Writer, speaker and advisor on Europe

What is the European Green Deal?

On 11 December, the European Commission presented the long-awaited European Green Deal in a press conference and in a plenary session at the European Parliament. The Commission calls it ‘Europe’s man on…

On 11 December, the European Commission presented the long-awaited European Green Deal in a press conference and in a plenary session at the European Parliament. The Commission calls it ‘Europe’s man on the moon’ moment. For President Von der Leyen, climate forms the very heart of her political agenda for the next five years. “70 years ago, Europe invested in coal and steel. Now we are investing in renewables and algorithms. This is the core of the European Green Deal.”

I went through the whole document and it is a well thought-through piece of work. The Commission really covers all aspects in its strategy to make Europe as climate friendly as possible. From a strong push for the energy transition to massive reforestation plans and halting biodiversity, from sustainable farming to recycling of electronic waste – all the right measures are there.

Really groundbreaking is that the EU will enshrine in law the target of becoming (the first) climate-neutral continent by 2050. This is at least the ambition of the Commission, now supported by 26 of the 28 EU Member States (the UK will be out by January, and Poland refuses to budge, protecting its very large coal industry).

Whether they are actually realistic, remains to be seen. Decarbonising the energy system is – with current technology choices available – impossible. ‘Clean steel’ production by 2030? Forget it. Realising the circular economy? With only 12% of materials recycled in Europe, this is a paper dream. In the meantime, NGOs are unhappy (“it doesn’t go far enough”) and richer and poorer EU Member States may be split over the measures. Not to mention, what do to with nuclear energy.

Overview of actions

The package consists of 50 actions for 2050.  The key ones can be divided into various categories.

The hard-core political goals and actions: 

  • Europe climate-neutral by 2050, enshrined in law –> proposal for law in March 2020
  • 50/55% CO2 reduction by 2030 –> proposal to be presented by Summer 2020
  • Reform of ETS (Emissions Trading System) + carbon border tax
  • Mechanism for ‘just transition’ worth 100 billion euro (to get central EU Member States to accept the 2050 target)
  • Decarbonising the energy system – supplying clean, affordable and secure energy

Systemic reform of Europe’s economy (and society)

  • EU industrial strategy to address twin challenge of green and digital transformation –> adopted in March 2020
  • 1 million extra charging poles for EVs by 2025
  • Doubling of speed of renovating buildings and increasing energy efficiency
  • Investment plan by early 2020, EIB to become green investment bank
  • Shift to sustainable and smart mobility
  • Smart infrastructure and sector integration
  • European Climate Pact to focus on three ways to engage with the public on climate action –> March 2020 announced

Realisation of the circular economy

  • New circular economy action plan (the old one wasn’t effective), with sustainable products policy for circular design
  • ‘Right to repair’ for consumers, curbing the built-in obsolescence of devices, in particular for electronics
  • Economic growth decoupled from resource use
  • Development of lead markets in Europe for climate neutral and circular products
  • Preserving and restoring ecosystems and biodiversity
  • Massive reforestation of land in Europe
  • From ‘Farm to Fork’: a fair, healthy and environmentally friendly food system
  • End green washing of products and services by taking (non-)regulatory measures


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Living in the countryside

A lot of professional and personal projects are happening in my life right now. Which is not really news to people who know me. But there is a very special…

A lot of professional and personal projects are happening in my life right now. Which is not really news to people who know me. But there is a very special project taking shape, a project of which I have dreamt for a long time and that is now finally getting off the ground. By chance, almost.

Though I really like living in big cities, they do have their disadvantages. They are noisy, chaotic, hurried and not very green. This is why, at one point in my life, I would like to have a place in the countryside – ideally in the north of Spain or in Italy, close to the mountains, in rugged nature, a place that is bereft of human influence. In this second home, I would be able to reconnect with nature, write my articles and books, do a bit of bed-and-breakfasting on the side, retreating into contemplation and mindfulness while also keeping the door wide open to friends and family.

