine for the traditional parties. However, in order to exploit it, politicians will have to conquer this new electorate's apathy by communicating in a language voters fully understand (English) and by talking about issues that matter to this group.

On the other hand, the situation of English-speaking foreigners in our city is also similar to that of the French-speaking minorities in the Flemish municipalities surrounding Brussels. There are evident socio-economic and cultural parallels in the sense that it concerns newcomers, often well off, and bringing with them a language not (yet) used by the local government. With this in mind, the administrative facilities enjoyed by French-speaking minorities in Drogenbos, Kraainem, Linkebeek, Sint-Genesius-Rode, Wemmel and Wezembeek-Oppem represent an interesting precedent for the 30 percent foreigners in Brussels. In 1963, these municipalities were granted a semi-bilingual status, which means French-speakers can do the paperwork for their ID card, driver's license, registration, etc., in French.

It is also vital to emphasize that since the creation of the official linguistic border in 1921 until 1962, linguistic borders were adjustable, and the linguistic status of municipalities wasn’t written in stone. Any municipality could become bilingual as long as it had a 30 percent representation of the other language community. This quota was used by the Flemish to maintain the bilingual status within the Brussels agglomeration after 1930, when the Flemish-speaking community in Brussels became a minority. It was also used in 1954 to incorporate Ganshoren, Evere and Berchem-Ste-Agathe into the bilingual agglomeration.


English-speaking foreigners in Brussels can relate to the sore points and bygone hardship experienced by the two dominant communities in Belgium. The difference, however, is that in Brussels, English is not dividing communities or turning them against one another. Instead, the English language could help Belgians to better understand one another. In the early 1960s, when the fixed linguistic border was drawn, Brussels was not yet the international capital it is now. The European unification process was still a new project and Charles de Gaulle only withdrew from NATO in 1967, forcing its headquarters to move to Brussels. In 1962, it was French vs Flemish in Belgium, and the linguistic laws that followed were a direct result of this conflict.

Fast forward to 2019 and the bickering has noticeably simmered down. Consequently, linguistic policies and laws should be reassessed to make sure they are still in touch with reality. It is time to forget the sore past and see trilingualism as a real opportunity for Brussels. If the United Kingdom leaves the EU in a month, the prospect of a trilingual Brussels would make it an attractive destination for London-based firms. Simply providing administrative facilities would already be a step in the right direction to attract more international business, as it would reassure international professionals that they wouldn't have to learn a new language just to get a parking permit.

But why should we only create linguistic facilities for the English language? Opponents will likely argue that the native English-speaking community in Brussels is relatively small. There are no large areas inhabited strictly by British, Australian or American nationals, and there's no clear 30 percent Anglo representation. Therefore, one could argue that there is no need to provide administrative facilities to English-speakers. There is no doubt that Brussels is in fact a patchwork of nationalities, and a good portion of the 30 percent foreigners are actually French. What is more, it is obvious that certain other languages, such as Spanish, Arabic, Italian and Turkish are spoken by big communities with more native speakers than English. Therefore, critics could oppose facilities for English-speakers, arguing that these other language communities might subsequently want linguistic facilities themselves.

It is important to note that although there is no big native Anglophone community in Brussels, the English language is used by all foreign European groups to communicate with one another. It is a language that most young Europeans are learning as a second language and, therefore, helps bridge the gap between communities and nationalities. Besides Europeans there are Asian, African and South-American communities that prefer to speak English over French or Flemish. Brussels has become a metropolis of minorities, and those minorities tend to use English as a lingua franca. With regards to the potential claims of other linguistic groups, it is important to emphasize that English is the main language used by the EU and NATO, which are both based in Brussels. By providing English language facilities, Brussels would finally embrace the international community as a whole, since it is a language that unites most of its (foreign) residents. Most Bruxellois have some basic knowledge of English, while not everyone speaks Spanish, Arabic, Italian or Turkish. Generally speaking, these languages are only spoken by their respective communities. As a matter of fact, giving facilities to those languages would probably lead to more division and less mutual integration.


There are two possibilities for the official implementation of English in Brussels. The first is to make the entire Brussels Capital Region trilingual, which would automatically give foreigners the possibility to interact with the government in English at all times. Simultaneously, this option would present the ideal opportunity to upgrade the current antiquated bilingual institutions, which are actually mainly French-speaking. In 2019, it might be time to end the official bilingual farce which only exists on paper, and actively work towards an internationally oriented trilingual Brussels. Although desirable, this might also turn out a bit impractical. Making everything trilingual would be both costly and time-consuming, and it wouldn't necessarily be relevant for all government services.

The second solution would be to give administrative facilities to English-speaking foreigners similar to those for French-speakers in the six Flemish municipalities surrounding Brussels. This solution seems more attainable in the short term, since it wouldn’t change the linguistic status of Brussels. It would mean that everything stays bilingual as it is but, upon request, foreigners could do the paperwork for their ID card, driver's license, registration, etc., in English. By adopting this solution, there is no need to create another language community and even more bureaucracy. In Belgium, simplicity is key, so right now basic administrative facilities might be the best option to make Brussels the true heart of Europe.