Tag Archives: Brussels

Britain: Is it time to consider living, studying or working abroad?

It’s time for Brits to stop looking at their feet and to embrace the economic opportunities that sit just beyond our borders.

There is no way of silver-lining it, things are pretty bad in the UK at the moment. The average UK family is £1,350 worse off than when Cameron came to office as prices continue to rise faster than wages. That is for those who are in work. There are still 2.47 million people out of work and many more in insecure “flexible” contracts.

For those who consider dropping out of paid work to head back to education there are of course the £9,000 tuition fees to consider.

But, we don’t just live and work in the UK. We are also citizens of the EU and yes…also the world. All around us are opportunities if only we were capable of looking beyond our island’s borders.

To start, we are members of the EU. This gives us the right to go and work and study in any other member state (a basic right within the EU) – an opportunity that people have literally died trying to get.

Why shell out £9,000 a year tuition fees when you can study in Belgium for 835 euros a year or even in Sweden for free? At the very least why do so few UK students take advantage of the EU funded Erasmus student exchange scheme?

The British Council estimates that “just under 13,000 students in the UK took part in 2010/11, with between two and three times as many Spanish, French and German participants taking part every year”.

Equally with employment opportunities, why are more Brits not looking for jobs in Austria or Germany (with unemployment rates as low as 4.8% and 5.2 % respectively)?

I understand that this is not possible for some who have families and reasons to be geographically tied but I would be willing to bet that there also thousands who have just not even considered this as a possibility.

Take working in Brussels for example (where most of the work is undertaken in English). It is a 2 hour train journey from London (similar to Birmingham or Manchester) but few Brits consider looking for employment there for no other reason than it being “abroad”.

With massive youth unemployment, why are more graduates not looking to become a ‘stagiaire’ (paid traineeships) in Belgium?

And this is just for the EU. There is a whole world out there. I am currently enjoying the experience of living and working in Kampala, Uganda. My salary here is one of the worst I have ever earned but my quality of life is infinitely better than when I was living and working in London.

I am currently writing this in perfect sunshine and tonight I will be enjoying a beer for less than a quid. Why would more people not want to try this?

As a Brit you have huge visa benefits all around the world. We have opportunities others can only dream about but we don’t spot them because we are too busy staring at our feet.

I repeat that I understand that this geographical mobility is not possible for everyone but it is for many and we have to encourage and inspire these people to consider these opportunities.

We have become a country institutionalised to stare at our feet. We need to raise our heads up and look at the world of possibilities that sit just beyond our borders. We desperately need to be encouraging young people to raise their horizons and their expectations. If we fail to do this we are not only letting down ourselves but also the next generation.

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Filed under Economics, EU politics

The Spanish, the homeless and Christmas – some reflections!

The ignored reality of homelessness - Photo is from Chirs Hall (flickr)

Brussels is a wonderful unique city to be living in during the run up to Christmas.  It has wonderful Christmas markets, live music and with the recent downfall of snow, a real feeling of Christmas cheer.  Recently however, I had a sobering experience that made me reflect on the nature of societal divisions within Brussels in stark contrast to the Christmas cheer that I have been enjoying in the last few weeks.

Let me paint you a picture.  Last Saturday I had spent the whole day walking in the Ardennes (south Belgium); I came back to Brussels to watch Arsenal demolish Hull (3-0) before meeting up with a Spanish friend of mine to celebrate his birthday.  Despite the bitter weather (-9 in the city centre), lots of friends made it out to celebrate.  Being typically Spanish my friend had arranged to meet at 22:30, and the party lasted until the early hours.  I had a really fantastic evening.  Walking home (in bitter winds and heavy snowfall), I came across a group of homeless people who were lying on the street side exposed to the elements.  How I reacted to this situation reflects a lot on how we as a society view homelessness.

I stopped, and stared and the pure injustice of a collection of men lying in sub-zero temperatures with nothing more than a blanket to warm them hit me hard.  It repulsed me to see that this could be happening in a modern European city.  I felt myself shivering with the cold (wearing a ski coat, hats, gloves etc).   In my slightly inebriated state I stood still for well over 2 minutes to think what I could possibly do in this situation.  The sad truth dawned on me that right there, in that drunken moment; there was absolutely nothing I could do.  One gentleman lying on the ground spotted me and struck up conversation.  In my French (which improves dramatically after many beers…I think) we talked briefly about how terrible the weather was.  He seemed surprisingly jolly about the whole situation.  Despite his optimism, he was visually shaking.  I strongly suspected that his optimism was fundamentally based on a cocktail of drink and drugs to get him through that freezing night. 

As I walked away, I felt more for that chap than any sober person could.  My heart bled for the pure injustice of the whole situation.  As I walked, my sorrow and sadness slowly evolved into a massive sense of anger at a system that allows for this situation to exist.  Reflecting on these thoughts the next day (in a clearer state of mind), I vowed to myself that I would work to do something about this.  In the UK, this would be easier (no language barriers).  I am aware of organisations like Emmaus and Shelter working for homeless people.  In Bath (where I lived for a number of years) I am aware of the hostel Julian House that provides nightly food and shelter for the homeless.  In Brussels however I felt flummoxed about what I could do.  Trying to help individuals only goes so far, it does not tackle the underlying reasons for the homelessness.   For every bowl of soup you hand out another person slips into destitution. 

This is not to say that handing out hot food is not beneficial.  Indeed, it can often be a life line.  It is however, fundamentally wrong that it is left to individuals and charities to try and provide support for those who have slipped through the state safety nets. 

Homelessness is not a problem in itself.  It is largely a symptom of other ills in society.  Some of the main causes of homelessness include mental health issues, substance abuse, unemployment, prison release and forced eviction.  The situation that I experienced on the streets of Brussels is reflective of our inability to tackle these underlying issues. 

These issues need to be tackled at a national level, with effective planning.  Until this happens, what can we do?  Is there anybody reading this that can offer me advice?  Is there really nothing more I can do other than hand out soup and look sympathetic?

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Filed under Homelessness