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So far, so close? Citizens' perception of the presence of international institutions in Brussels

Si loin, si proches ? La perception par les citoyens de la présence des institutions internationales à Bruxelles
Zo ver of zo dichtbij? Perceptie van de burger over de aanwezigheid van de internationale instellingen in Brussel
François Foret
Traduction de Corrigan Jane
Cet article est une traduction de :
Si loin, si proches ? La perception par les citoyens de la présence des institutions internationales à Bruxelles [fr]
Autre(s) traduction(s) de cet article :
Zo ver of zo dichtbij? Perceptie van de burger over de aanwezigheid van de internationale instellingen in Brussel [nl]


La perception par les citoyens de la présence des institutions internationales à Bruxelles reste sous-étudiée. Notre étude contribue à combler ce manque via un sondage mené sur un échantillon représentatif de Bruxellois en septembre 2021. L’objectif est d’analyser les représentations et pratiques de la population locale à l’égard des institutions internationales. Nos données montrent qu’une évaluation positive est faite des apports de ces dernières en matière d’économie, d’emploi, de biens publics, d’identité et de culture. Ces bénéfices s’accompagnent néanmoins de coûts perçus en termes de risques terroristes, d'intégration d'une immigration jugée excessive et d’aliénation identitaire. En conclusion, le monde des institutions internationales semble coexister et interagir avec celui des Bruxellois ordinaires dans une relation d’acceptation empreinte de distance et d’indifférence.

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1Brussels is an international city in terms of the composition of its population, its status as a multiple capital and the cross-border flows which lead into it. The presence of international institutions is a major vector of this status. However, its perception by citizens remains relatively unstudied. The objective of this study is to help fill this gap.

2The term “international institutions” is understood according to the definition commonly used at academic and institutional level, which includes organisations attached to the United Nations (UN), the European Union (EU), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and others [Dotti et al., 2021]. These international institutions are only one element in an “ecosystem” [Dairon and Badache, 2021] which also includes national and subnational, private and public, and governmental and non-governmental stakeholders. This ecosystem is influenced by a specific history and territory which shape the international dimension of the city [Dairon and Badache, 2021]. Brussels is thus influenced by Belgium's tradition as a welcoming country as well as by its multicultural and polycentric character. This means that each city is international in its own unique way. Moreover, within each city, the international label is subject to multiple uses and functions as an instrument of access to material and symbolic resources mobilised differently depending on the type of stakeholder [Basaran and Olson, 2018].

3Brussels is unique in two ways in this respect. On the one hand, its status as an international city is often overshadowed by that of European capital. In fact, the EU institutions play an important role in citizens' perception of international organisations. We therefore start from this generic representation, while specifying the slight differences whenever possible. On the other hand, the status of Brussels as an international and European capital has long been perceived as fortuitous, temporary and uncertain. This status receives little attention compared to other similar cities, whether in a deliberate architectural strategy or through strong institutional communication [Perchoc, 2017]. This status remains relatively recent and heavily constrained by community tensions and governance conflicts in Belgium. Brussels has thus been called an “opportunistic capital” to the extent that each level (local, national, European, global) and type of power (public and private) has used the international level to shape the city in its own way and to serve its economic and symbolic interests, without being part of an overall plan [Hein, 2006]. This fragility and fragmentation of the international dimension of Brussels between contradictory visions make it all the more interesting to understand how citizens perceive the city.

  • 1 Possible biases due to the use of French must be taken into account. While the city is bilingual (F (...)

4In this article we present initial data from a survey conducted in September 2021. The survey was conducted online and in French1 for Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB) by Ivox in September 2021 with a representative sample of the Brussels population recruited on the basis of the postal code of the home address. The sample size is 750, with a margin of error of 3,51 %. The survey questionnaire measures citizens' relationships to international institutions through objective knowledge tests and practice indicators (including frequency of interaction, through physical contact or the search for information about these institutions); explores their knowledge and evaluations of a range of policy and identity issues; and analyses the links between perceptions of international institutions, sociodemographic indicators, and broader political attitudes, in particular in terms of materialism (priority given to economic and security issues) and cultural liberalism (priority given to individual autonomy over tradition or authority). This study is part of a “G3” joint academic project between ULB and the universities of Montreal and Geneva, aimed at comparing the effects of the presence of international institutions in the three cities.

