By Bruno Waterfield
It is a modernist cube, containing a womb-shaped structure at its core.
Inside there is to be a “humane gathering place” decorated with the rainbow colours of a “diversity carpet” – on both the floor and ceiling. There will be meeting rooms and areas where visiting dignitaries can “be served in ceremonial lounges”.
The price tag for the Europa – the new European Council headquarters in the heart of Brussels – is a hefty one at £198 million.
And the European Union “summits” it has been built to host will take place just four times a year.
A few hundred yards away from the “EU-Uterus”, as it has been dubbed, the Eastman Building – an elegant 1930s structure – is being transformed into a museum as part of a project intended to celebrate the EU’s “historical memory” and to “promote awareness of European identity”.
Due to open in autumn 2015, the official “estimated costs” of the museum are £46 million, but parliamentary and other documents show the real bill will be almost double that in the first year of its opening.
For David Lidington, Britain’s Europe minister, the buildings symbolise the problem with Brussels: institutions that carry out necessary work, staffed by talented officials and diplomats, but are out of touch with popular concerns and how people live their lives.
“You have remarkably able people who somehow just don’t grasp how ordinary families have to live and make difficult choices. The most striking examples are new buildings,” he told The Telegraph. “You have this new palace going up for the European Council, which meets a few times a year. And, you’ve got the House of History at taxpayers’ expense.
“It is just insulting to hard-pressed taxpayers to be spending money of that sort when you have huge numbers of people out of work across Europe and lots of others who are having to work every hour to make ends meet for their families. It is that sort of decision that adds to the remoteness.”
For many, this is the point about Brussels – it’s remote, it’s out of touch, it’s unaccountable, it’s a world unto itself, it’s Planet EU.
The popular perception is that it’s a costly, red-tape obsessed, perk-ridden enclave for those fortunate enough to secure a ticket to the party.
Even José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, refers to the “Brussels bubble”.
As Britain and other nations go to the polls on May 22, part of the equation being calculated by many a voter will be just that – do we want to back this Brussels behemoth, or support someone who promises to fight it?
This correspondent has spent 11 years living and working in capital of European bureaucracy. But some things never fail to amaze, even though they stare you in the face on a daily basis.
Here are just a few.
THE TRAVELLING CIRCUS
Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of life in “Planet EU” is the fact that, once a month, all 766 MEPs and their thousands of staff decamp from Belgium to France to hold four-day parliamentary sessions.
On the Friday before a “Strasbourg week”, 25 heavy trucks leave Brussels to make the 220-mile journey to Strasbourg. The fleet carries 4,000 trunks of office documents for MEPs, officials and interpreters – and brings it all back again a week later.
The 440-mile round trip generates almost 20,000 tons of CO2 emissions, a situation that angers many MEPs in a parliament that likes to boast it is the “most environmentally aware assembly in the world”.
The parliament’s designer buildings in Strasbourg, said to be modelled on Pieter Brueghel’s famous The Tower of Babel painting, surrounded by an ornamental moat and purchased at a cost of almost £500 million seven years ago, are unoccupied for nine months a year.
MEPs have calculated that the cost of the monthly round-trip, dubbed the “travelling circus”, is at least £928 million until 2020, representing an annual bill to the British taxpayer of more than £20 million.
What fewer people know is that the parliament also bases more than 2,000 officials in Luxembourg, working out of 27 buildings and regularly commuting to Brussels and Strasbourg.
“Consequently, the European Parliament has to provide these people with three fully-equipped offices,” said Lidia Geringer de Oedenberg, a Polish Socialist MEP. “They have staff in Luxembourg, Brussels and Strasbourg, and must support the costs of their missions and daily allowances.”
Edward McMillan-Scott, a Liberal Democrat MEP and a vice-president of the parliament, wants the EU treaty to be changed so the European assembly can have a single seat in Brussels.
“Last November, MEPs voted 483-141 to end parliament’s monthly trek and called on EU governments to give them the right to decide when and where they meet the next time the EU treaty is revised,” he said.
“Furthermore, nearly 1.3 million European citizens have signed an online petition for a single working location, in Brussels.”
The trek is an anachronism from the early European treaties, in the 1950s, which divided institutions (and the cash that comes with them) between Belgium, France and Luxembourg.
Since then, the parliament’s Strasbourg seat has morphed into a major money-earner for France. And French presidents from Mitterrand to Chirac, from Sarkozy to Hollande, have repeatedly defended the status quo.
So despite parliament’s will, this bizarre situation is not expected to change. France has a veto on the subject and has repeatedly gone to the European courts to defend a hugely beneficial arrangement.
THE GRAVY TRAIN
European civil servants did little to endear themselves to an austerity-struck public when, at the height of the eurozone crisis, they fought tooth and nail to prevent a freeze on their automatic pay rises and pension reform.
Amid the resulting public fury, EU civil service unions in Brussels demanded extra protection after stickers of an official hanging in a noose made from a necktie were found, with the slogan “Eurocrats, sers-toi de ta cravat” or “Eurocrat, make use of your tie”.
