October's municipal elections in Brussels are a challenge for the Brussels-Europe Liaison Office, whose mission is summed up in the slogan: “Making Europeans feel more bruxellois, and the Bruxellois feel more European”. Persuading the city's non-Belgian population to vote is a priority, a measure of how much they are engaging with local issues and doing their civic duty.
“Since April we have been very active, printing around 250,000 flyers with the information in different languages, and these have been distributed around the European institutions,” says Carlo Luyckx, who heads the office.
It is an effort that goes beyond the EU institutions, reaching out to the 190,000 non-Belgian Europeans living in Brussels – around 18% of the city's population. “It's important that they let their voices be heard,” says Luyckx, who will be seeking re-election himself as a Socialist Party councillor in Saint-Gilles commune.
The effort has not, however, had much obvious effect. By the end of July, which was the deadline for registration, the proportion of non-Belgian EU citizens who had registered to vote was 11% in central Brussels, 11.5% in the district of Ixelles and 12.2% in Etterbeek. The story was not much better in other districts. Only in Woluwe St Pierre did the rate of registration rise above 20%.
As far as work with the Bruxellois themselves is concerned, the focus is on schools. The office runs role-playing exercises replicating the work of the institutions, site visits and opportunities to meet the people involved. “We've done this for years, with different variations,” says Luyckx. “We've produced thousands of ambassadors for Europe in Brussels.”
Born in Antwerp in 1953, Luyckx had various jobs (dock-worker, house-painter, graphic designer) before coming to Brussels as a mature student to study political science and international law. Originally a Dutch speaker, he crossed the language divide to study at the francophone Université Libre de Bruxelles. “I'm a kind of political refugee, a naturalised French-speaking Belgian,” he says.
After graduating he worked for BIPAR, an insurance-industry trade body, monitoring legislation and lobbying the institutions, while also getting to know Brussels' international community. Meanwhile, his wife was working in the European Parliament and saw the kind of welcome being extended by Strasbourg. “They really rolled out the red carpet, while here in Brussels there was nothing,” Luyckx recalls.
At this point in the late 1980s Brussels was insecure about its role as the capital of Europe. Strasbourg seemed to be winning the battle to be the seat of the Parliament, and the fall of communism suggested Europe's centre of gravity would shift eastwards. Something had to be done.
Luyckx took the idea of setting up a welcoming service to Charles Picqué, minister-president of the newly created Brussels regional government.
Similar thoughts were circulating within the administration and Luyckx joined Picqué's staff to develop the idea. The liaison office opened in 1991, with Luyckx at its head.
Early tasks involved removing administrative obstacles for newcomers and building bridges with the Belgian and EU administrations. A dedicated office was set up in the Parliament and efforts made to support regional representations, whose employees had neither diplomatic nor institutional status.
The liaison office advises the regional government on initiatives that affect Brussels' European role. In addition, Luyckx is a member of the EU-Belgium Task Force, which mediates between the EU institutions and the Brussels region. It meets every two or three months and it is there that conflicts over real estate and issues such as provision of school and crèche places are thrashed out.
Although periods of European community enlargement have posed special problems, Luyckx says little has changed in the years since the office was established.
“New people are always arriving and they always have to know how to deal with things.” As well as offering resources and fielding queries, the office encourages newcomers to get involved in cultural activities. “That works both ways,” Luyckx explains. “People from Brussels meet with those who work for the European institutions and they can see that they are just normal people.”
Ian Mundell is a freelance journalist based in Brussels.