5The article is organised as follows. The first part contextualises the presence of international institutions within the territory and the area of governance of Brussels. This presence is discussed in terms of cost/benefit ratios at macroeconomic, political and security levels. It also raises the question as to the limits of the social and territorial integration of international populations into the social and urban fabric, and the role of public action in this regard. Against this background, a second part analyses the results of the survey concerning the perceptions and practices of citizens with respect to the international institutions located in their city. The rather positive image which results is not free of reservations and pronounced inequalities in the relationship which exists – or does not exist – between the inhabitants of Brussels and the international institutions. The conclusion summarises the results of the study and discusses the congruence between political, economic and sociological realities at city level and the citizens' understanding of them.

1. Brussels and the international institutions: an ambivalent relationship

6The dual relationship of Brussels with the international institutions it hosts is characterised by a utilitarian vision which emphasises the benefits of the international dimension, without ignoring the negative aspects and the feeling of a still allogenic graft on the urban and social body of the city.

1.1. Costs, benefits and uncertainties of the presence of international institutions in Brussels

7It is not easy to estimate the economic impact of the international institutions, as they are largely outside national statistical systems due to their transnational nature. Their direct contribution must also be added to that of the sectors which depend on them (from the media to diplomatic representations); interactions with tourism, education and culture; and the urban issues which ensue [Corijn et al.]. Their effects on dimensions as diverse as operational expenditure, consumption and taxation must also be considered. The researchers' calculations are, however, in keeping with those of the institutions, estimating the contribution of international institutions at 23 % to 26 % of regional activity and 19 % to 20 % of jobs for the Brussels-Capital Region; not to mention 1,5 % of activity and 0,6 % of jobs for the Walloon Region and 1,7 % of activity and 0,7 % of jobs for the Flemish Region [Dotti et al.].

8The 2020 annual report of the Brussels government commissioner for relations with European and international institutions (CEIO) completed the macroeconomic picture with other figures in terms of stakeholders. There are 38 European Union organisations, 32 intergovernmental organisations, 300 regional and local representations, 5 369 diplomats, 730 accredited foreign journalists, 33 international schools, 3 887 registered lobbying offices, 19 780 foreign students and 8 000 foreign trainees [CEIO, 2021: 10]. According to the same source, Brussels is also the city which organises the most congresses in Europe and ranks second after London regarding the multilingualism of its inhabitants.

  • 2 WAVREILLE, A., 2021. Bruxelles : quand le télétravail bouscule la politique immobilière de la Commi (...)

9However, the figures are finely shaded and fragile, as recent political, health and security crises have underlined the precariousness of the status of “expat” (the term used in Brussels for qualified foreign workers, particularly those working for institutions). Brexit has brutally exposed the great difficulties faced by Britons who have lived in Brussels for decades as EU nationals to put their situation in order by applying for citizenship or residence in Belgium. The pandemic has also fuelled resentment among certain categories of long-term foreign residents who have had difficulty accessing vaccination. In addition, the heavy restrictions on mobility, the resulting new ways of working and ecological considerations2 have led the European Commission to amend its plans considerably regarding its presence in the city: in July 2021 it moved from a perspective of expansion to that of a reduction by a quarter of the surface area occupied and a consolidation of its sites [Malingre, 2021]. In terms of security, the attacks in the city – in particular the European Quarter – in 2016 reinforced fears that the presence of international institutions would make Brussels a target [Bousetta et al., 2018].

10These recent crises are generating uneven policy responses. In terms of security, the CEIO points out that the administration has been presented with a strong demand for the installation of infrastructures to protect sites at risk, located mainly in the European Quarter [CEIO, 2021: 28]. At economic level, the Brussels-Capital Region is confronted with its limited competence and resources and with the fact that its international attractiveness depends on conditions over which it has little or no control [Van Hamme et al., 2020]. However, the Region has tried to play the role of facilitator by developing support interfaces for international populations, communication plans to improve the image of the city, and a “regional attestation” which acts as an official recognition of subnational regional government representations [CEIO, 2021: 14, 22, 30]. This table illustrates that the Region's influence on the status of international city is uneven across issues and limited to practical aspects. This is also true for the integration of expats.

