As the EC's Home Repairs Drag On...A Squabble over Summits Heats Up

Being mentioned in the Michelin Guide for five years running wasn't enough to save Mykonos Blue from going under. Like many of its Brussels neighbors, the Greek restaurant thrived on business from 3,000 European Commission officials working in the nearby Berlaymont building. But when Berlaymont was shut down in 1991 after asbestos was discovered, civil servants were deployed to several locations throughout the city. Although workers with meetings in town were initially bused back to the area at lunchtime, business was never the same. "We went from being full to being empty," says Lee Better, who ran Mykonos with her husband.

While Better was lucky enough to get out a few years ago and open a trendy American eatery in an artsy part of town, those left behind are still waiting--10 years later--for Berlaymont to reopen. Renovation of the 13-story building, dubbed "Berlaymonster" by critics, is three years behind schedule. A report by two Belgian senators puts the final price tag at $1.03 billion, compared with the government's original $149 million estimate. To the outside world, this may look like another EU boondoggle, but the real story is more complicated.

It started in 1990, when the Belgian government set up a company called Berlaymont 2000 to oversee asbestos removal and renovation. Asbestos work didn't start until 1995 and then took 15 months longer than planned, with workers scraping every nook and cranny of the 200,000-square-meter site.

An even bigger headache was giving the building a facelift in the wake of complaints about lack of sunlight, tiny offices, and poor air-conditioning. Belgian senators Alain Destexe and Vincent Van Quickenborne say that those put in charge of the project were political appointees with no previous experience in construction. They also contend that Berlaymont 2000, 70% owned by the state and 30% by two Belgian banks, is run like a private company rather than a public one subject to transparency requirements. "There is a major problem of accountability," says Destexe.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. When Brussels bought a two-hectare park in the early 1960s to house the newly created European Commission, it had its sights set on something grand. A massive, cross-shaped structure hanging from steel braces, Berlaymont was to be an architectural landmark and the symbol of Europe. Brussels had hoped to unveil the new and improved version shortly after assuming the EU's rotating presidency this July. Instead, a government report foresees completion at the end of 2003.

MOVE BACK. Both the commission and the Belgian government have ordered audits of the project, but it's way too late to repair the damage to their prestige. And the clock keeps ticking. The EC pays nearly $300,000 in rent a year for the empty building, though it gets compensation from the Belgians. And if the EC isn't satisfied with the final result, it has no obligation to move back in. The director of Berlaymont 2000, Henri Vander Eycken, figures that every day of delay costs the Belgian state more than $150,000. Brussels restaurateurs no doubt figure that money could be better spent on haute cuisine.

In the weary early morning hours of the Nice summit last December, France offered Belgium a nugget for agreeing on changes to the EU's decision-making procedures: a pledge to hold one EU summit a year in Brussels beginning in 2002, and all of them when the 15-member union gains three more members. Once the ink dried on the last-minute deal, almost everyone was unhappy. Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt came under fire from Brussels authorities worried about accommodating the normal summit onslaught of 4,000 diplomats and journalists. Given that these meetings can cost more than $10 million, the city is also concerned about cost.

But if Belgium asks for additional EU funding, it runs the risk of igniting war with unhappy member states. Spain insists on hosting two summits in 2002 planned long ago. Some Scandinavian countries fear that allowing all summits to take place in Brussels will give the impression that EU power is concentrated in one place. One diplomat, looking for a way out, says: "We can always hold more informal meetings." And there will be final tinkering before foreign ministers sign the treaty, expected in late February. After all, without such squabbles, would it really be the EU?

By Renee Cordes in Brussels


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