Brussels, capital of Europe and the capital of Belgium, is centre stage in a long-running stand-off between Flemings and Walloons. During campaigning for the recent elections, arguments between the two communities erupted over who should pay for what in Brussels.
The city is also a region of the Belgian federal state, and the expenses it has to face as a capital of Europe have left it with a lot of debts. Taxpayers are not keen on footing the bills. One of hundreds of thousand of daily commuters into the city, Bram Esposito, said:
“I’m glad to work here and that’s one of the reasons to come to Brussels to work because it’s something more international and I like the atmosphere, but Antwerp is my home.”
Antwerp is 60km from the capital, and is where Bram pays his taxes, although he works as a web-page designer at the (Dutch-speaking) Vrij Universiteit van Brussel.
He said: “We use a lot of public services and all different kind of services that are available here and we pay taxes in Flanders, so basically that seems normal to me, but on the other hand there are so many international people that work here, that live somewhere else and pay their taxes somewhere else, maybe other regions in other countries should pay their contribution too.”
The Belgian federal state has three autonomous regions: Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels, and three linguistic communities: French, Dutch and German. Brussels is bilingual but it belongs to the French community, as analyst Pascal Delwit describes it.
Delwit said: “Vast numbers of Dutch-speaking workers and Walloons come to Brussels every day. We have to realise that half the jobs here are not filled by a person from Brussels. And yet these workers carry a certain number of costs which are not met by the taxes they pay because they are taxed in the place where they live and not where they work.”
In Flemish eyes, some say, Brussels is an autonomous francophone enclave within the Dutch speaking linguistic area. The Flemish N-VA party has even proposed abolishing the Brussels region’s autonomous status. Like other important cities, the capital is not all splendour and modernity, engineer Philippe Jourion suggests.
Jourion said: “A lot of street are neglected. We see a lot of litter, and houses in some neighbourhoods which haven’t been kept up.”
Most of the better-off people who are working in Brussels live in Flanders and pay their income tax there, like Philippe Jourion does. He lives in Linkebeek, a village in the disputed Brussels periphery.
Delwit said: “We have an urban model in Belgium that is very different from other countries, for example France, where the upper middle classes and the well-off live on the outskirts, while the generally lower-earning or inactive population live in the city, which signifies there is also a form of rejection in Brussels of this urban model.”
Jourion said: “Even living on the outskirts, in a very small community, when we go to hospital or to the theatre, it’s in Brussels; we benefit from the city’s advantages. It’s pretty logical; everyone contributes.”
euronews: “And yet you pay your taxes in Flanders.”
“Yes but I didn’t choose that. That’s just the way Belgium is divided. I don’t know if it’s what the people really want.”
Brussels brings international prestige, hosting EU and NATO headquarters, but also added security costs. EU civil servants pay tax to the EU and not to Belgium, and many big companies pay their taxes not in Brussels but at head office in Flanders.