1.2. Expats: between local integration and cosmopolitan self-segregation

  • 3 The choice of this indicator is in keeping with a recommendation by Statbel [2021]: “It is importan (...)

11Existing studies show a contrasting reality of mutual perceptions between expats – whose presence in Brussels is linked to international institutions – and other residents of Brussels. The two categories have porous outlines which official statistics cannot fully capture. According to the latest available figures from Statbel for 2021, the population of the Brussels-Capital Region is distributed as follows: 53,7 % (655 461) of people born in Belgium; 46,3 % (564 509) of people born abroad (for a total of 1 219 970) [Statbel, 2021]3. Among these people born abroad who represent a wide variety of situations, according to a common assessment corroborated by a property study, the number of expats is around 220 000 and is growing rapidly and continuously [Skyline Europe, 2017].

12An earlier study on the British showed how these expats made the Brussels space their own “parallel city” around the historical centre and specific services and leisure activities available in several languages close to where they lived [Cailliez, 2004: 95]. In so doing, they appeared both “integrated into the urban space and socially enclosed” [Cailliez, 2004: 97], which reflected not so much a ghetto logic or hostility [Cailliez, 2004: 41] as the effects of affinities in lifestyles and socio-economic status with other dominant social groups for whom spatial proximity is not the only basis for sociability [Cailliez, 2004: 25].

13A more recent study on staff working for the European institutions also shows that their sense of belonging to Brussels society exists but rather weakly and hardly increases over time, while remaining much higher than that of belonging to a “European bubble” [Jourdain, 2018]. Spatial mobility also has no effect, as expats follow a residential strategy which leads them to live near their place of work first, and then out of family necessity and a better knowledge of the environment, to move to other neighbourhoods with already international populations, notably the southeast of the city [Casier, 2019], without this having an impact on their integration.

14With respect to this social and territorial dimension as well as the economic and political dimensions, the action of local authorities seems not only not to reverse the trends but even to amplify them. Both public and economic stakeholders contribute to maintaining a self-segregation of expats with a high economic level by redeveloping certain neighbourhoods with a deliberate emphasis on the production of facilities as well as property and commercial services for “well-to-do Europeans” which drive out other migrant populations with lower incomes [Casier, 2021]. The dividing lines are therefore Manichaean and impenetrable, and exist between Belgians and non-Belgians, as well as between different categories of foreigners [Casier, 2021]. In all cases, from urban planning to sports clubs, a logic of “cosmopolitan self-segregation” prevails, mixing socio-economic and cultural elements, and public policies have only a minor impact on this logic or reinforce it [Laurens, 2012]. The perception of international institutions by the inhabitants of Brussels should be seen against this background.

2. Brussels residents and international institutions: finely shaded and divided opinions

15According to the study which this article is based on, the inhabitants of Brussels have a positive view of the presence of international institutions in their city – with a few reservations – on a collective and individual level, both for material aspects (economy, employment, public goods) and immaterial aspects (identity and culture). However, they express a rather distant and, above all, very unequal relationship with these institutions.

2.1. A predominantly positive perception of international institutions

16When asked whether “the presence of international organisations in your city [is] a good or a bad thing”, three quarters of the respondents consider it positive in terms of professional opportunities (76 %), training and studies (76 %) and the cosmopolitan identity of the city (73 %). A still very strong two-thirds majority also consider it beneficial with respect to issues which are often contentious in Brussels, such as the provision of public services (70 %), transport (66 %) and, to a lesser degree, local democracy (61 %), security (59 %) and the quality of urban planning (59 %). This broad consensus is in itself a research result to be taken into account, as it was not self-evident in the light of an academic and political debate which frequently underlined the historical baggage and persistent tensions between the international sphere in Brussels and the rest of its population.

17A gradation is nevertheless perceptible in the citizens' answers when the questions shift from a general appreciation of the presence of international institutions to a more subjective assessment of the consequences of this presence at a local and personal level. The people of Brussels overwhelmingly declare that international institutions are “a source of influence” (83,8 %) and “significant economic benefits” (76,9 %) and that this “benefits the whole country” (72,2 %). Nevertheless – and this is a first important subtle distinction – 65,7 % also consider that “the presence of international organisations attracts expatriates who do not integrate into local life”, and 69,9 % consider that it “increases the risk of terrorist attacks”.

