The ambivalent European: expatriates in Brussels.

Student thesis: Doctoral thesis


Expatriates are often regarded as forerunners of globalisation and transnationalism. Mobile individuals within the European Union (EU) are seen as pioneers of European integration. Expatriates living and working in Brussels are considered to push the European agenda forward, defending ‘United in diversity’ – the EU’s official motto – even in critical times of Euroscepticism. But do expatriates in Brussels identify as Europeans? This thesis investigates the life of expatriates in Brussels from an anthropological perspective. It investigates who they are, how they live, whether they become socially embedded in Belgium, to what extent they identify themselves with Europe, and their perception of the EU. Eurocrats in Brussels, their identification with Europe and their attitudes towards the EU have been subject to substantial research. The contribution of this study is to examine the ‘Eurobubble’ in Brussels (i.e., those working in the field of European affairs in Brussels, within as well as outside the EU institutions) as a specific migrant community, using qualitative methods from the ‘inside’ perspective of an expatriate. This research shows that the expatriates settle in Brussels because of work or studies (often by chance) and are international-oriented, multilingual and pro-EU already upon arrival. Through a ‘bubble effect’, they mainly socialise with each other and develop ties and networks in their new home town. Meanwhile, they stay connected to their homelands and fellow countrymen, and keep (and occasionally even overstate) selective parts of their native identity. They are both using and reproducing national stereotypes of themselves and other Europeans. Meanwhile, they are Europeanised, develop identification with Europe, and create belonging to a ‘European habitus’. Thus, the expatriates have (at least) two layers of identities and loyalties. Established models for conceptualising coexistence of various layers of territorial identities however don’t apply well on many of the expats, due to their mobility and complex mix of identification with several places. The thesis suggests that the expatriate in Brussels is a mobile and cosmopolitan polyglot characterised by Europeanisation and modernity. The expats embody Europeanness and form a privileged sub-culture – a ‘bureaucratic class’. Political support for further integration and enhancement of power to the supranational level is fairly common, but they are often driven by an individual rather than an ideological agenda. This ‘European body’, where people identify themselves as Europeans, is widespread amongst expatriates in Brussels, whereas it is atypical for Europeans in general. The perception of the EU institutions and their policies is however an ambivalent one. Brexit and increased Euroscepticism are problematic for the ‘European elite’ in Brussels, as the ideological gap between this privileged group of expatriates and the ordinary European is growing. This affects the identity and belonging of expatriates in Brussels and creates a clash between their national and European loyalties and identities. The research further reveals that expats are creating belonging to Europe and Brussels without embracing Belgium. The sense of belonging to Brussels as opposed to Belgium may in part be explained by the country’s division in different linguistic communities and complex national identity, the significant size of the Eurobubble, and the particularity and Europeanness of the Belgian capital. Brussels, rather than Belgium, becomes a ‘home away from home’, and the expatriates’ relationship to the host country is a balance between integration and (auto-)exclusion. The ‘pioneers of European integration’ are often not integrated into the ‘capital of Europe’ and in many cases live rather distant from the Europeans they are supposed to represent.
Date of Award30 Jun 2021
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorHugo Valenzuela Garcia (Director) & Miranda Jessica Lubbers (Director)

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