It may be a speck on the European map, but Belgium is becoming an increasingly popular destination for US and other international law firms. In 2002 it was Latham & Watkins and Howrey Simon Arnold & White. This year it’s been Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, Arnold & Porter and Sidley Austin Brown & Wood. Then there are the British law firms that have set up there in the 1980s and 1990s. Why Brussels? Is it the tax? The food? The women? Nothing so exciting. It’s something called the EC.

What’s drawing these firms to Brussels is antitrust work, particularly involving the European Commission, the European Union’s increasingly influential regulatory agency that’s based in the city. Just as Washington, D.C., is an indispensable location for U.S. antitrust practices, Brussels has become the place to be for any firm whose corporate clients compete on a global stage.

“If you have a lot of contact with the European Commission, a number of firms have decided, as has Gibson, that you need to have a presence there,” says Gary Spratling, who co-chairs Gibson’s antitrust practice.

Gibson hired Peter Alexiadis, a former partner at Squire, Sanders & Dempsey’s Brussels office to head up its new outpost, which will initially count a team of three to six attorneys. And Spratling says he will spend a significant amount of time in the Brussels office, as will several other Gibson U.S.-based antitrust attorneys.

The European Commission, which counts 20 commissioners and a staff of roughly 24,000 functionaries, is both a regulatory and a law enforcement agency. Besides having the authority to approve or disapprove mergers and acquisitions, it can investigate companies whose practices it deems anti-competitive and even raid corporate offices. It’s also the forum where a company can bring complaints about competitors that receive state subsidies.

This broad purview means the commission has far-reaching power over any company whose market stretches beyond U.S. borders.

The European Commission can’t be ignored, says William Baer, the head of Arnold & Porter’s antitrust/competition and trade regulation practice. In August, the firm opened a six-attorney office in Brussels, which Baer expects to grow to 10 attorneys in the next couple of months.

The spate of new arrivals in Brussels is actually the second wave of foreign law firms to set their sights on the city. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, dozens of U.S. and British law firms opened offices in Brussels in anticipation of the 1992 unification of the European market and the lowering of trade barriers.

But the importance of Brussels as a center for antitrust and competition law has only become clear in the past few years as the European Commission has increasingly flexed its muscle, launching investigations into corporate giants like Intel and Microsoft.

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