Europeans in Brussels: «The Italians? Too complaining, but they know how to stand up to the French and understand people straight away “

from Francesca Basso

The dream of the Flemings? «A farmhouse in Tuscany». The Swedes: “You talk too much.” The Dutch: “Love and hate”

from our correspondent

BRUSSELS – It’s been a while since the shops in Belgium they displayed the “Ni chiens ni Italiens” sign (no to dogs and Italians). It took decades for immigrant Italians fleeing hunger to arrive following the “coal miner” agreement of 1946 between Brussels And Rome, integrated. And it took a tragedy, Marcinelle, to help change the way we were seen. But Brussels is not only the capital of Belgium, it is the seat of the institutions of the European Union where Italians are confronted daily with citizens of the other 26 EU states. L’Italy it is the third largest economy in Europe, a detail that cannot be overlooked in the balance within the EU. Now the Italians come from the best universities, are in the ganglia of the institutions and are reference points of European politics and culture. Brussels is a privileged observatory to understand how others view us. And the finding is that the clichés towards the beautiful country survive both among the countries of the North and those of the South. Before July 14, of the “incomprehensible” resignation for the rest of Europe of Prime Minister Mario Draghithis story would have been partly different thanks to the credit that the former president of the ECB enjoys internationally and that he contributed for over a year and a half to make our country shine with a reflected light.

Sport and cinema

But let’s go in order. There is a deep bond between Italy and Belgium. Not only because Queen Paola is a Ruffo di Calabria, because Romelu Lukaku has returned to Inter and Dries Mertens fell in love with Naples, where he played for nine years – an absolute record holder in the number of goals scored with the blue shirt – to the point of calling his son Ciro, the name that Neapolitan fans had given him (“I am very proud that my son Ciro was born in Naples – he declared – For nine years it was my land “). Or because since the seventies the Ferrero family has lived in Brussels, from where Giovanni leads the third confectionery group in the world. And the Italian-Belgian film «The eight mountains», based on the novel by Paolo Cognettishot by the Flemings Charlotte Vandermeersch And Felix Van Groeningen this year it won the jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival. The Italian community is the largest followed by the Moroccan one. There are around 300,000 Italian passports in Belgium.


We have to go back in time, go back to the last century. The Italian Republic was born a few weeks ago when on June 20, 1946 it signed an agreement with the Belgian government to provide labor for the mines in exchange for coal at market prices. The country had to be rebuilt after the war and we needed raw materials: the agreement provided for the sending of 50,000 men but in the end there were many more. It is estimated that between 1946 and 1957 140,000 Italian workers from the poorest sections of the population arrived in Belgium to carry out the work in the mines and quarries that the Belgians no longer wanted to do. The Economic Community of Coal and Steel (Czech), core of what will be the EEC, will only be born in 1951. “At the beginning it was not easy, there was mistrust towards the Italians, who were at war until the year before on the side of the Germans, ”he says Marc Tarabella, MEP: «I am a second generation Belgian, my father was born in Tuscany, my grandfather came to Belgium to work in the stone quarries. There was fear of foreigners. It took time for us to integrate. In the end, the Italians greatly influenced the way of life of the Belgians. Now they are building contractors, restaurateurs, many doctors. Salvatore Adamo and Frédéric François, two of the most popular Belgian singers are of Italian descent. In 1986 we won Eurovision, the only time, with Sandra Kim, pseudonym of Sandra Caldaroni ». Of Italian origin, naturalized Belgian, is also the producer and singer-songwriter Rocco Granata, who became famous all over the world with the song Marina. Racism towards Italians was on the agenda. «They called us, macaroni – continues Tarabella -. I have been an Interista since I was 9 years old. In 1972 Inter came to play the quarter-finals against Liege Standard. They made fun of me but I remember how satisfying it was when we won ».

The turning point

It is the tragedy of Marcinelle that changes the way of considering Italians and puts an end to official emigration from our country. In the Bois du Cazier coal mine, in the Charleroi coal basin, near the Belgian town of Marcinelle, in Wallonia, on 8 August 1956 a fire broke out in which 262 workers of twelve nationalities, including 136 Italians, were killed. A tragedy that continues to be commemorated. “At that moment, the Italians were seen as a population that sacrificed itself for Belgium and gave so much for its development,” he explains. Maria Arena, Belgian MEP, mother originally from the province of Caltanissetta and father from the province of Enna. “But then there was the economic crisis of the seventies and the Italians employed above all in large industry found themselves unemployed. Their unemployment rate – continues Arena – was double that of the Belgians, they used more of the unemployment fund with the effect that they began to be considered a bit complaining and lazy. Then there is a third way of seeing Italians linked to the construction of Europe with the new generation of expats who work in EU institutions, educated and bearers of a sophisticated Italian spirit. An evolution that can also be seen in catering: in the 1970s there were mainly pizzerias, now the best restaurants in Brussels are Italian ». The symbol of successful integration is Elio Di Rupofather originally from San Valentino (Pescara), president of the Belgian socialist party since 1999 and prime minister of non-Belgian origin from 2011 to 2014, currently at the helm of Wallonia.