18However, it is when we move to a more personal level that the gradation becomes particularly obvious. Respondents were asked to express the feeling which first comes to mind when they think of the international character of their city, from a list of proposals on a scale of 1 to 10. Their responses have been transformed into averages and translate as follows:

Table 1. The feelings of Brussels inhabitants with respect to the international aspect of their city

I feel proud to live here


I feel the positive impacts in my daily life


I don't care


I feel the negative impacts in my daily life


I feel a loss of identity


19The presence of international institutions clearly creates a sense of pride and a positive feeling about daily life. Nevertheless, there is a fairly high level of indifference. To a lesser degree, the perception of negative impacts on daily life and even a loss of identity is significant. However, these perceptions are not exclusive. It is possible to feel both pride and a loss of identity in connection with the international dimension. In any case, it testifies to a complex and multifaceted relationship between the international institutions and the different populations of the capital of Europe.

20This relationship is also uncertain given the fragility of globalisation circuits, as highlighted by the coronavirus crisis and the disruption of the movement of people and goods. When asked if they think “that the coronavirus health crisis will make your city less international”, a majority (51,0 %) of Brussels residents think not, compared to one third who think so.

2.2. A diffuse, indirect and unequal relationship with international institutions

21Another part of the research aims to study the cognitive and social interactions between Brussels residents and international institutions via indicators of objective competence and practices.

22Respondents are first asked their opinion of how their “city is best known internationally” by ranking different options. Being a “host to international organisations” comes in first place (45,7 %), followed by being a “tourist destination” (18,1 %), a “home to multinational companies” (15,4 %), a “university city” (7,9 %), an “international financial centre” (6,7 %), and finally, a “host to sports and cultural events” (6,1 %).

Table 2. Factors in the international reputation of Brussels according to its inhabitants

In your opinion, your city is best known internationally as :


100,0 %

A host to international organisations

45,7 %

A tourist destination

18,1 %

A home to multinational companies

15,4 %

A university city

7,9 %

An international financial centre

6,7 %

A host to sports and cultural events

6,1 %

It is not known

7,5 %

23This confirms the international institutions as a strong identity marker in the respondents' representations of the city as a global entity.

24Perception, however, is not knowledge. In order to verify the level of information on which the representations of international institutions are based, one question asks respondents to identify the organisation actually located in Brussels from a list, deliberately choosing a non-EU institution with a high profile – NATO – as the verifier. 39,2 % of respondents correctly identify NATO as being located in their city. Nevertheless, almost one in five Brussels residents (17,7 %) incorrectly state that other institutions are based in Brussels (International Civil Aviation Organization; World Trade Organization; Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development). More importantly, 43 % prefer not to answer, suggesting a limited level of information and certainty.

25This interpretation is confirmed by another objective competence test asking respondents to estimate the percentage of their fellow Brussels citizens who were born abroad as an indication of their perception of the internationalisation of the local population (as a reminder, 46,3 % according to Statbel [2021]). 4,8 % of respondents answered “less than 5 %”, 33,5 % answered “5 % to 20 %”, 32,6 % answered “21 % to 30 %” and 29,1 % answered “more than 30 %”. There is therefore a very underestimated perception of the extent of the phenomenon.

26Moving from objective competence to modes of interaction with international institutions, respondents were asked about the means through which they know about “the work of international organisations present in [the] city”. The media are by far the most important source (39,3 %), ahead of “events of an international nature organised in your city” (18,8 %), which can be perceived in the media and in their effects on daily life, such as traffic congestion. Next, with a fairly small gap, are studies (15,4 %), work (10,5 %), friends and family (9,5 %) and social networks (6,6 %). This classification underlines that contact with institutions is mostly indirect, but that for some categories of the population, it is part of daily life. Social networks play a marginal role, confirming that they cannot create a proximity which does not exist “in real life”. Finally, one in six people (16,5 %) say they are not aware of the work of international organisations in their city, which is a significant minority.

