Brussels, 10 February 2023
Note to the attention of Mr Johannes Hahn,
Commissioner for Budget and Administration
Subject: Relocation of the executive Agencies to the North Light building in the Brussels Northern District
On the 29th of November, 2022, we requested your intervention to stop the move of the executive Agencies to the North Light building, citing, among other things, the increasing feeling of INSECURITY in the Northern district.
Our request followed the rejection of this option by the staff, expressed through a petition which received several thousands of signatures and the formal opposition of the Directors of the Executive Agencies and of all the parent DGs.
We asked you to intervene in this matter because we were confronted with the usual attitude of the OIB, who pretends not to listen, ridicules and underplays any criticisms expressed, never takes seriously any figures put forward, and imposes and forces its way through, by claiming to have always received your approval.
At the same time, DG HR is clearly incapable of ensuring its role of governance of the Offices.
OIB’s increasingly erratic building policy
The file concerning the relocation of the executive Agencies shows how erratic and short-sighted OIB’s buildings policy is now with decisions that change with the wind!
At present, and without the slightest guarantee that this will not change tomorrow, three Agencies would remain in Covent Garden, where poor working conditions persist, particularly because of the absence of a canteen, disposing of a simple coffee corner, despite OIB’s promises to the CPPT of the executive Agencies to set up at least an upgraded cafeteria, without forgetting the potential nuisances associated with the planned renovation works.
Whereas three other Agencies, also themselves without any guarantee that this will not change tomorrow, are expected to gradually join the North Light building. First of all, REA, already in the second half of the year, while the other two Agencies (ERCEA and EACEA) should follow at the latest in 2024.
In the absence of ANY CREDIBLE response from the OIB regarding our questions about this procedure and the use of the taxpeyers’ money, we are addressing you our questions.
In particular, we would like to ask you for an answer to the following questions that we are entitled to ask:
- 1. Concerning the procedure which led to the choice of the North Light
Has a property prospecting notice been published? In such a case, what was the outcome and what other options were discarded and why?
- 2. Concerning the referral of the “comité immobilier”
Was the matter referred to this committee? In such a case, what was its opinion?
- 3. Concerning the respect of the budgetary procedure provided for in the second paragraph of Article 266 of the Financial Regulation 1
Have the European Parliament and the Council been informed in advance before carrying out the market prospection for this building? In such a case, what was their answer?
- 4. Concerning the PRICES per m² of this building compared to those in the European district
While this move has always been justified by OIB for economic reasons, it would be absolutely unacceptable for this choice to have been made when the price per m² of the above-ground surface area for the North Light building, far from being much lower, would, on the contrary, be MUCH HIGHER than other buildings in the European District, even those newly built such as “The One”.
In such a case, how can such a use of European taxpayers’ money be justified also before the budgetary authority?
Could we get a clear answer in this regard?
- 5. What about 2028 onwards, i.e. at the end of the current mandate of the executive Agencies?
In order to conclude the property procedure, the Directors of the executive Agencies must sign SLAs with the Commission.
If the legal basis invoked were to be Article 50a2 of the Financial Regulation applicable to the Agencies, the management boards and the Directors of the Agencies would become fully responsible for the building procedure submitted to the Budgetary Authority and thus for the choice of building, instead of simply signing an SLA with the Commission.
According to the information available, OIB is proposing a 15 year-contract for the North Light, the current Directors of the Agencies – if they were to be willing to do so – will be able to commit themselves only until the end of the current term of office i.e., until 2028.
Under these circumstances, how could the Commission manage the situation if the future Directors of the Agencies were to be less obedient to the demands of the OIB and/or more respectful of the interests of their staff, by refusing to sign a new SLA to continue to occupy the North Light, to look for another building cheaper and better located?
In such a context, rather than addressing absolutely justified concerns about the security of our colleagues, OIB set up an “one man show” with Pascal Smet… completely missing the point.
Indeed, on the 23rd of January, following the OIB’s invitation, Pascal Smet, State Secretary for mobility and public works at the Brussels-Capital Region, responsible also for urbanisation and the city planning, rather than responding clearly to the concerns and worries about the security of the district, which had been actually included in all the questions sent to him, he presented the urban development plans in this district, which should be carried out between 2025 and 2027, while confirming that the works could be delayed and completed only within 5 to 10 years.
During this true “one man show”, Pascal Smet praised the advantages of a huge plan to revitalise a neighborhood left behind for years whose security concerns have been repeatedly denounced for years.
Without blushing, he came to indicate how much the executive Agencies’ colleagues were lucky to be part of this wonderful adventure (sic!), colleagues who should be delighted to be able to have dinner one day in high-end restaurants and to celebrate on the beautiful rooftops that are to be built in the new neighborhood, thus helping to strengthen a stereotype completely far from the reality of the staff of the Agencies, but nevertheless useful when fueling populism.