Such a house has come on my path, but it is not in the Mediterranean area. Rather, it is in the Belgian Ardennes, in the municipality of Durbuy to be precise. My partner found a job in the north of Luxembourg, which is not the most interesting area to live and it is too far for a daily commute from Brussels. So we found a solution – in the middle, as compromises are a matter of give and take. We bought an old farm in the Ardennes, which is right between Brussels and Luxembourg, and have been renovating the place for over a year now.

Since May, I have spent a lot of time in the countryside, now that my partner has moved into the house that is not quite finished yet. In fact, I was there for a large part of the summer. Busy times in Brussels have commanded that I can only be there during weekends, but nonetheless, I made some observations about living in the countryside. Though it is in Belgium, I guess that the experience will be similar to living in rural areas in Spain or Italy (apart from the weather and the aperitif culture).

The farm from above

First of all, life is quiet and slow on the countryside. This of course is no surprise, a no-brainer. But if you experience it day in, day out, rather than just going for a weekend, it really does something to you. Think away the tourists in the Ardennes, and all you have is nature and farms. There is not a lot of other activities or cultural sights/cities in this area. So you as a person, also need to become quiet and slow. That means soaking up the solitude, going for long, silent walks with the dog, be patient with slow service / responses of people with whom you engage, find comfort in the limited company that you may find.

To be honest, I am not there yet, accepting this way of living. For me it is a bit too quiet, especially if I am working from home, and my colleagues are far away (in Brussels, London and further). I also can get annoyed if you make an appointment with an organisation to, for instance, fix your internet or deliver a couch – and then they come at a different time or even day, without telling you. Which is – if I understand my Dutch builder correctly – is entirely normal in the Ardennes. One owner of a gîte confided to me: ‘If you ask someone to do something for you, make sure you just don’t get the day and month right, but also the year.’

Secondly, connecting with nature certainly is a dominant feature of a rural existence. There are various walks into forests commencing straight from our house. In our wild garden, there are dozens of different plant species – the garden itself is in Natura 2000 area. When we bought the place, there were even beavers behind our house who made a dam and created a beaver-made lake! Also, I haven’t seen so many butterflies since my youth.

Every week you can see the vegetation change; even in October there are certain flowers blossoming which is wonderful. In the meantime, hunters close some roads in the weekends in order to fulfil their annual killing spree. Which is a necessity because the wildlife is quite sprawling and too many deer and wild boars, for instance, can be a hazard to the natural environment and also for drivers.

And then the stars at night…. An evening without ‘light pollution’ can make the sky pitch black and you can see thousands of stars with the naked eye.

A third and more challenging point is connecting with people. The inhabitants of the Ardennes are not known to be the most open Belgians. In our village we have quite a few ‘import residents’, notably from Brussels and the Netherlands. When we after a few months living there, brought around some home-made cookie jars to introduce ourselves, most of the local people were a bit reluctant to talk to us and didn’t invite us in, while the ‘import’ neighbours usually were more welcoming, offering us wine and beer instead of a short ‘merci’ and a closing door.

You’d also really need to speak French. In touristy areas you can get away with Dutch and English (the Ardennes are very popular with Dutch and Flemish visitors, but not vice versa), but once you are in the normal life, French is the norm, the only language in fact. This is not a problem for me, but something you need to be ready for. People here also tend to be carré in their thinking – which means not flexible at all. Last weekend, our builder told us we could buy some stuff for the renovation at his account at the hardware store. When we informed the cashier about his approval, she started fuming, telling us that he should have called her first, and then complaining she had to rescan our handful of items.

The jury is still out whether we will be able to build a proper social life in the Ardennes, it is much too soon for that. But it will require a lot of time and effort – at least, that’s my gut feeling for now. Networking and making friends is so much easier in big, cosmopolitan places. But these connections tend to be flaky, transient. Now that I think of it, most of the people that I befriended in Brussels, have already left in the meantime.

Fourth and last: distance. I really have to get used to the idea that the nearest (proper) supermarket is a fifteen-minute drive away. That there is not even a bakery in the village. That also the gym is more than ten kilometers from our house. That all my friends are 100-200 kilometers away. And this is still Belgium! What if we moved to the Pyrenees, how far (and unbridgeable) would the distances become then?

