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Understanding Belgium: A beginner's guide to getting settled here
Few countries are more complicated to explain than Belgium, with its many governments, parliaments, languages, regions and identities. It might seem baffling when you first arrive here, but it has always been a crossroads of business and culture, offering a warm welcome to foreigners.
Belgium is a constitutional monarchy and a federal state divided into three regions: Flanders, Wallonia and the officially bilingual Brussels- Capital Region. These regions have considerable powers: each has its own economic, trade, employment, housing, agriculture, environment, energy and transport policies, while the federal state takes care of foreign affairs, defence, justice, health and social security. Education, welfare and culture are the responsibility of the French, Flemish and German language communities, which each have separate administrations.
The Brussels-Capital Region, created in 1989, is made up of 19 municipalities (communes or gemeentes), one of which is the City of Brussels. Brussels is also the capital of Flanders and is officially bilingual, although around 80% of the city’s inhabitants have French as a first language, and English is widely spoken.
The Expat Welcome Desk of the Brussels Commissioner is a general source of information for newcomers and can be a useful facilitator if you run into problems like rental disputes or bureaucratic delays.
The Brussels employment agency Actiris offers retraining and language classes, and advertises jobs. It works with the Brussels Enterprise Agency, to help set up freelancers and the self-employed. The National Employment Office (Onem or RVA), meanwhile, is responsible for unemployment benefits, the system of cheques for buying household services and retraining schemes – its website is also in English.
The official centre of the French-speaking Community is Maison de la Francité; the Flemish counterpart in Brussels is Huis van het Nederlands. They can each help you find language classes, conversation tables and other linguistic support.
The Flemish government and its agencies have many tools for visitors, entrepreneurs and newcomers to Dutch-speaking Flanders. Eight welcome offices offer integration programmes for foreigners.
For families, Kind en Gezin provides services and guidance throughout pregnancy and early childhood. The Flemish Social Housing Company helps find affordable housing (to rent and buy) or loans to cover costs. Six Flemish communes on the outskirts of Brussels offer flexible linguistic arrangements and are known as facility communes.
Two non-profit organisations, Voka and Unizo, support entrepreneurs and the self-employed in Flanders, and the Flemish employment and training agency, VDAB, has an English website. Enterprise Europe Network is the contact for start-ups and has local offices across Belgium. Flanders Investment and Trade also offers English-language consultation.
Flanders organises numerous cultural and international events. With a cycle network across its green regions, Flanders is a European pioneer in biking and walking routes. The Bulletin’s sister publication Flanders Today publishes daily news and features about the region.
French-speaking Wallonia contains most of the country’s natural resources like water and forests as well as some of the densest road, rail and waterway networks in the world. It consists of the provinces of Walloon Brabant, Hainaut, Namur, Liège and Luxembourg.
The cities of Charleroi, Liège and Mons were once hotbeds of industry, but are continuing to undergo transformation. The city of Namur at the confluence of the Meuse and Sambre rivers is the region’s capital; the German-speaking community in Liège province, known as East Belgium, has its capital in Eupen.
As well as investors and foreign students, tourists visit Wallonia for its beautiful countryside. Among its attractions are a rich history and folklore, heritage buildings and museums, and charming villages – some of which are within commuting distance of Brussels.
For more information on moving to and all aspects of living in Wallonia, consult the Live section of Wallonia.be. For information on working in Wallonia, contact Le Forem, the region’s employment service.
The Wallonia Export-Investment Agency, Awex, has a global network of 95 economic and trade attachés. It builds on the region’s industrial heritage while supporting key sectors such as aerospace, life sciences, mechanical engineering, logistics, IT, audiovisual and agriculture, via tax breaks, university partnerships and business parks.
Awex runs six welcome offices, providing facilities for foreign companies to test the European market. Each office specialises in a region of the world. Digital Wallonia is a long-term strategy for transforming the region and a platform to boost companies and services, while Creative Wallonia supports start-ups in the creative industries.