I don’t think I would ever write a blog with this title. But here we are. Ten years in Brussels, and counting. Apart from the town I grew up in, I have never lived anywhere else this long. And for now, on plans to move in any case.
Today I was reminded of my idea to write a blog about a decade in the EU capital, after visiting a book presentation of a fellow Dutchman (Milos Labovic, maybe not that Dutch of a name) who presented his memoires on lobbying in Brussels. The event was in the Holland House, a club for mostly tall loud Dutch white middle aged men. I ran into two high-ranking diplomats, various journalists and even more lobbyists. After one cava and a mediocre white wine, munching on borrelnootjes on foldable plastic party tables, I decided it was time go to have better tasting beer and wine and watch an indie movie with my colleagues at the office (most of them much younger than me, and most certainly not from the Netherlands). I even skipped my pilates class at the Brussels Gay Sports club to be with them.
This is not how you start a blog, I know it, because the intro is not clear and it will not lure readers into the text that I am about to write. Stern blog writing experts will tell you to make your most important point in the beginning, add a short anecdote if you may, and then go straight to the story you want to tell. In max 600 words please, with a strong appealing headline and and even more attractive picture (I literally got this advice recently).
How to cram ten years into 600 words? I will not make the effort and rather answer the most burning questions that readers may have: why do you live there for so long? And what attracts you in living in this city? Let’s mainly focus on the EU bubble and work-related aspects in this first blog on a decade of life. I also include some lessons from the various experiences that I had here.
What I couldn’t find in Amsterdam, and found in Brussels
In hindsight, I guess that I went to this remarkable, unassuming, exhilerating, edgy, chaotic and vibtrant cosmopolitan city because I wanted to give my life a fresh start. And along the way, I found something that kept me here. In fact – I found a lot of things here, that made me stay, or got me stuck here (according to some of my more Belgium-bashing friends).
The very beginning was certainly as adventurous as I hoped it would be. Arriving nearly aged 35, I was not expecting to have a year of Auberge Espagnole kind of life; meaning lots of nightly festivities, meeting dozens of people from all over Europe, feeling to live in a daze. But that is actually what happened. I had no job, just a handful of freelance journalism tasks. My office was not more than a shared space in the Brussels Journalism Club. Most of my lunches were spent alone on a bench in a park near the EU premises. I rented a room with a friend. But I could smell and taste the adventure everywhere. And most importantly of all: I felt straight from the beginning, that Brussels was going to fulfil so many of my professional needs.
After nine months, I remember showing up on my own at the regular meeting places – Place du Chatelain on Wednesdays, Place Lux (‘Plux’) on Thursdays and Rue du Marche au Charbon in the weekend – and then usually meeting my new friends there. It was a wonderful feeling. But it didn’t last.
In any case it was a big contrast with my life in Amsterdam. Of course the Netherlands was (is) my home country. I had my partner there, we owned a wonderful small 1680s house in the centre, my social life was mainly in Amsterdam and I invested years in building up a professional network. Before I moved to Brussels, I established a think-tank in the Netherlands, published dozens of opinion articles, three books and a documentary, and was regularly on tv and radio to voice my opinion on issues like generation conflicts, the future of the welfare state and the lack of long-term thinking in politics.
It was a great time, but also a frustrating time. Because the Dutch are not that used to independent thinkers. So while I could easily get lots of speaking engagements, finding regular work – as a journalist, researcher, policy advisor or other job with content – proved very hard. Employers simply couldn’t grasp that someone with an independent mind like myself, could be of benefit to their organisation. One time I applied as a journalist for an international relations magazine and then the feedback was: “Joop, you need to spread your wings and fly.”
That was a bit of a setback. Another one was that the think-tank Prospect that I founded, never managed to get real funding – even though we amassed a network of several thousand young thinkers, organised many successful events and got noticed by leading organisations including political parties and state bodies. Also my books, on the Generation Y (I called it the ‘network generation’), on globalisation and the future of the state, weren’t having the effect I’d hoped for.
So maybe, I concluded mid-2012, the Netherlands wasn’t the best fit for my character, for my career, for my sense of fulfillment and purpose. Too much inward-looking, not interested in Europe or globalisation, too perfect and therefor sluggish. I needed a new direction. A new Northern Star. One that I found quite quickly, not in the north but rather south of Amsterdam. Lesson: it’s not what you want. But what you need.
Getting into the EU bubble
My prime goal was to get myself into the EU bubble – a competitive conglomeration of highly skilled cosmpolitan individuals who either want to build, criticise or just disrupt/destroy bottles (the latter category are a very small minority). There are probably around 60,000 – 70,000 people working here for the EU and other international institutions such as NATO, including all the organisations that hang in this bubble: media, lobbyists, trade organisations and NGOs. I wanted to be one of these folk who one person once described as ‘lost souls’.
I started as a freelance EU correspont, quickly getting some assignments because there are hardly any Dutch journalists in town. In 2013, the counter stood at 27. I also made a plan to start a new think-tank in Brussels, focusing on Europe’s young and delivering concrete policy advice from our generation. I called it Next Generation for Europe. This was the time that millions of millennials were without a job or study because of the long-lasting impact of the credit crisis that started in 2007.
