Interview with Eric De Jonge on the future of integration in Brussels

Published on
Wed, 04/09/2013 - 15:05

A new Flemish integration decree, plans for setting up an EVA, the announcement of mandatory integration in Brussels; there has been a lot of movement in the integration sector these last few months. Who can keep up? How will it affect integration? What will it mean for bon? Time for an extensive interview with Eric De Jonge, director of bon: “I don’t think the world will look completely different on the 1st of January 2014.”

The new integration decree holds tremendous changes in store for the sector. Could you briefly outline them?
We are at a turning point. The government wants both more control over policies and more control on the field. This comes with a number of positive things, but also with some concerns for the future.
It says in the new decree that an EVA - an external autonomous agency - will be set up. This would be a central structure managing the various integration services and social translation agencies. The actual operation of the EVA will of course depend of the board of directors and the first managing director. Only then will it become clear what the direction for evolution will be. Of course, I assume we will build on what exists today. We are already moving toward higher efficiency, more professionalism and better collaborations. The one central idea supported by the whole sector is that the client is the most important.
At the moment, Ernst & Young is overseeing a broad organisational process. They are investigating the views and wishes in the field of the sector as a whole. The study should be finished by autumn of 2013 and will result in a blueprint that will be presented to the first managing director.  
The research is fuelled by the input of four working groups: Support Processes, Synergy, Language Policy and Innovation, all consisting of people from the sector. One conclusion of those groups could be that the local level will need enough leeway within a structure of central control to be able to experiment and respond to new opportunities. Then the higher level can see if those results can be translated into the bigger picture. The Innovation group, for example, is finding that an Innovation Centre cannot be organised centrally without starting at ground level and allowing a number of local experiments.

So attention for the local context will remain. Is the importance of local context the reason why Antwerp, Ghent and possibly Limburg will probably fall outside the EVA?
It’s true that the decree’s article 25 provides the possibility not to include a number of regions. It does not specify which regions, but I think it’s safe to assume that Antwerp and Ghent will not be a part of it. Nonetheless, Ernst & Young are including these parties in their analysis as well.

What makes integration in Brussels so different from integration in Flanders?
First and foremost, Brussels is a metropolitan area, with most of its inhabitants being first or second generation newcomers. The sociological composition of Brussels has been vastly reshuffled over the last 40 years, a situation which does not exist in Flanders.
Secondly, although officially bilingual, many more main languages are spoken in Brussels in daily reality – French, Dutch, English, Arabic… - as well as some hundred other languages. This means that, much more than in an average Flemish city, additional resources are needed to support initiatives in the Dutch language in Brussels, to cover these additional costs. The presence of several different employment partner-agencies further complicates the situation.
Another difference is that we need to recruit integrators ourselves, since there is no obligation to follow an integration course in Brussels. Making integration mandatory would thus have a big impact. It would also bring about a competitive atmosphere with the French speakers, who have started their own integration programs - another problem that does not exist in Flanders.
Of course our city also has a number of strengths. We have great mobility and the higher concentration allows for better collaboration with many partners. That is a completely different story, and mainly a story of “added value”. But this does not mean things are cheaper in Brussels: we always have to take into account our French-speaking friends.

Would it be an option to establish one reception agency for Brussels, together with the French-speaking colleagues? This would allow integrators to choose a program in French or Dutch.
I think this is the dream scenario for every citizen of Brussels. I also believe it would be the most efficient scenario. But between dream and reality, there is a world of difference. I fear this won’t be feasible anytime soon.
At the moment, a bilingual policy has not yet been defined. When this will have happened, there will be a rapprochement between Dutch and French speakers. This is actually already happening. But aligning operations also means aligning policy choices. And in French-speaking Belgium, the language program has been placed first because of budget reasons, making it mandatory. Flanders opted for a total package of Dutch (NT2), social orientation (MO), and career and life counselling (LLO). At bon especially, the coordination between counsellors and MO teachers is essential to the way we work.
We once started our organisation to tackle a social problem in Brussels, which we chose to do with the help of the Flemish government. This of course came with a set of rules to play by and to respect.