So if you have any plans or dreams about moving to the countryside, I would recommend to just test the waters. Rent a place for a while, don’t plan too much touristic stuff but also lead your life as if it was your daily routine. Slow down and look around. Try to talk to the cows and see if you manage to get their interest. Sit down next to a river and feel if the silence and lack of stimuli makes you excited, or nervous. (Just don’t drink the water, it can make you sick with all the untreated water being dumped!). It is great to park your car easily at the supermarket, but are you prepared to be dependent of a car to get your groceries? And as the evenings are quiet, would you be happy with books, tv and Netflix as the main distractors (apart from your partner / family of course)?

For the moment, I have concluded that I will want to spend the majority of my time in the city, to be closer to friends and colleagues, not having to work in a virtual environment. Which is not so strange, given the fact that I have lived most of my life in big cities. But the life on the countryside holds also much potential – a promise that will yet need to be uncovered, and requires patience and dedication.

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Technologie de baas in de media

Het is inmiddels drie maanden geleden dat mijn nieuwe boek Technologie de baas is gelanceerd, met een mooi evenement op 8 april in Pakhuis de Zwijger in Amsterdam. Voor een…

Het is inmiddels drie maanden geleden dat mijn nieuwe boek Technologie de baas is gelanceerd, met een mooi evenement op 8 april in Pakhuis de Zwijger in Amsterdam. Voor een gehoor van ongeveer honderd man zette ik de belangrijkste thema’s en conclusies van het boek uiteen, waarna een panel met Kees Verhoeven (Tweede Kamerlid D66), Robert Went (WRR), Hans Schnitzler (filosoof) en Roos de Jong (Rathenau Instituut) reageerden. Kijk de presentatie hier terug (het geluid gaat aan na 20 minuten). In de ochtend van de presentatie was ik overigens al in de uitzending van BNR om het boek toe te lichten.

Vrij snel daarna volgden twee opinieartikelen op basis van Technologie de baas.

Voor PW. – het grootste HR-vakblad in Nederland – schreef ik op verzoek een lang stuk over de impact van de vierde Industriële Revolutie op de arbeidsmarkt. Als gevolg van de enorme stroom aan nieuwe technologie die de komende jaren over ons komt, zal de arbeidsmarkt en werken als zodanig ingrijpend veranderen, was mijn stelling voor dit artikel.

Rond dezelfde tijd publiceerde Trouw een opinieartikel van mijn hand over het belasten van techreuzen. Technologische vooruitgang drijft ongelijkheid in de wereld op. Een digitaks alleen kan daar weinig tegen uithalen.

In juni interviewde Managementboek.nl mij over Technologie de baas. In het interview ga ik onder meer in op doorbraken in technologieën als robotisering, artificiële intelligentie en 5G – en ik benoem uiteraard ook de bijkomende (ethische) dilemma’s. Lees dit boekblog hier.

De toonaangevende marketing- en communicatiesite Frankwatching schreef een recensie over het boek: Zo ziet het leven er in 2039 uit. Ik wil me nadrukkelijk niet als futuroloog bestempelen, maar de auteur van de recensie stelt gelukkig dat ik mij baseer op ‘betrouwbare bronnen en onderzoeken.’

Ten slotte mocht ik begin juli wederom aanschuiven bij BNR, dit maal om te praten over wat het nieuwe mobiele netwerk 5G betekent voor onze economie en samenleving. Je kunt de uitzending hier terugluisteren.

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The next European Parliament and Commission: expect more Europe, not less

2019 is an exciting year for the European Union. In May, more than half of voters in the EU casted their ballots for the new European Parliament (up from 43%…

2019 is an exciting year for the European Union. In May, more than half of voters in the EU casted their ballots for the new European Parliament (up from 43% in 2014). In November, the successor to Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will start, with a fresh team. The European Council also gets a new President. And then there’s Brexit, now scheduled for October 31.

Here’s an overview of the main changes that we can expect for the EU in 2019-2024, the coming mandate for both the EP and the Commission. Let’s start with the European Parliament.

