Inside the Belgeway


When President Barack Obama visits Brussels for the first time on March 26, he will discover a city that – in many ways – is Europe’s version of Washington D.C.

Both are medium-sized capitals with large commuter belts, fine restaurants and delightful green spaces. They are relatively wealthy cities with large pockets of poverty – Brussels is the third richest region in the European Union but has a youth unemployment rate of almost 30%. In both places everyone seems to be from somewhere else – and in Brussels’ case this is largely true with over half the population born abroad or to foreign parents. And they have a complicated status within their respective nations. Brussels is the glue that holds divided Belgium together, a Francophone city surrounded by Dutch-speaking Flanders. The District of Columbia, to the befuddlement of most foreigners and many Americans, is the capital of the United States but its elected representatives have no voting rights in Congress.

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The Golden Cage of Brussels

Six years ago I wrote an article about my mixed feelings about living in Brussels for so long. The Guardian published it but it is no longer on their website. As several people have asked what happened to it I’m posting it again.

Living in Brussels is like living in a golden cage – you feel trapped and you dream of escaping almost every day. But you never do because you know life will be more difficult, more complicated and more expensive on the outside.

I should know. In 1993 I came to the Belgian capital to do a five-month traineeship at the European commission. Fourteen years later and I’m still here, complaining about the squally weather, lousy service and infuriating officialdom, making plans to move to Britain, the United States or the south of France but secretly suspecting that the most likely way I’ll leave Brussels is in a coffin.

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