European Voice, Volume 8 Number 26, 4 July 2002
By David Cronin. The European Commission will seek alternatives to moving back into its old Berlaymont headquarters if the price of the building’s renovation proves too costly, Vice-President Neil Kinnock has acknowledged.
European taxpayers are still footing a 14.2 million euro annual rent bill for the Brussels landmark, even though it has been empty since 1991 due to the health hazard posed by asbestos used in its construction.
Responding to a query by Dutch left-wing MEP Erik Meijer, Kinnock nonetheless insisted "the budget of the Union is not adversely affected either by the fact that the Berlaymont is not available or by the significant delays in its delivery [back to the Commission]."
Kinnock’s spokesman Eric Mamer explained that while the Commission is paying rent for the Berlaymont, the Belgian government is footing the bill for "substitution buildings" used by the EU executive while it waits for the renovation work to be completed. The amount of rent which Belgium pays for those buildings amounts to 33 million euro.
"It is the Belgians that are losing out [rather than the Commission] as has been pointed out by the Belgian senators who have repeatedly looked into the issue," said Mamer.
A ’memorandum of understanding’ agreed between the Commission and the Belgian government had foreseen that a contract laying down the cost and date of completing work on the Berlaymont would be finalised before the end of 2001.
Yet the contract was not signed by then as Rik Daems, the Belgian public works minister, requested that an audit should be undertaken into Berlaymont 2000, the company overseeing the refurbishment of the 200,000-square-metre edifice on Brussels’ Rond Pont Schuman.
According to Kinnock, it is now thought the building should be returned to the EU’s executive in early 2004. "The total renovation cost for the basic building is currently estimated at more than 600 million euro," he added. But a report prepared by two Belgian senators has put that cost closer to 1.5 billion euro.
Kinnock said he could not state "in detail" what the "financial and organisational implications" would be if the Commission ultimately decides not to rehouse its staff in the building. "However, it is clear that the Commission would look for alternatives to the Berlaymont if conditions, price and date relating to the return to the building could not be satisfactorily concluded," he said.
Copyright 2002 The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved.