We discussed this phenomenon with Lucrezia Scarapicchia, founder and president of REGIB (Rete Giovani Italiani in Belgio), a network of young Italian professionals living in Belgium. Brussels and the European Union ecosystem — including its institutions — attract hundreds of them every year, adding up to the city’s already strong international community. Walk around town for a bit, and you will undoubtedly come across a ‘ciao’ or a ‘come stai?’. Between colleagues and friends, I could spend an entire day only speaking Dante’s language — making Italian one of the best things you can ever learn to network.
While the so-called EU quarter struggles to get back to life a year after the start of the health crisis, many Italians are still working from their hometown. Lucrezia provides us with astute insight on this change in mentality, as more and more Italians are considering heading back to a higher quality lifestyle despite the country’s economic struggles.
What is REGIB’s mission, and how do you help Italians in Belgium?
REGIB’s mission is to be the reference point for young Italians arriving and living in Belgium. The association was born with the objective of bringing together young fellow countrymen in Belgium through a network which supported them both on a social and a professional level. REGIB is now a hub of 70 young Italians aged between 20 and 35 years old. We come from 15 different Italian regions and work in all kinds of sectors in Brussels — inevitably with a strong EU Institutions component.
We provide support by organizing virtual and offline get togethers, trips to discover Belgium, aperitivi, and training dedicated to improving public speaking skills, writing a good CV and cover letter, and applying to work in the EU institutions. We also have a substantial WhatsApp group and a monthly newsletter dedicated to our members where we exchange job vacancies, house rents, and lately even a lot of bureaucratic and travel advice on COVID-19 travelling. We act as an enlarged Italian family away from home. Most importantly, it is also a big group of friends.
It is well known that European expats are everywhere in Brussels, especially due to the presence of EU institutions. However, Italians remain the first community of foreigners in Belgium many decades after the first wave of migration. How do you explain this?
From what I have gathered after four years in Brussels, it seems that the majority of young Italians come to Brussels for work and job opportunities. Brussels is a very competitive city, but it gives you the opportunity to find a job and be financially independent, even as a trainee in your early 20s. This is much of a utopia in Italy. No wonder then that hundreds of young people continue to flock to the city every year. We feel valued. We feel like we are in charge of our destinies here. Of course, other factors, such as lower rent prices and good quality of life, contribute to this continuous influx.
More generally speaking, why is Belgium capable to attract so many foreign young talents — differently from Italy?
I can speak for Brussels, as that’s where I have lived in Belgium. If you stop and think about it, Brussels is a pretty much unique city in Europe. It is a very well-connected European capital with excellent international transport. It is also the host of the main EU institutions, alongside a very active and flourishing job market and good standards of living. On the mobility side, it is a relatively small-sized city where you don’t really need a car. I think this combination makes it a very attractive place to be in at the beginning of your career.
The presence of EU institutions, which already attracts a lot of European and International talents, is surrounded by an ocean of actors such as associations, corporations, law firms, consultancies, and media companies. The result is a plethora of opportunities and employers looking for fresh European and international talent. As a result, the job market is harsh and competitive. Nonetheless, I am convinced that if you insist hard enough, anyone can find their own space here.
Many young Italians are choosing to head back to Italy to work from home or permanently. Have you noticed this trend within your network?
Yes, we have definitely noticed a trend since last year. The pandemic has forced us to stop and evaluate the reality of our daily lives here. Being forced to stay in one place, away from our family and home country, has triggered certain questions regarding the reasons why we are far away from home. Without the distractions of daily life, such as the routine of going to the office, the Brussels networking vibe, the thousands of weekly events on before COVID-19 times, we have had to listen to ourselves in the most profound way. The answers we got to the question ‘what makes you stay in Brussels?’ have been surprising ones.
I would say that a good 10% of our network is considering moving back to Italy, or is already in the process of doing so. Most of us have been abroad for several years and I think that we started to appreciate Italy in a different way now, as we have actually realized that good opportunities exist there too. It’s just that we were too distracted (or lazy?) to look for them before. Maybe we were also a bit disillusioned. When you spend too much time away from a country, you start losing touch with the reality of things on the ground, and you tend to idolize other countries abroad. The pandemic changed this deeply. This said, a good 90% of our members are very happy in Brussels and do not have any intention of moving anytime soon.
According to you, is Italy preparing a plan to incentivize this trend?
It depends on who you ask. Government-wise the picture is not so promising, but it might change with Mario Draghi, the new President of the Council of Ministers. The allocation of the Next Generation funds in Italy will tell whether youth will be a priority for the country. At the moment, the Italian proposal for the distribution of funds to be presented at the European Commission in April only provides for around 1% allocation to youth policy. There is a big campaign called #unononbasta started by a network of youth organizations which is advocating for €20 billion (compared to €3.2 billion in the current draft) to be allocated to youth. This gives you an indication of how low we are on the country’s agenda and this is old news, unfortunately.
We are often considered a country of ‘vecchi’ (old people), and rightly so. This is not only due to demographic reasons — we are indeed one of the countries with the highest ageing population in the world, but also because the most important policy reforms in the country have often targeted the elderly (i.e. pension reforms) rather than focusing on youth, training and education.
This said though, there is still hope. I know that civil society organizations such as SouthWorking, born during the pandemic, identify venues suitable for remote and agile working across Italy, particularly in the South. Youth mobilizes to create a better future for itself by uniting and being more active as a civil society. REGIB tries to do the same here in Belgium. There are also some financial incentives already in place for young Italians who move back to Italy after a period of time abroad. These allow you to benefit from substantial tax reductions for the first years back, which are very attractive. Believe it or not, some friends who returned to Italy and helped from this Rientro Cervelli program, have seen their net salary higher than what they were earning abroad. However, whether the country is ready to give space to flourish for all the returning youth, is hard to say. I sincerely hope so.
Have you developed any special initiative during the pandemic?
2020 being our first year of existence, we have developed most of our activities during the pandemic and online. The first one was a fundraiser dedicated to the Croce Rossa Milano in April. We felt hopeless in front of the unfolding disaster in front of us and felt the need to contribute to our country from abroad. We managed to raise €4,000 in medical equipment, launching the campaign without a Facebook page and logo. We also published a video in different Italian dialects inciting people to stay home (which got 14,000 views on Facebook), held four public speaking training for our members, two public debates, one with Italians MPs, an offline treasure hunt in the city center (with masks of course) as a team building, and many more activities.
We are now working on developing Brussels survival guides on basic things like how to rent a house, the best pizzerias in town, and how to look for a job. We will undoubtedly continue to offer professional training, and we hope to organize real-life networking sessions as soon as it is allowed. After all, our main raison d’être is bringing young Italians together in real life. And let’s be honest, Italians cannot survive long without aperitivi with their friends.
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