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Bursting the bubble: Alain Hutchinson on how Brussels and the EU institutions are working together
"Great progress" is being made to bridge the gap between Brussels' regional authorities and the many international organisations and individuals that call Brussels home, according to the first Commissioner for Europe and International Organisations (CEIO), Alain Hutchinson.
Three years ago, the Brussels region created the commissioner role to develop direct relations between regional bodies and the EU institutions and their staff. "We started with the goal to make it easier for international institutions to settle down in Brussels as well as all the people working in them, that they be well treated and welcomed by the Brussels inhabitants," Hutchinson told The Bulletin.
This was not always the case. For instance, 60 years ago entire neighbourhoods were eliminated to build the Berlaymont building and the European Parliament among others, causing great friction and resentment. "This was very traumatic but now things have changed. After six reforms of the Belgian State the responsibilities are now at the regional level and not the federal level.
"In the three years the Brussels Commissioner's office has existed we have made great progress because now there are people with technical and practical capabilities that the institutions can work with. But this is not just a one-way effort, we are also working so that the Brussels inhabitants appreciate the international presence and that those institutions are taking care of something a bit further than their own interest."
The CEIO is the single point of contact for all requests coming from the European and international institutions concerning urban development, security, mobility and the development of public spaces and the necessary coordination of these issues. With six European institutions, 14 organisations of the EU, 42 intergovernmental organisations and 300 regional and local representations there is much to coordinate.
To achieve this, the CEIO fosters political dialogue by organising summit meetings at the highest level, works as liaison for major urban projects such as the Urban LOI Project or the redevelopment of the Schuman Roundabout, and promotes Brussels as the capital of Europe - coordinating tourist and cultural policies, the European Quarter being one of the areas most visited by tourists in the city.
With one in three Brussels residents being a foreigner and one in five coming from an EU member state they are a significant part of the population. Many of them need guidance and help with a number of issues, the most frequent being visas, family reunification, taxes, vehicle importing, work permits, residence permits, rental contracts, social security, registering with the town hall, and an issue that has gained prominence recently with the announcement of Brexit, the acquisition of Belgian nationality.
To address these issues, the CEIO now includes the Expat Welcome Desk which was founded 25 years ago. The service is free, multilingual (Dutch, English and French) and has direct links with administrations at the local, regional and federal level.