European Parliament: more diverse

Though the EP elections have been dubbed as ‘historic’ and ‘crucial’, it remains to be seen whether the shift in the power balance within the EP will actually translate into different policies. True, the normally dominant blocks of christian-democrats (EPP) and socialists (S&D) have lost their majority. The Liberals will now be necessary to form some kind of coalition – even though this Parliament is not really a Parliament (according to the German High Court) as it does not appoint a government nor does it represent European citizens on transnational lists (though it must be stated that Volt, a pan-European party, got one MEP elected).

But let’s say there will be such a broad coalition, that doesn’t mean that things will change that much. The Greens, if they join the coalition, for sure will want more climate action – but is that feasible giving the already high targets of the EU for 2030 and beyond? And given that the EU is already seen as a climate leader in the world? The Liberals + Renaissance (the list of French President Macron) have a long wish-list to reform and strengthen Europe, for instance on asylum and migration policies and on the Digital Single Market. Many of these points will be supported (albeit sometimes lukewarmly) by other political groups in the EP.

The Liberals (formerly known as ALDE, we are still waiting for a new name) are pivoting themselves against the ‘illiberal’ forces that have taken a fair chunk of the EP: nationalist, eurosceptic and anti-EU parties from all over the EU. But the fear of many that they would become a distorting power in the EP, has not materialised. As Politico stated: the populist tide rises but fails to flood the EU. Some parties have done quite well, notably Salvini’s Lega Nord in Italy with 33% of the vote and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France with 23% coming in first place.

The EP had a remarkable campaign to get voters out, including babies

But in other countries such as Spain, Germany and the Netherlands, far-right and nationalist parties only got a thin slice of electoral support – not the third of the cake as was project in some polls. One important thing to note is that these parties do not necessarily work together well and will join the same group, which means that their influence will likely be lower than if you just add up the numbers.

We should actually be content with the fragmentation of the European Parliament. It used to be a pro-integration machine with even strong federalist forces. Such single-mindedness has now been put aside for a more realistic and diverse representation of the European electorate. This is healthy and good for European democracy. It will also liven up the debate in the EP.

The new Commission: working on an EU that protects

How will this change of hearts of voters actually translate into a new European Commission? Right now, EU observers are frantically looking for indications who will be the next Commission President – the starting point to compose the executive body of the EU for the next five years. As readers may well know, the EP has been pushing its own Spitzenkandidaten, primary candidates such as EPP’s Manfred Weber and S&D’s Frans Timmermans. But given the shrunken size of these two (former) reins of power, as well as the formidable opposition to the Spitzenkandidaten system by influential EU leaders such as President Macron and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, it is unlikely that either Weber or Timmermans will in the end be nominated by the European Council.

EPP candidate Manfred Weber on 'listening tour', February 2019
EPP candidate Manfred Weber on ‘listening tour’, February 2019

The EU Member States are expected to take a decision on 21 June on the candidate for the Commission President. It is very hard to give a good prediction of who will come up first. Other candidates, if informal, are the French Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier (I would give him the best odds as he is also from the EPP and respected across the board) and the Danish Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager.

This is a real tombola. In the next weeks and months, EU leaders also need to decide on a new Council President (now Donald Tusk) and the new High Representative for Foreign Affairs. The EP has to elect a new President as well. All these posts are connected and a careful balance of power, aka horse trading, is crucial. EPP, S&D and Liberals will all want ‘one of them’ on a crucial place. For instance, if Weber does get elected, that means that not another German (for instance Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel) can get the position as Council President. Then a social-democrat or a liberal will need to be found, possibly even from another region in the EU.

When in the summer all the names will have been checked and approved, the soon-to-be-President can start forming his own Commission which will then be ‘grilled’ by the European Parliament in September-October. Member States will need to come up with candidates; timing is of the essence. Finland has done so already by the way, by proposing Jutta Urpilainen. Bulgaria will most likely put forward again the current Commissioner for Digital Economy, Mariya Gabriel.

More importantly than all the names are actually the priorities of the new Commission. It is expected that current policies to further integrate Europe’s (digital) markets will be continued and that reform of the eurozone governance will also remain high on the agenda. The Commission will also undoubtedly keep pushing for climate action.

