I promised I’d write something fun for Easter about this little cottage in the middle of the EU quarters. So, here we go.
If anyone wonders why on earth Brussels ended up being the seat of the EU and the “capital of Europe”, you’re in good company. The fact is that the EU doesn’t quite know either. The formal decision was taken as late as in 1992.
Since the very beginning in 1957, there hade been the usual squabbling about who should be given the honours to host the institutions. France, Germany, Luxembourg, or somewhere else? The inability to take a decision meant that the institutions were housed wherever they could find lodging. That is one of the reasons why the EU Parliament ended up having its sessions in Strasbourg, France: they got to borrow the premises of the Council of Europe, an organisation that has nothing to do with the EU and should not be confused with the European Council.
Confused? It gets worse.
Belgium decided to lobby hard to get the institutions there, and eventually in 1968 built the EU this neat little colossus in shining grey concrete, called the Berlaymont. The EU (which was then known as the EEC) was thankful and put its Commission in it. Without buying it.
However, on one fine day in 1991, someone discovered that the building was full and flowing over with asbestos, a neat little fibre good for both preventing fires and causing lung cancer. The very next day, the Commission consequently moved out to another building nearby. Meanwhile, the entire Berlaymont was to be gutted.
That’s about the time when I first saw it in real life. EU reporting in those days continued to include images of reporters in front of this building. So I came there on rainy day in 1995 to have a look for myself… only to find the entire thing empty with the exception of the odd construction worker.
The fact that there were only a few workers in sight should have set off some alarm bells. Unfortunately, neither I nor those footing the bill got the message until someone suddenly checked their calendar and realised that quite a number of years had gone by.
In fact, it was only in 1996 that they came up with the final plans on how to do the work. Thus, it took five years only to produce the blueprints. Must have been some mighty drawings.
By then, the consortium in charge of the work had assumed the optimistic name “Berlaymont 2000”, but don’t you think that nine years were enough to complete it.
Someone else counted the costs and that wasn’t very fun reading either. By then, the EU had finally agreed to pay for the renovation by buying the building at last, which cost the Commission exactly 552,879,207 euros. The land the building stands on was purchased for an additional 1 euro; I am not sure whether or not that is included in the above figure. (But I assume that there were fierce negotiations over those last seven euros.) To be paid over 27 years.
How did they end up in that mess? Well, for a start, they couldn’t just knock what was now being known as the “Berlaymonster” and start all over again, because the entire area is a Swiss cheese perforated with road and rail tunnels. (Having demolition cause the horrible excuse for a train station next to the EU quarters cave in and implode would have been a tremendous gain for mankind, though, but that’s beside the point.)
But there was also talk about fraud and mismanagement on part of the contractor, who turned out to have been bankrupt from the very start – and, according to some reports, financially connected with the building where the Commission was being held hostage. (Now there’s an incentive for procrastination.)
It wasn’t until 2004 that the Commission could finally move back in. By then, the EU had worked its way through four Commissions, including the one that had moved out.
What the about 3,000 people working there found was quite a hi-tech spacecraft, though. Blinds have been fitted all over the facade that swivel automatically depending on the sunshine, the climate control is beyond description, and they’ve even managed to put a bit of paint on it here and there.
One of the stranger features, though, is this boat-like add-on on top of the wing closest to the Schuman roundabout. This is where the Commissioners meet every Wednesday morning. I sometimes wonder if its shape is intended to enable it to double as a lifeboat in case global warming and melting polar caps finally drench the low countries up to the 14th floor where it sits. Maybe that was what got them to start talking about climate change after all.
In the four floors underground, we, the lower standing life forms known as journalists scamper around in search for news in the undergrowth. Speaking about symbolism, you might say, although we are pampered with some of the best press services imaginable.
The only problem is that the Commission employs another 18,000 people, who cannot be fitted into this billion-euro thingy. That’s why they occupy another 60 buildings around town… and counting, as the EU grows.
Worse still, this is not the largest EU building in town. The Council has a castle across the street that’s about twice the size, the Parliament (which, remember, holds most of its sessions in France and has its secretariat in Luxembourg) has recently built an ever-swelling behemoth close by, the size of which I have still yet to comprehend, and only the other month was there yet another office block opened in the same area. Etc, etc, etc.
So… there’s probably reason to say “to be continued”.
Time for Easter now… have a happy one and let’s hear again next week.