For decades Brussels has been talked down as a drab, soulless city, populated by humourless bureaucrats. It may not have the majestic landmarks of other European cities such as Paris and Rome, or Berlin’s edginess. Yet thanks to its relatively low-cost property prices and high quality of life, Brussels is attracting more creative types and start-ups, and beginning to shake off its reputation as the grey man of Europe.
As the dust from the UK’s Brexit referendum continues to swirl, the de facto capital of the EU is one of several cities hoping to benefit, as institutions shift employees from London to cities with a future inside the union. The city is in a strong position to attract talent, according to Silvia Galli, founder of co-working space Bon Jour Bruxelles.
“Housing is affordable, and [Brussels] is not that big so you can get almost everywhere by foot or bicycle,” she says. “It’s got a lot to offer culturally and everything you would expect from a capital city. Some people come for three months and stay forever.”
Until five years ago Eurocrats were the only international tribe in town, she says, but now start-ups are arriving from North America, Singapore and Africa. Today, Brussels is “not boring at all”, she insists, “but maybe it hasn’t promoted itself as it should have done”.
While Londoners are yet to arrive en masse, Brussels is already popular with Parisians seeking value — and space — for their money. David Sdika started another co-working space in the city, Factory Forty, after relocating from the French capital nine years ago. “When you have kids, you would need to be a millionaire to live in Paris — and London is even worse.” Brussels is “easy to live in”, he adds, with larger apartments and good schools.
There are already signs that London-based companies could set up shop in Brussels. Sdika has received inquiries from several start-ups since the vote. Crucially for international investors, it is well-located. “Geographically it’s the centre of western Europe. And everyone speaks English, unlike in Paris.”
Those investors that do come will find it affordable by comparison. The city’s property market has been relatively shielded from bubbles due to a high purchase tax of 12.5 per cent, which deters rapid buying and selling. But since a coalition government was formed in 2014, the market has slowed, with some international buyers postponing decisions because of uncertainty over tax, says Philippe Rosy of Engel & Völkers.
Prices have since risen between 1 and 4 per cent a year, he says, although for some city-centre apartments, price rises have reached 5 per cent.
For a two-bedroom apartment in Ixelles/Louise, the smartest area, you can expect to pay about €3,500 per sq metre, compared with €8,000 to €11,000 per sq metre in central Paris or €18,000 in London’s W1 postcode.
Engel & Völkers is marketing a seven-bedroom, early 20th-century mansion on the prestigious Avenue Molière for €3.5m. Nearby Sotheby’s International Realty is selling a seven-bedroom house with a pool for €4.5m.
Families may prefer to buy farther out in the leafy communes of Uccle or Woluwe-Saint-Pierre, which are closer to some of the city’s international schools and best restaurants. A 1930s detached villa with five bedrooms and a 15-acre garden in Uccle is on sale for €2.65m through Engel & Völkers.
While Brussels has no shortage of elegant properties to tempt London bankers, some may be put off by the perceived threat of terrorism. And City firms may not view it as a financial hub. “It’s not like Amsterdam or Paris which have a tradition of finance,” says Rosy. Brussels came 62nd in the Global Financial Centres Index, which ranks the competitiveness of financial centres, published in September 2016. London was number one.
Yet the city is likely to benefit, in the short term at least, from a growing demand for lobbyists following the Brexit vote, says Karl Brophy, chief executive of Red Flag, an international lobbying and consultancy company, which is planning to double its staff numbers in the city. “A lot of countries which have previously taken positions similar to that of the UK [in the EU] now have to actually fight for themselves,” says Brophy. “So, corporations and trade associations that used to not spend in Brussels — because the Brits could be relied upon to fight the good fight — now face having to resource up.”
In the longer term, the picture could be somewhat bleaker, says Rosy. Rather than boost its fortunes, Brexit has actually put Brussels at risk, by threatening the EU itself, he suggests. “It’s weakened Europe and there is now an increased chance that the EU could collapse. If the EU collapses, Brussels will collapse.”
This is an unlikely scenario, he acknowledges, but, should the worst happen, many in Brussels may long for the dull days of yore.
Accessibility Brussels has direct flights to most European capitals and New York. It is 80 minutes to Paris by high-speed train and less than two hours to London
Regulation Belgium was ranked 42nd in the World Bank’s 2017 “ease of doing business” ranking
Existing infrastructure As home to the EU and Nato headquarters, Brussels has world-class infrastructure
Residential property The Neo project will redevelop an 18-hectare site in the neglected Heysel Plateau area into a shopping and leisure hub with a convention centre and sports grounds, as well as more than 700 new homes
What you can buy for . . .
€500,000 A two-bedroom apartment in the central Louise quarter
€2.5m A seven-bedroom villa in Uccle
€5m An architect-designed villa with a pool in Woluwe-Saint-Pierre