A new approach however, which has come up with the rise of Emmanuel Macron, is the idea of a Europe that protects. So not only doing nice things for European citizens in the form of abolishment of mobile phone roaming surcharges and other ‘output deliverables’ that are supposed to increase legitimacy for European integration.

A Europe that protects will for instance, have a stronger European foreign policy which is very much needed given the adversity of Russia, the departure of the British, the loss of transatlantic relations (I expect Donald Trump to be reelected in 2020) and the further (aggressive) rise of China. Another hot topic of course is immigration which will need much stronger and coordinated policies, for instance through the reform of the Schengen and Dublin systems. Then there is the wish of the social-democrats to widen the social protection policies of the EU, which is controversial, because anything related to the welfare state such as unemployment benefits and pension rights, is a competence which lies entirely with the EU Member States. All this will be laid down in a working programme for the Commission which will change from year to year.

Finally, money. The EU will decide on its own budget for the period 2021-2027 before the end of the year, taking into account the new balance of power of the European Parliament. This ‘Multiannual Financial Framework’ will be no more than 1,3% of Europe’s gross national income but still be considerable in real numbers: up to 1325 billion euros – most of this money going to the EU’s agriculture policies and ‘cohesion funds’ for poorer areas in the bloc. One new element is that this EU budget can be revised mid-term, in 2023.

So right now in Brussels, it’s a bit of a lull for observers and lobbyists, a transition year in which new priorities will be set. But it’s now already clear that European integration will move on. And that there’s not a sufficient counterforce in the EP or within Member States to halt – or even reverse – the train. The next years we can expect more Europe – not less.

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Nieuw boek: Technologie de baas

Na een jaar van onderzoek, verkenning en schrijfwerk is mijn vijfde boek verschenen: Technologie de baas, vooruitzichten en gevaren van de nieuwe Industriële Revolutie. Het boek is vanaf 4 april…

Na een jaar van onderzoek, verkenning en schrijfwerk is mijn vijfde boek verschenen: Technologie de baas, vooruitzichten en gevaren van de nieuwe Industriële Revolutie. Het boek is vanaf 4 april verkrijgbaar bij boekhandels in Nederland en België, alsmede online te bestellen.

Worden de toekomstvisies van sciencefictionfilms werkelijkheid of leidt technologie ons naar een betere wereld?

Na de uitvinding van de stoommachine, de introductie van elektriciteit en de komst van computer en internet, staan we aan de vooravond van een nieuwe industriële ommekeer. Het tijdperk van de vierde Industriële Revolutie barst los.

Artificiële intelligentie, robotisering, 5G, drones, 3D-printen, virtual reality en nanotechnologie: het is slechts een greep uit de vele technologische doorbraken die deze nieuwe revolutie al heeft voortgebracht. En dit is nog maar het begin. Voor de een klinkt deze vooruitgang als muziek in de oren, maar anderen plaatsen ook hun vraagtekens bij alle radicale veranderingen
die hieruit voorvloeien. Blijven we de technologie uiteindelijk de baas? En kunnen we de komende ontregeling van economie en samenleving wel in goede banen leiden?

In Technologie de baas helpt Joop Hazenberg ons op weg in de verbazingwekkende wereld van de technologie. Als expert in de digitale economie weet hij alles van de vele mogelijkheden die de massale technologisering met zich mee brengt, maar heeft hij ook zicht op keerzijden als het verlies aan privacy en stijgende ongelijkheid. Zijn analyse is verplichte kost voor beleidsmakers, bedrijven en burgers die de vierde Industriële Revolutie willen begrijpen.