Repeated controversies over salaries and allowances of MEPs are seen as a major factor in declining voter turnout – which has shrunk in every European election since the first in 1979. A survey of British voters in March found that only Saudi Arabia, Iran and North Korea were more disliked than MEPs and the European Parliament.
“I felt utter disbelief,” said Mr Lidington, of the row over pay freezes. “It is that sort of insensitivity that leads to quite understandable public exasperation and anger.”
Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden demanded “very substantial reductions in spending, including salaries, pensions and benefits” for the EU’s 50,000 officials, who are mainly based in Brussels and Luxembourg.
The governments are particularly outraged that officials who have chosen to work in Brussels can receive an extra £30,000 a year, at the top EU pay grade of £185,000, to compensate them for living abroad.
Furthermore, more than a dozen British MEPs use a loophole to pay close relations, including wives and children, from the parliamentary assistant allowances. The assistants are the best paid in the world, with earnings of up to £78,000 a year.
As well as staff allowances, MEPs are able to earn up to £91,000 a year in “daily subsistence” and “general expenditure” expenses without having to provide any receipts or proof of expenditure – a practice that would not be tolerated in Westminster. The per diem payment is known as “sign in and slope off” among the more cynical MEPs, and is notorious for allowing them to pocket the money without staying in the EU assembly, or even Brussels, to do any work.
Last summer, video footage of MEPs slapping and pushing a journalist filming them while they claimed the daily allowance as they arrived at work in the evening provoked new calls for reform to the EU assembly. No reforms were made and there are no plans to change the receipt-free allowances system after European elections in May.
After more than two years of fighting, governments finally won, last summer, a two-year pay and pension freeze for officials, saving £1.3 billion a year. But Maros Sefcovic, the commission vice-president, admitted that “negotiations have been very tough”.
Damningly, he admitted that “no one can be entirely satisfied with the outcome” – amid continued grumbling from national governments about the perks and the threat of strike action by EU civil servants.
One British MEP, well known and respected in political circles for his hard work and probity, told this correspondent that he often felt like a “common criminal”.
“Once I was sitting on a crowded train going back to my constituency when I had to take an urgent call on my mobile,” he said. “It was too crowded to get up so I had to take it in my seat. As I was speaking to a colleague, I saw that I was getting filthy looks. One woman in particular looked very angry.
“When I finished my call, I made special point of turning to her and apologising for using my mobile in the train carriage. ‘It’s not that,’ she replied. ‘You’re an MEP’.”
Since the Lisbon Treaty, which entered into force at the end of 2009, the European Parliament has “co-decision” powers over 70 per cent of EU legislation and MEPs have regularly flexed their muscles – especially to increase Brussels budgets.
According to House of Commons research, EU legislation accounts for up to half of British laws – more than 3,000 regulations a year – meaning that more than 2,000 legislative acts in Britain pass through the hands of MEPs before reaching MPs.
But as the European Parliament’s powers have grown alongside those of the EU, voters have increasingly switched off or become increasingly hostile to the “Union” – both as project for the future and as political experience.
And the toxic dislike and mistrust of the EU has driven growing expenditure by the parliament – the only European institution reliant on votes – on self-promotion.
In the run-up to this year’s election, the parliament has demanded and won a 3.3 per cent spending increase, in defiance of the unemployment, austerity and recession faced by hundreds of millions of Europe’s voters.
As well as the House of History, the annual bill for the “Parlamentarium” – a multimedia exhibition celebrating the work of MEPs – went up by 27 per cent, or £4.3 million, this year compared with the closure of museums and galleries elsewhere across Europe.
But the communication strategy does not seem to have worked.
In 1979, the first direct European election to the parliament, 62 per cent of eligible voters turned out to cast their ballots.
In 2009 and as MEPs gained new powers under the Lisbon Treaty, the turnout slumped to 43 per cent, a figure that many predict will decline further in this election.
The EU’s most recent Eurobarometer, one of the largest exercises in opinion polling last year, found that 60 per cent of Europeans do not trust the EU. That figure has almost doubled since 2007, as the reality of the eurozone has become manifest in spending cuts and high unemployment.
THE IVORY TOWERS
For further concrete evidence of Brussels’s absurd extravagance, critics say, just look around the city.
Over recent weeks, Europa’s façade made of a double layer of recycled oak windows representing different European architectural styles has been bolted into place – making a deliberate, although possibly provocative, statement about the impact of EU environmental legislation on houses across Europe.
“Following to EU recommendations about energy savings, many old buildings across Europe will change their window frames for double glazing in the next few years. In the context of a sustainable development approach, it is decided to restore some of those millions of old window frames, and reuse them in this project,” says the building’s architectural plan.
“This new façade will be both a practical and philosophical statement about the reuse of these traditional constructions elements, expressing the European diversity of cultures.”
The construction boom of the past three years in the EU quarter has been worth about £410 million, at a time when the wider European building sector has contracted by 30 per cent, in a recession driven by the collapse of the eurozone credit bubble.