Is integration and language synonymous for the French-speaking partners?
Not in theory - the decree is very broad - but in practice: probably, yes. They do however see the added value of social orientation and I do believe in future collaborations. Once we have found our positions, we will be able to open up and see the possibilities together.

Are we in the same market?
Yes… but we do have a bon-trailer! (laughs)

Would an integrated collaboration also be possible without having a place in the EVA?
Flanders has chosen to move to a larger organising structure on the total level. Personally, I don’t think it will be possible in the long term not to work within that EVA. This does not mean I think there won’t be autonomy on the local level: quite the contrary, I believe there should be.
In fact, the EVA matter has come too soon for Brussels. After years of looking at each other, there finally is an integration policy version francophone. By installing an EVA in Brussels, French speaking politicians and stakeholders will be talking to a very different partner. While French speakers today are talking to a highly appreciated and locally anchored vzw – be it monitored and financed by the Flemish government – they’d be talking to a completely new ‘government structure’ in the case of an EVA. That is a fundamentally different position.
Let me give a very specific example. Just over half a year ago, we had a meeting with a French-speaking mayor in the Brussels Region who wanted to work with us. When the issue of a possible evolution towards an EVA was brought up, there was a change in tone: it became more cautious as this shifted the issue to Community level. Doing the same kind of work as a vzw is simply perceived differently.
One can wonder of course if the Flemish government should be influenced by those perceptions in making choices about Brussels. As a Brussels citizen working in a Dutch-speaking organisation in Brussels, I say yes. But I can perfectly imagine integration in Flanders does not want this. Which is a pitty, because if it doesn’t happen, time will be wasted. More than likely, it would mean a number of good partnerships that are in their first crucial phase won’t be established.

Do you have a personal preference for a particular scenario, or would you rather not say?
I do. I have already spoken about this in parliament. My personal preference is for the model with 2 structures. I believe in a model where both provinces and cities can collaborate between themselves. That, to me, seems a better option than a model with a couple of provinces and one major city.

Will there be room for life coaching (LLO) in the future? So far, it seems that the principle focus has been on structure. Will there be substantial changes to the content of the integration program as we know it today?
We believe LLO is essential. I would prefer LLO to be maintained as it is today, within the existing structure, because I think that it is very well slotted. People come to bon and the Dutch Language House in function of a personal life project. That is why we need to give proper attention to life coaching at the very start of the program and even before. It is important to talk about the real needs and concerns from the start and not just about learning the language. That is the reason why we offer the social orientation course (MO) in languages the course participants can understand. If everyone knows which steps they have to take from the beginning, then they can start their program from day one. If they can only start after or during a Dutch language course, they have wasted time.

At bon, we’re already working intensively with a number of partners like Actiris, VDAB and Syntra. How could we work together even better with, for example, Foyer or the Social Translation Agency?
That’s a good question, because anything can be improved upon. Our services and theirs are already referring people to one another and bon does have a collaboration agreement with Foyer. You could put both services under one roof, but I don’t know if that would actually improve collaboration.
The support base is very important: knowing and recognising each other’s expertise and value. I think the Ernst & Young process will offer extra opportunities. Even if our visions would turn out to be different, we can still find opportunities. Of course, there has to be some kind of rapprochement. I do however have my doubts on a merger. But no matter what model we end up in, we will make the best of it. I still like the odds today.

So everything will be ok?
I don’t believe the world will be radically different on the 1st of January 2014. Of course, by 1 January 2015, a number of things will have changed for us. But they will not change overnight. People often imagine vagueness to be more negative than necessary, because they project fears into the future. I try to keep positive: if everyone goes into these reforms with a positive attitude, we will make the most of it. It won’t be perfect, nothing ever is. But I think there is a lot of potential in the sector and definately at bon to do it right.

Special thanks to Marie Van Wayenbergh and Liesbeth Sacré.