Op 8 april is de officiële boekpresentatie in Amsterdam, met onder meer sprekers van de Tweede Kamer en de WRR. Informatie en aanmelding op de site van Pakhuis de Zwijger

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Living in Brussels: the highs and the lows

It has been six years now. Early 2013 I came to Brussels with a bunch of bags and plans, two phones, a laptop and an iPad to start a nomadic…

It has been six years now. Early 2013 I came to Brussels with a bunch of bags and plans, two phones, a laptop and an iPad to start a nomadic adventure of an existence in two cities at the same time. I rented a room with an acquaintance, set up shop in the Press Club Brussels and started my part-time life here in the capital of the EU. The other half I spent in Amsterdam, my real hometown where my boyfriend, cat and friends lived, where we had a house instead of a room with furniture which wasn’t mine, where cars wouldn’t speed every minute past the single glazed window of my Brussels flat.

Today, the adventure has turned into a new life which is all about Brussels, and where Amsterdam only plays a part in the background. The Amsterdam life elements of relationship, cat and house are gone, followed in Brussels by a new relationship, an apartment and a dog (while in 2018 I had to put down my Brussels-based cat and dog, both due to cancer). I even have a car now, as you are almost supposed to have one here in Belgium. Another step to integrate here is the purchase of an old farm in the Ardennes, which we are converting into a retreat and B&B.

So I find myself firmly based in Belgium – though not fully rooted yet. This country offers a lot of highs and a swell of lows. Here is my top-5 of pleasures and annoyances for those seeking a new life in Brussels.

The highs

My favourite view on the city: the Mont des Arts

1. Brussels is truly cosmopolitan. Around a third of the ‘Brusselaars’ has been born in a different country and you can definitely feel this on the streets. Though French is the dominant language, you will hear a lot of English, Arabic, Italian, Spanish and countless other tongues when walking around. This gives a fantastic international vibe to the city. It is also a place without a strong national identity so this makes it relatively easy to adapt for newcomers.

2. This city is buzzing. You wouldn’t notice it when you walk through the dead streets of the EU quarter or stumble over the tourists on the Grand Place, but Brussels is full of life. Especially in cultural corners there are so many activities that you can barely keep up, whether it is a particular kind of a music scene you’re interested in, modern art (lots of galeries), gay life with the (in)famous parties of La Demence and Revelation, or just the hundreds of free open air festivals evolving around music, beer and food. Brussels is not a big capital with just 1.2 million inhabitants, but it has a lot to offer for its size.

3. Beer. Not so much a beer lover myself, as I grew up with Grolsch, Heineken and Bavaria, I ditched my beer glasses a decade ago. But since I live in Brussels, I have educated myself in the beer business as Belgium just makes the most wonderful beers, full of tastes and contrasts. You can go to several bars here in town where they will have a few hundred different locally brewed beers on the menu. After tasting and enjoying a long list of these, my personal favourites are for example Zinnebir, Westmalle Triple, Maredsous Blonde, Lupulus and La Chinette.

4. Finding work and making friends. I have always been fascinated by European integration and globalisation. But it was really hard to find work on these topics in the Netherlands. In Brussels, mainly because of the presence of the EU and NATO, there are literally tens of thousands of jobs on international cooperation. Since my move, I have worked as a freelance correspondent, a communications advisor for climate NGOs and since 2016 I work for the GSMA, focusing on technology and the digital economy. It has been a great ride until now. Also in terms of meeting people. Apart from all the talented colleagues you can work with, it is very easy to make new friends. For absolute newcomers: try the market drinks at Place du Chatelain on Wednesday and mingle with the EU trainees on ‘Place Lux’ every Thursday.

5. Vicinity. Though Belgium’s infrastructure is falling apart (more about that below), Brussels is extremely well connected. You can travel by train to London, Paris, Cologne and Amsterdam in around two hours or less (the Thalys takes you to the heart of Paris in 80 minutes). Brussels Airport is compact and has direct connections to almost all important destinations in Europe, as well as to Africa, the US and Asia. So if you get tired of the city, a weekend away is organised with a few clicks.

The lows

The sign says in French: Cyclists, go on foot. In Dutch it says: Pedestrians, go on foot!

1. The daily traffic hell. Brussels is one of the most congested cities in the world. Every day, hundreds of thousands of people flock into the city, taking their state-sponsored car or the train on their way to work. Biking in this town is outright dangerous as there are virtually no separate bike lanes, and car drivers are not used to cyclists, leading to a lot of aggression and (deadly) accidents. Even walking is not so healthy as the air is very polluted due to the mass amount of diesel cars on the road. Car is king in Belgium and sadly, this applies to Brussels as well.