This spring, work began on a £100 million building of a new “Wilfried Martens” office block for the parliament, named after the former Belgian prime minister and EU federalist who died last year.
Despite unsuitable geological conditions in the Maalbeek, Schuman and Parc Leopold area, where the EU quarter is based, builders are sinking geothermal bores 656 feet below the surface to harness the power of the Earth’s heat in an environmentally friendly way.
The building is scheduled to be finished in the first half of 2016 to accommodate the growing number of officials working for the EU. Over the past two years, MEPs have awarded themselves ever more cash for parliamentary assistants – now, Brussels is home to over 6,200 civil servants and 1,525 parliamentary assistants for MEPs. Each MEP receives an annual allowance of £213,000, to pay for personal staff.
Official EU figures show that European institutions currently occupy overmore than six million square feet of office space in Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg – an area the size as Monaco.
The “acquis communitaire”, the combined volumes of EU law, run to some 90,000 pages of directives and regulations drawn up in Brussels over the decades.
Many are perfectly reasonable regulations enacting technical or safety standards drawn up by international bodies independent of the EU or are linked to world trade rules.
Others have become notorious, such as old EU regulations specifying the curvature of cucumbers in order to make packing of vegetables more easy, rules that were designed to help industry but to the layman seem strange.
Some seemingly odd regulations are part of broader cultural trends such as risk-averse health and safety rules. Recent EU rules setting the height of heels for hairdressers hit the headlines but were actually demanded by industry and associations representing beauticians.
Indeed The EU is often a convenient fall guy for public outrage – deeply unpopular EU legislation to ban incandescent light bulbs and plans to stop the use of olive oil jugs in restaurants are good examples.
The phasing in of a ban on incandescent light bulbs in favour of energy efficient fluorescent lights was decided by a summit of EU leaders in 2007 but many national governments were already heading that way.
By the time the ban kicked in two years ago, the fact that a Brussels directive meant people could no longer buy the light bulbs they wanted led many to blame the EU rather than their own governments.
This time last year, an EU ban on the use of unmarked olive oil jugs on restaurant tables was dropped following a public outcry across Europe,provoked by reports in the Telegraph.
The aborted regulation would have required that olive oil “presented at a restaurant table” must be in factory-packaged bottles with a tamper-proof “hygienic” nozzle and printed labelling in line with Brussels standards.
The outlawing of the classic, refillable glass Aceitera jugs or glazed terracotta dipping bowls led to a public outcry and many restaurateurs protested that it would end their freedom to buy olive oil from a small artisan producer or family business in favour of industrial products.
The row highlighted the bizarre system of Brussels regulation, known as “comitology”, where binding legislation is automatically passed into law despite not having majority support among EU countries.
David Cameron seized on the ban as an example of the sort of regulation the EU should “get right out of” but amid the sound and fury it was quickly forgotten that British officials had supported the ban.
THE BRUSSELS BUBBLE?
As he prepares to step down in the autumn, Mr Barroso, the commission president, has been reflecting on the problems with the EU.
“Rather than confining a debate to the subject matter – is there a better solution, say, to the light bulb or the olive oil can issue? – controversial outcomes are presented as the inevitable, absurd result of a flawed ‘Brussels’ system,” he said last week.
“For too long, the expectation – at least in the Brussels bubble – was that the EU institutions would always try to do more than the treaties allowed them.”
A big part of the problem has been the strong sense of mission that many in the EU feel: the idea that Euroscepticism leads to war. They see “more Europe” as the panacea for every problem.
The belief that the EU is right while mere people, the voters, are often wrong runs deep in Brussels. After the French and Dutch voted No to the EU constitution in 2005, Lord Kinnock, then a vice-President of the commission, described the popular rejection as “the triumph of ignorance”.
“That for me was a completely surreal moment, the absolute denial,” said Nigel Farage, the leader of Ukip.
“That for me was the magical moment when I really realised that they couldn’t give a bugger for what people think, they’ll plough on anyway.”
It is a commonly-held sentiment.
Leaning back on a sofa in his office in the European quarter, one of Europe’s most senior officials, with more than 30 years’ experience, admits candidly that there is a “Brussels bubble divorced from the daily reality of most Europeans” – especially Britons.
“Part of the DNA of this place is a missionary zeal, presenting the EU as the culmination of thousands of years of history,” he said.
“We, the initiated insiders, understand that is inevitable, inexorable. They are centralist with a caste of high priests who have seen the light. This is a saloon bar, or café du commerce, caricature – but there is a lot of truth in it.”
But British party political and parliamentary traditions, he said, were wholly different to that.
“Britain has a very different history particularly in terms of the Second World War. Britain did not join as a consequence of the war. Britain joined for economic reasons. Britain was not occupied and did not invade anyone else, it won the war.”
The official, who preferred to remain anonymous to safeguard his independence as a European civil servant, believes the EU will change – particularly in terms of pettifogging regulations such those banning high heels for hairdressers, or prohibiting olive oil jugs in restaurants.
“There is finally going to be, largely thanks to the UK, a serious debate about not doing certain things,” he said.
“We should be modest.”