The freelance work went well though it was incredibly badly paid – for one major European press agency I wrote long stories about the EU’s climate and energy as well as digital policies, they only wanted to pay me 200 euros per day (one day was usually 12 hours long), and they even didn’t have budget for pens or notepads – ‘Just get them yourself, OK?’
The think-tank didn’t fly and I closed the project after a year. Much to my surprise though, the European Commission named its post-corona recovery plan to my idea:
It was the time that Brussels was changing quite a lot. in the EU bubble, the Americans forced their way into the journalistic realms by establishing a a new department called POLITICO Europe. (Always write the first word of that name in CAPITALS please). I was at the launch with an impressive, bold and full-of-bravoure press conference, the initiators just bluntly stated that European journalism was dull, that it needed to be reinvented, and that POLITICO would become the prime journalistic hotspot in Brussels for years to come.
That is exactly what happened. Several media outlets just stopped (including the one I worked for at a salary of a cleaning lady). I of course applied as many of my other journalist friends. But I never got a foot in between the door. Also the work from the Netherlands dried up. Even as the EU got more and more powerful and relevant, the Dutch seemed to lose more and more interest in what’s going in in the unofficial EU capital. Lesson: being a successful journalist is for the happy few.
From writing to the ‘dark side’
So what does one do in such an hour of need? I jumped ship, to the dark side of communication and advocacy (lobbying). It started with a nine-month project at Climate Action Network Europe where I had to set up a European campaign on the phase-out of coal power plants. It was a great project, ending with taking part in the circus that was called COP21 and which actually resulted in the most advanced climate deal to date: the Paris Climate Agreement.
After CAN Europe, I went to another acronym: GSMA Europe. It was the first time that I was headhunted for a job, to work for a trade association of the mobile telecommunications sector. I stayed there for more than four years. You may ask now, why? You don’t come across as a business type kind of guy. More a thinker, communicator and observer.
All very true, but the GSMA offered me wonderful experiences:
- My boss gave me a lot of freedom to develop my own work. If I have freedom, I flourish. If I am micromanaged and someone is always looking over my shoulder, I lose my ambition and (may) rebel.
- It was super political work. I had to foster the relation between the automotive and ‘telco’ sector, on the deployment of 5G in ‘connected cars’. Huge invested interests (billions of revenues, millions of jobs) came together on an industry that needs to modernise to stay alive. 5G in cars also is the advent (or some say a condition) for self-driving vehicles.
- One lesson I learned is really important: understand the technology. I am an historian, not an engineer, but I spent a lot of time to fully grasp the differences between 802.11p (ITS-G5) and 5G / LTE-V2X. Thanks to the information advance I had, I quickly became known as Mr Connected Cars in this micro bubble within the bubble.
- Working for industry can be fun, especially because you don’t have the corporate background. I never found people that are so professional and kind as within all these companies that I worked with.
- When in 2018 I really wanted to focus more on climate/energy and not become a telco lobbyist, my boss gave me all the space to do this. Within a matter of months I was sent to the HQ in London to lead a team that developed the GSMA’s climate policies. I was pushing hard for the whole sector to become climate neutral by 2030. At first nobody really saw the need but we really did some groundbreaking work there.
And then came covid-19.
Some of the following was related to the virus. While covid-19 broke out, I broke up with my partner in a very traumatic way. A month later I became a father and got into a new (lockdown-related) relation, faced gigantic struggles with the ongoing renovation of a farm in the Ardennes that I couldn’t visit because travel was prohibited. By July, I landed in hospital with severe panic attacks. In November, I was let go from the GSMA because the organisation was basically bankrupt (it couldn’t organise the money-making Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona with 108,000 visitors)
In hindsight, I don’t know how I pulled myself through that annus horribilis. But I did! And 2021 I wanted to make a resolute choice for jobs in the energy field, declining all other opportunities. I really aimed for a contribution to the energy transition in Europe and nothing else. After being in Brussels for a longer time, you should focus and find your niche.
And that is what happened. I got assignments for consultancy on the electricity market and electric vehilces, and did a maternity leave cover at the European Heat Pump Association to lead their policy team. It was the year that the European Commission announced a string of policy initiatives on the European Green Deal, which should set the continent on a path to make Europe climate neutral by 2050. My lesson for that period is: focus. There were so many draft sets of rules to analyse and to make a point on, that we couldn’t cover anything. So I pushed my secretary general hard to really use our resources on the Emissions Trading System for buildings and transport as well as the Social Climate Fund.
In 2022 I landed in a dream job as ‘Policy and Impact Director at the RE-Source Platform’, which is a mouthful, I know. In essence RE-Source is a coalition of the renewable energy industry (solar and wind) and many large corporate players that want to directly ‘source’ their renewable electricity in long-term energy contracts. As the director of the Platform I had to run the secretariat but also build out the network of the platform, influence EU energy policy and advocate for these long-term energy contracts. We also organise the biggest conference annually in Europe on this topic.
Dreams don’t last and some are even rudely interrupted. In January 2023, we decided to end our collaboration due to disagreements over the Platform. Lesson here: still processing. I have to bring back the IT equipment over the next few days and found myself in the job application tombola yet another time.
If you’d asked me in 2016 how long I would stay in Brussels, I would probably say just one or two more years. But I am still here and I have no intention to leave.
Lesson: the longer you stay and the more EU profile you built, the more attractive you become for organisations to hire your services
In the next blog, I will focus on life in Brussels and less on the EU bubble. Promise!