Brussels, Zeebrugge – Belgium – Brussels, the EU’s headquarters, is considered to be the heart of Europe.
Around 2,000 British nationals work for EU institutions, mostly employed by the European Commission in the capital.
Their number, however, has been dropping. In 2016, there were 1,164 staff members, 1,046 in 2017 and just 917 last year.
EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has asked Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel to “show the same generosity when it comes to granting Belgian citizenship” to British EU staff.
Belgium is the UK’s eighth trading partner, with the UK exporting automotive goods, textiles and pharmaceuticals.
Al Jazeera spoke with Belgians, and a Dutch student, about how they feel regarding Brexit and their own country’s EU membership.
Pieter Cleppe, 37, head of Brussels office at policy think-tank Open Europe
“I didn’t predict it, but I thought Brexit was possible because I simply looked at the opinion polls. In 2015, we prepared an estimate of what could have happened, how expensive might Brexit be and what were the conditions for it to be a success or not. At Open Europe, we were always aware of the risks. That’s why, before Brexit, we were very much in favour of reforming the EU and making sure it didn’t happen.
“I think other countries’ leaders are partly to blame, as well, particularly Angela Merkel, who said it was not possible to change the EU treaties. Of course, it is hard, but she refused to do it from the very beginning. Before Brexit, the EU should have listened to the concerns of the British and reformed the EU according to their needs. Not so much because the UK should dictate what must happen in Europe, but because many of the concerns the UK has been expressing over the years are shared by many people elsewhere.
“If you look at the rise of the anti-establishment movements, they are sometimes left-wing and sometimes right-wing but they are all concerned to lose control and that their fate is no longer decided by national democracy.
“It’s perfectly possible to keep the EU. The EU is fundamentally a good thing, because it helps people move and trade across borders, but the approach according to which a lot of regulations are being made at a Brussels level need to end. Supposedly it opens up trades. Often making rules at the EU level is an excuse for governments preferring to make rules in Brussels so they don’t have to face their national parliaments and the scrutiny of the national media.
“One can also open up trade by scrapping protectionist elements in national legislation. The very technocratic top-down approach of the EU has to end. I think, despite all the bad aspects of Brexit, one good side of it is that we will see more regulatory competition.”
Laura Wambach, 27, teacher at Bogaerts international primary school
“There are some British students in this school and I know many British teachers.
“I’ve always thought about Brexit impacting more economic structures rather than social ones, but of course, it may be an issue for British people living abroad. A lot of our students are here because their parents are sent away on different missions to work in a foreign country. If their parents have to go back home for whatever reason, including EU institutions making them ‘redundant’, it would be a problem. I am also worried about my co-workers.
“I am not so sure about the implications of Brexit for both parts at the moment. Even in Belgium, I’ve heard people who disagree with European policies. But to be that extreme and say, ‘Let’s leave the EU and become completely autonomous’ would sound unexpected to me.”
Ramata Hoorntje, 29, coding student from the Netherlands
“I’m of the generation that has been given the freedom to move around in the EU and I’m the example of it, having studied and worked in London. I’m saddened by the fact that this is likely not going to be an easy option for the generation of Europeans to come. I think Brexit is bad for future generations.
“I remember colleagues crying in London the morning the results of the referendum had been announced. London was numb, but that clearly didn’t reflect the feeling in other parts of the country, given the final result.
“I’ve since moved away but I ask my European friends who are still in London, ‘What’s going to happen next?’. It seems that the cloud of uncertainty around Brexit as led them to adopt a wait and see approach.”
Pierre Retif, 45, event organiser at the Centre for Fine Arts – BOZAR
“Besides the whole rhetoric, I think there will be some administrative obstacles [for the museum]. There will be issues for British artists, in terms of coverage, freedom of movement, fundings. The UK will lose the money that comes as part of European projects.
“The British have never totally put their feet inside Europe, they have always kept one foot in and one out. But I think that both the UK and the rest of the continent will regret it, because we will miss a very important player.”
Katia Al Jbrail, 39, worker in the financial sector
“Brexit is creating a situation of complete uncertainty. Negotiations are so difficult because it is something new that never happened before. The models to estimate its impact are all very sensitive to any kind of assumption.
“This vulnerability is creating a big disruptive situation, which brings a lot of challenges but also a lot of opportunities to find solutions.
“Brexit is a negative operation overall and in the long run, it might be worse for the UK. But small countries in an already precarious situation will suffer the most at the beginning, along with countries whose supply chain is highly linked to the UK – like Belgium. Brexit is forcing everyone to look for alternatives.”
Joachim Coens, 52, port of Zeebrugge’s managing director
“Our logistics hub [at the port of Zeebrugge] focuses on the UK trade. Up to 45 percent of traffic and activity is related to business with the UK, so it is a very important market. Everything that makes trading less efficient is a pity. The fact that the UK will not stay in a kind of union that allow us to exchange goods easily is a pity.
“Globalisation created an emotional reaction and some people would like to go back in time. With Brexit, however, everybody is losing.”