Tag Archives: Belgium

Home, again

In 2019, I completed the process of acquiring Belgian nationality. I had started it the year before, in recognition of the fact that it looks like I am going to stay in my beloved Brussels for the long haul, and in an effort to insulate myself from any bad Brexit-like idea Italian politicians might have. It was no big deal: a bit of bureaucracy, a couple of hundred euro, and the Belgian administrative machine was in motion.

The months passed. And then a few weeks ago, I received a surprise invitation from the mayor of Forest (one of the 19 Brussels communes, the one where I live). He was delighted that some of its foreign residents – myself included – had recently acquired the Belgian nationality. Would I go out to the city hall for a moment of conviviality with him and his colleagues? I RVSP’ed sure, what a nice idea. And tonight, I went.

I was expecting a formality. A short and generic speech from some mayoral underling, followed by some kind of refreshment. I was wrong.

The whole political level of the city government was there. The mayor, and six of the nine échevins, in all their multi-ethnic glory. Nobody was in a rush. They went out of their way to explain that the city hall’s employees, and they personally, were there for the citizens, and that all doors were always open. When a lady reported problems with finding affordable housing, they all stepped up, explaining what each one’s office could do to attack her problem. Local government, at its best.

But it was the humanity of it all that stroke me the most. They seemed genuinely interested in talking to each one of us individually, and delighted that we had chosen Forest as our (permanent, given we had applied for citizenship) home. They even seemed to like us.

People liked them right back. Several new Belgians stood up to acknowledge the quality and humanity of the services they had received, as foreigners first, as Belgians now. One lady beaming, announced that she used to work black, but now her citizen status opens new opportunities. Everyone laughed, and the mayor smiled and said he was sorry she had to do that, and happy that now she was in the clear.

It turned out that Forest has 56,000 inhabitants representing 144 nationalities. In 2019 alone, about 500 residents, like me, acquired the Belgian nationality. These are incredible numbers, that expose the lies about the “migration emergency”, the “invasion”. Over half of Brussels residents were not born Belgian (source). And yet here we are, with our mayor welcoming us to the large, colorful, slightly shady Brussels family (yes, shady, since our cultural heroes are people like these – and proud of it!).

Way to go, my fellow Belgians. No, this country is not perfect. It can be quite dysfunctional. But these things are fixable. What matters most to me, is the ironic, tender humanity you so often manage to infuse in life here. If this is Belgium, I am happy to have chosen to make my home here, and proud to be one of you.

Striking in the 2010s and the sadness of it all

So, I walked the streets of Brussels today – public transport is down because of La Grève, The Strike. Belgian trade unions are on the warpath because of the new government’s yet-to-be-introduced austerity policies, including a rise of the retirement age from 65 to 67 by 2030. As I walked past the small groups of striking workers manning the picketing lines I could not help feeling sad.

Sadness is not a sentiment normally associated with strikes. Strikers are supposed to be angry; people caught in the fallout of the strikes, like me hiking across the city, are supposed to be annoyed.  So why am I sad at this strike?

In part it is the sheer loneliness of the tableaux vivants I saw as I walked. In the gray winter morning, Belgian strikers huddled around  brasiers to keep warm. They looked present-shocked and lost in a world that they don’t understand. They looked very homogenous: white, middle- to late-middle aged.

But mostly it is this: I think these workers have absolutely no chance in hell to succeed. The demand for welfare (state-provided education, health care, pensions) keeps growing; so far, we have met it by increased government budgets, but they now stand around 40-45% of GDP in most European countries, and it seems politically impossible to further increase taxation. An aging population means that fewer active workers are supporting more pensioners. Persistently high unemployment means fewer people are saving anything at all for their retirement. Persistently low interest rates mean that, even if you do have a job and you have been saving, your pension will be smaller than you planned. And that’s assuming your pension fund managers, desperate for yield, are not buying into the next bubble; that climate change will not drown us all; and so on.

There is no way most countries are not going to raise legal retirement age. In fact, humanity seems on course to reverting to its historical default of old people being poor. The only achievable goal for the striking workers is to hold out a little longer. Manage to retire at current conditions; then join a Pensioners Party and defend the monthly check as long as they possibly can, hopefully dying of old age before defeat. They just might be able to save themselves; there is no way they can save their children. Unionized workers are getting ever older throughout Europe (already in 2010, 52% of the members of Italy’s CGIL – Europe’s largest union – were pensioners). With these numbers, trade unions can’t help taking sides in the generations war. And they will either lose it, or win it, but damn everybody else in the process: the young unemployed, the migrants, the homeless people taking their sleeping bags at Gare du Midi, even their own children.

What a contrast with the generous young people in Edgeryders and elsewhere, scrambling to fix the world’s problems. That includes providing for the elderly: they – we – are experimenting with living together in intergenerational communities like the unMonastery. Most of them have very little money; practically no one has any stability; and yet, so many are willing to show up and make a stand – for all, not just for themselves. Their example humbles me; I just have to step in and try to help. These Belgian workers on strike, on the other hand, are probably very decent human beings, but they are fighting the wrong fight and I will not stand with them.