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European Schools and the ghettoization of Brussels

A bubbling crowd of 3,000 pupils in what looked more like the campus of an American elite university than an ordinary Brussels school. This is what I discovered last month as I entered the European School of Brussels IV to take part in its annual Philosophy Days.

It was not the first time I had visited the site. I had already done so twenty years ago, when it was in the process of being vacated by a Belgian military school known as the Ecole des Cadets. I was then desperately trying to find additional arguments in favour of choosing this site, in the northern Brussels neighbourhood of Laeken, for the fourth large European School. This was essential, I believed, to prevent Belgium’s federal government from making a major blunder, with catastrophic consequences for the harmonious development of Brussels. Here is the context.

In the early 2000s, discontent ran high among the Brussels-based EU staff. The three existing European Schools were overfull, and parents feared that soon many of them would find no place for their children in a school they regarded as suitable. Whose fault was it? EU member states and the European Commission were responsible for funding the functioning of the European schools, but it was the Belgian federal government that was expected to provide adequate premises at its own expense.

The Régie des bâtiments, the organ managing the Belgian state’s real estate portfolio, had come up with a list of seven possible sites. Lobbies were pulling in all directions. Some members of the party of the federal minister in charge of the dossier, Didier Reynders (now European Commissioner for Justice), were even arguing in favour of a site in Wavre, 30 km south-east of Brussels. At the same time, none of the municipalities with sites on the list showed the slightest enthusiasm for welcoming the daily procession of school buses delivering European School pupils in the morning and picking them up in the afternoon.

However, something of far greater importance than the profits of rural landowners or the tranquility of urban neighbourhoods was involved in the choice of the site. The data available at the time showed a heavy concentration of ‘Europeans’ — defined as citizens of the (then) 15 EU member states minus Belgium — in the south-east of the Brussels-Capital Region. And data about population movements within Brussels showed what a geographer friend described as ‘the Eurocrats driving the Moroccans across the canal’.

The installation of the European institutions and, later, of three large European Schools in the same south-east quadrant (in Uccle, Woluwé and Ixelles) was gradually leading to a dualization of Brussels, with a ‘European ghetto’ on the right side of the canal that crosses Brussels from the south-west to the north-east and an ‘immigrant ghetto’ on the left side.

What can public authorities do to halt or even reverse this sort of process? Not much. Choosing the location of a school is one of the few instruments at their disposal. The list of sites presented by the Régie des Bâtiments included only one on the left side of the canal that could be made available within a foreseeable future: the site of the Ecole des cadets in Laeken.

But it was widely believed that the European Commission, backed by parents at the existing European Schools, would never agree to a site located so far away from where families lived. As a result, various alternative plans were already being made for the Laeken site. In particular, the municipality of Brussels had taken an option on the site for its police headquarters.

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