Brussels as an international capital city – an asset to our country

Too few people realise the major role that Brussels plays on the world stage. Nonetheless, its character as an international capital city is of great importance for our prosperity. Here are a few figures.

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Flags at the Brussels Grand Place

The Belgian flag, together with other flags, on the Brussels Grand Place. © iStock

Several major international institutions are headquartered in Brussels. This attracts staff, as well as diplomats, lobbyists, journalists, students and international schools.

Largest international diplomatic community

The largest and best-known institution is the European Union. No fewer than 38 EU organisations have their headquarters or a liaison office in Brussels. These include the main EU institutions such as the European Parliament, the European Council, the Council of the European Union and the European Commission. Brussels is therefore correctly known as the capital of Europe. As a result, more than 37,000 EU employees are based in our country.

NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) is the largest inter-governmental organisation. It brings a total of 3,850 employees to Brussels. Alongside these are organisations such as the Benelux Union, the ACS (the Group for states in Africa, the Caribbean area and the Pacific Ocean) and the World Customs Organisation.

The United Nations has 25 offices and liaison offices in Brussels. These include UNICEF (Children's Fund), FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation), UNEP (Environment Programme), ILO (International Labour Organisation) and the World Bank. Some of these have an EU office; their presence is therefore down to the EU.

Since the Regional Committee was founded in 1994, 300 regional and local representations have established themselves in our capital city. They represent their city or region in the European institutions.

European Parliament plenary chamber

The main EU institutions are in Brussels. On the photo: European Parliament plenary room.​ © Shutterstock

The total sum amounts to around 120 international organisations, alongside over 300 foreign diplomatic missions. This makes Brussels the largest international diplomatic community in the world. No fewer than 60,000 diplomatic, international and consular officials, staff members and their families live or work in our capital city.

International staff members have established themselves outside of Brussels too. SHAPE, for example – one of NATO's strategic headquarters – is located near Mons. SHAPE has 3,200 members of staff who live in the area with their families.

All this leads to enormous diplomatic activity. In 2019, for instance, 2,100 high-level visits took place at the Egmont Palace in 2019, including 351 heads of state and heads of government, and 372 Foreign Secretaries. The Protocol Directorate of the FPS Foreign Affairs co-organises these visits. In the same year, around another 400 (inter)national events took place at the Egmont Palace.

The Egmont Palace is part of our FPSIt forms a unique setting and is rightly known as our country's calling card. At present, the conference halls and lounges are being renovated to guarantee the Palace's character for the future.

Lavishly decorated hall in the Egmont Palace

Interior view of the Egmont Palace, the showpiece of our country. © FOD BZ/SPF AE

One-fifth of the Brussels-Capital region's economy

The notable international presence also attracts other categories of profession. For example, Brussels is a major international media hub, with around 730 accredited journalists based there permanently. This number can rise to 1,500 journalists and media staff (technicians, camera operators) during European summits.

In addition, there are 11,698 lobbying organisations registered with the EU. These include 6,232 corporate lobbyists, 3,105 non-governmental organisations and 881 think tanks, among others. Put together, they supply between 10,000 and 14,000 lobbying jobs.

There are also 33 international schools in and around Brussels for primary and secondary education, together accommodating about 25,000 pupils. It is estimated that 8,000 interns travel to Brussels every year. Of the 86,000 students in Brussels, 23% come from abroad: 16% from the EU and 7% from outside the EU. Erasmus, the EU exchange programme, attracts around 900 students to Brussels universities every year.

The major international presence is estimated to be reflected in 8.7 to 13.9 billion euros and 123,000 to 163,000 jobs. This equates to roughly one-fifth of the Brussels-Capital region's economy and 23.2% of regional workplaces (taken as a maximum).

A few more rankings? Brussels is the:

  • Number 1 city for political engagement
  • Number 1 city for the establishment of embassies and consulates
  • Number 1 cosmopolitan city in Europe, number 2 worldwide

Our FPS is aiming for greater visibility

The headquarters of our FPS Foreign Affairs is also located in Brussels. The major international diplomatic presence makes our work easier to some degree. For example, 2 important Permanent Representations – with the EU and NATO – are located not far from the headquarters. The frequent foreign visits facilitate our diplomatic work.

We need to be making greater use of Brussels' character as an international capital city. After all, this will not only benefit the Brussels-Capital region, but the rest of the country too. This is why our FPS, along with the services for the Prime Minister and all actors involved, is aiming for greater visibility for our country on the world stage. We will also continue with our efforts to attract other international organisations. This is among the tasks of the Interministerial Committee for Host Nation Policy, which is linked to our FPS.

Almost all the figures have been taken from the brochure ‘Brussels, an international capital city – the figures for 2020’. You can find more details there.