27Finally, the extent to which Brussels residents share the space of international institutions is examined by asking them whether they often go to the European Quarter, which is the part of the city most associated with these institutions. 38,8 % of respondents answered “never”, reflecting a definite territorial division. 38,2 % of people say that they go there for leisure. The latter, mostly young people, may be referring to the museums of the Cinquantenaire, which are only partially related to the international dimension (even though the Parliamentarium and especially the House of European History, which are offshoots of the European Parliament, feature prominently among the city's tourist visits). That leaves one in five people (18,1 %) who travel there for work (a proportion more or less equivalent to the proportion of jobs associated with international institutions, taking into account the fact that many employees of these institutions do not live in Brussels and are therefore not included in the survey, and that people with other occupations may occasionally go there to work or make deliveries), and one in ten people (9,7 %) who live there. These figures corroborate both the common representation of a European Quarter which is, strictly speaking, deserted or simply ignored by the population which has no direct connection with international institutions [Laurens et al., 2012].


28The relationship of the inhabitants of Brussels to international institutions reflects their city's ambivalent historical status as a fortuitous European capital and multicultural metropolis with contradictory tensions. Citizens have a positive view of the presence of these international institutions on a collective level – and to a lesser degree on an individual level – both for material aspects (economy, employment, education, public goods) and immaterial aspects (pride of belonging and cosmopolitan identity). However, there are still a few shadows in the picture. The international institutions are also perceived as being a source of drawbacks (terrorist risk, immigration felt to be poorly integrated and excessive, feeling of alienation for a minority), which qualify the positive assessment without invalidating it.

29The relationship of the inhabitants of Brussels to international institutions remains distant and indirect. The knowledge they have of them appears to be limited and comes mostly from the media. The inhabitants of Brussels spend a very inconsistent amount of time in the European Quarter, which is emblematic of the city's international dimension, and when they do, it is often for reasons other than the presence of the European institutions. In the end, what emerges from the citizens' responses is the image of two worlds – international and local – which coexist and interact without hostility and with mutual benefits, but with a certain indifference and little intermingling.

30This initial descriptive analysis requires further study. A more detailed statistical study would highlight the segmentation logics of the inhabitants of Brussels in their relationship of proximity/distance to the international institutions, and in particular how youth and the use of the English language favour more frequent and direct interactions with them. At a theoretical level, the results invite us to re-examine existing knowledge about the socialisation of international institutions, and what a “micro” level observation of their location in the city can tell us about the dynamics of building a political community around them. Finally, the specificity of Brussels as European capital can be measured by comparing it with other cities which share the same supranational aspect (Strasbourg), or which have the features of an international city. These themes will be the subject of future publications within our research project.

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1 Possible biases due to the use of French must be taken into account. While the city is bilingual (French/Dutch) in institutional terms, the proportion of French speakers in Brussels is commonly estimated to be above 90 % [RTBF, "91,8 %, la proportion de francophones à Bruxelles a baissé ces dernières années", 29 January 2020]. In the absence of a linguistic census, these estimates are most often based on the analysis of administrative records (tax returns, birth or death certificates, etc.). The choice of a language for administrative formalities can nevertheless be made by default; the language used is not necessarily the one used in the household in question, and does not account for bilingualism, which is well developed in Brussels. The questionnaire includes several questions on language practices, which take this diversity into account.

2 WAVREILLE, A., 2021. Bruxelles : quand le télétravail bouscule la politique immobilière de la Commission européenne. In: RTBF. 26/04/2021. [Accessed on 04/28/2022] Available at:

3 The choice of this indicator is in keeping with a recommendation by Statbel [2021]: “It is important to note that nationality does not indicate whether a person has migrated or not. Rather, nationality gives information about a person's origin. The country of birth is a better indicator of whether or not a person has migrated to" Belgium.”

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François Foret, « So far, so close? Citizens' perception of the presence of international institutions in Brussels »Brussels Studies [En ligne], Collection générale, n° 170, mis en ligne le 12 juin 2022, consulté le 24 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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François Foret

François Foret is a professor of political science and researcher at Cevipol and the Institut d’Etudes Européennes, Université Libre de Bruxelles. He is notably the author of Foret F., Vargovčíková J. (2021) (eds), Value Politics in the European Union. From Market to Culture and Back, London, Routledge.

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