Made in Italy

Prejudices die hard, they are like a karst river. The Italian ambassador to Belgium experienced this Francesco Genuardi, fresh from office in April 2022: «The University of Leuven to advertise its Italian courses had used the Flemish slogan“ So you won’t order a ‘Ndrangheta for dessert ”- he says -. I spoke immediately with the rector who decided to immediately stop the advertising campaign, it was not their intention to offend the Italian community and we have indeed agreed to strengthen the collaboration precisely to make the actions carried out by Italy better known for the respect of legality. and the fight against organized crime ”. Except for this episode, Genuardi has always found great interest in our country: «My commitment now is in the diplomacy of Made in Italy, also expressed as innovation and technology – he explains – to make Italy less known here known. There is also great interest in our country in Flanders. A survey conducted during Covid among young Flemings found that one of their main dreams is to open a farmhouse in Tuscany ».

The “frugal”

Clichés about us abound among Europeans working in institutions. But one fact emerges: “The Italians are seen as a people who stand up to the French, towards whom the Belgians have an inferiority complex, they always try to imitate them”, he says. Giuseppe Meroni, dean of parliamentary assistants: “Other Europeans greatly appreciate the Italian lifestyle, our fashion, sport.” Confirmation comes from Sweden. Those who work in institutions have agreed to speak but under anonymity, a guarantee of ruthless sincerity. «For the Swedes you are the country of the three Fs: food, football, fashion. A beautiful country to go on vacation and where you can eat well but where it is better not to live because you are not very organized. Draghi is the exception, everyone in Europe loves him and believes in him. Your characteristic – continues our Swedish source – is that you speak too much for us, perhaps because we speak too little. In institutions you have a good network, you don’t respect the real chain of command but you know how to solve problems. You do not have an organized network like the German one, it is rather a personal network of which we are partly jealous ». The “frugal” countries are all on the same line. A Dutch source is even more direct: “We love and hate Italy. We love the people, the country, your food, you are emotional, passionate, direct and open but you are chaotic and not very organized. You are a conservative country that avoids change, do not make the reforms that are needed. In institutions you are everywhere, there is an Italian soft power that we envy you and which is based on personal relationships. With Draghi, Rome was considered on a par with Paris and Berlin ». The summary is the photo showing Draghi, Scholz and Marcon on the train to Kiev. Talking to an Austrian does not change the story.

The Mediterraneans

In the South they love us more. «One face a race», jokes a Greek source: «I arrived in Belgium to study in 1999 and after six months my friends were Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Maltese. The Italians treat you on an equal footing, with the Belgians and Germans you have the feeling of deserving their friendship – he says -. With the Italians we understand each other quickly, there is the same mentality, we don’t always follow the formal way to solve problems. When the debt crisis came, you understood us and you didn’t humiliate us, you didn’t ask us to sell the Acropolis because we had gone bankrupt. Italy is a country we admire and we envy you here because you know how to network. In sport, on the other hand, there is competition ». For the Spaniards, “we are like brothers, two great countries of the South”, explains another source: “In the past we had an inferiority complex, now not anymore. Our advantage is that there is a more stable policy in Spain. What happened with Draghi left us incredulous. However there is a cultural and linguistic closeness ».

Family and merit

The Portuguese also feel close to us: «We have a similar social structure – observes our interlocutor – based on family and on a strong bond with local communities, the human aspect often prevails over business. However, we have a different way of looking at relationships, unlike you we separate business and family. The stigma of a family society where there is no meritocracy survives. But you are as good as the Portuguese in finding solutions quickly, but we consider you a less business friendly country ». Confirmation comes from taxi drivers. When they recognize the Italian origin in many, almost all of North Africa, they begin to remember the happy period spent in our country before arriving in Brussels: they emphasize the warmth of the people, good food, sun, great solidarity but then add that it’s a place they wouldn’t go back to because “Belgium works much better.”

September 8, 2022 (change September 8, 2022 | 11:12)

We would like to give thanks to the writer of this short article for this amazing material

Europeans in Brussels: «The Italians? Too complaining, but they know how to stand up to the French and understand people straight away ”

Check out our social media profiles as well as other related pages