2. Chaos in the city. Brussels is badly managed. The city is split up in 19 different municipalities, each with their own mayor. There are a thousand elected politicians, governing the myriad of organisations that keep Brussels running. The municipalities have a lot of trouble coordinating their policies, from traffic to trash collection. Besides the governance problems, there seems to be a gross neglect of rule of law. Rules are simply not enforced, or sometimes they are – it is very random. People park on pavements, on pedestrian crossings all the time without being fined. They dump their old furniture on the streets and then stick a sign to it: ‘A donner’ – for free. Escalators of the metro are out of order all the time. Some roads are being under construction for years, leading to more chaos and irritation. At the beginning of this year, I didn’t have a pavement in front of my house for a month (the workers just disappeared). One of the most bizarre things here are the signs for road works, which express the way people improvise continuously. There is an artist who follows these Belgian Solutions closely and even publishes books full of examples of them, without being judgemental.

3. Je-m’en-foutisme. People care more about their close relationships with family and friends, than about the public spaces (see also the next point). So drinking beer in the bus? The bus driver: Je m’en fou! (I don’t care) Want to buy something in the supermarket ten minutes before closing time? The shop manager: Je m’en fou! Get out! Want to pay by card? The restaurant owner: je m’en fou! There is a cash machine a few streets away. Of course, most Belgians do have a spirit of service, of doing something nice for strangers, but all too often I see another side of the inhabitants: you just have to f*ck off or look away.

4. Lack of a maintenance culture. I know, the Dutch like to be perfect. Everything needs to be clean, efficient and organised in my home country. Contrast that with the Belgians, where uniformity is abhorred. ‘We are real anarchists,’ said the Flemish writer Geert van Istendael once. Crumbling facades, graffiti on buildings, public infrastructure falling apart – the average Belgian wouldn’t even understand what I am complaining about. I once read an unexpected defence to this lack of a maintenance culture. ‘We use our materials until they are completely worn out. This is what sustainability is about.’ The Belgian continued: ‘In any case, there is also a certain charm in decay, right?’ Sounds like Absurdistan to me.

5. Taxes and rules. The tax burden in Belgium is very high (unless you are a fonctionnaire at the European Union). The country has one of the highest employer tax rates in the world. If you’re self-employed like me, you can easily lose up to two-thirds of your gross income. And for what in retun? OK, healthcare is cheap and affordable, but for the rest, Belgium offers a fraction of the service you can get in countries like Sweden and the Netherlands. That is because of the outsized and grossly inefficient public sector in Belgium (there are SIX governments and parliaments in this country of 11 million souls) but also due to widespread corruption, a burgeoning black economy and the aforementioned je-m’en-foutisme. Add to this the enormous bureaucracy of rules and regulations that you have to adhere to when running a business or renovating a house, and you know why Belgium has a certain reputation. One striking example: The European Commission has called the super strict rules for Airbnb in Brussels ‘out of proportion’ and started an investigation.

So dear reader, Brussels really is a mixed bag. There are moments when you will love living in this city, especially during the first few years as you dance in an old factory or in a metro tunnel to the hippest house music you can imagine. But you will also loathe this place when there is another national strike, being organised every year just for the sake of it, and public transport and supermarkets close their activities to celebrate socialism.

Rave in the Hallepoort Tunnel, January 2019. Picture by VICE

There will be times when you are ready to pack your bags and head home. But also moments that you will relish, as you marvel at the fin de siècle architecture in Ixelles, St Gilles and Uccle or enjoy a cocktail on a sun-lit square where nearby food stalls sell cheap and delicious organic food, and everyone around you is relaxed and happy.

In 2017, I seriously considered leaving Brussels. I had enough of it and I started to call this place Hellgium. Not work wise but city wise, also because most of my new friends had left. But then one long-time Brussels immigrant told me that he had the same experience. ‘You think about it, you fight against Brussels, and then you just give up and accept living here.’ I am about to do the same.

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