To our even greater astonishment, rather than reiterating the criticism linked to the move, primarily for the safety and security of their staff, and rather than taking offence at what Mr Smet had said, some of the agency Directors disguised themselves as “apprentice real estate agents”.
Indeed, they aligned themselves with this “Open Doors” session, fit for BATIBOUW, by even proposing to contribute personally to this wonderful project!
As if this were not enough to elicit the fair anger of our colleagues, in response to the objections and questions put to him by the staff representatives, instead of providing the necessary reassurances, Mr Smet trivialized the security concerns by arguing, for example, that the staff should not be afraid from the drug dealers who operate in the neighborhood, because in his opinion “Generally, a drug dealer will avoid problems. A drug dealer will not attack someone, because if he attacks someone he is bringing his business in danger” (sic!).
However, as everyone can easily understand without the need to be a specialist in crime and urban safety issues, the situation is quite different.
As the inhabitants of the Northern district denounce:
“We are not escaping the threat of groups of dealers, the aggressiveness of some ill-intentioned people and even attempted theft. We are afraid of becoming collateral victims of an account settlement”.
THE STAFF OF THE EU INSTITUTIONS BRANDED AS DRUG ADDICT!
But that is not all. There are also absolutely intolerable insults which require a very firm response on your part.
Indeed, as if his words were still not enough to amplify the anger of our colleagues and their representatives, Pascal Smet got carried away by making absolutely outrageous remarks about the European civil service by stating that, with regard to our staff in general, the fears expressed about security and criminality in this area were inadmissible since as he mentioned “I think a lot of people working for the European Institutions take drugs.” (sic!)… without forgetting to specify that “in Schuman they are dealing drugs too. And probably not the same drugs they are dealing there, but probably a little bit whiter” (sic!).
To our great astonishment, the colleagues organising the meeting, probably still under the fascination of the presentation of the building project, did not dare to ask him to immediately withdraw such outrageous remarks and apologize, instead they continued to manage the meeting as if nothing had happened.
Unsurprisingly, we have been overwhelmed by complaints from colleagues who have been outraged by these intolerable statements calling for our intervention to ensure that the honor and reputation of our staff are properly restored.
In these circumstances, it is for you as the guarantor of our European civil service that we now turn, to ask Pascal Smet to withdraw his insulting words or, to say the least, his provocations that are absolutely unacceptable and to apologize to the staff without further delay!
“Who is actually in charge of what?”
Both the conduct of the meeting and the complete silence reserved to the insults by Mr Smet, but also the organisation of a meeting to “sell” the future building project for this district within 10 years, instead of addressing the question of SECURITY NOW, gave the impression that OIB is completely unable in its negotiations with the Belgian authorities, to defend the rights, expectations and even the reputation of our staff, which leads us to ask for your intervention again.
During the meeting with Pascal Smet, it became clear that the OIB does not seem to fully understand the undeniable difference between cases – where, based on an “accord de siège” or as in the case of the European Schools – the Member State concerned, being sole responsible for providing the buildings, can legitimately try to direct its choices also with a view to upgrading a disadvantaged area, and situations such as this move, where the institution is and must always remain the sole master of its choices, choices that must comply with the relevant procedures and principles, starting with the need to protect the health, safety and security of its staff.
The health safety and security of our staff must be the first priority of our institution and must be at the heart of all its decisions!
What is even worse, in the context of this dossier, is that the OIB has accused staff representatives of artificially dramatizing the security concerns, which are undeniable, and even of making irresponsible comments, creating an unjustified climate of fear among staff.
It is important to remember that the dramatic deterioration of security conditions in the Northern district is no longer in question and has been denounced for years without any real change, and despite the various promises that the situation would be improved, the problem is still far from being resolved.
Our colleagues have drawn our attention to the following points that we then submit to you.
All parts, denounce that criminal offences, incivilities, nuisances and other more or less problematic situations are caused by the drug trafficking and thefts are multiplying in this very densely populated neighborhood that was already characterized by rather decreased cleanliness, presence of construction sites (Metro) and also by prostitution.
The Brussels Public Prosecutor and the Chief of Police of the Brussels-North police zone:
Confirmed just few days ago that : “Given the wide range of problems present in the North Station area, such as wandering people with different residency statuses, people suffering from addiction and mental health problems, squatted buildings, the wide availability of psychotropic substances, tailor-made approaches are necessary” 3 .
Recently published statistics confirmed that police officers are victims of 13,000 attacks per year, i.e., 35 per day.
The inhabitants of this district 4 :
Confirmed just few weeks ago “that verbal and physical violence is pervasive, violent clashes occur every night and insults and intimidation are common”.
The inhabitants live “in insecurity and are frightened to confront criminal gangs who are operating in the streets and seeking to have the control over the district. Neighbours are facing the inertia of public authorities. The associations experience insecurity, as much during the day as during the evening”.
The result is: “a neighborhood deserted of passing human presence, without any more social life »
In turn, the three mayors concerned have already denounced “Local police actions that have had no results” 5 :
Under these circumstances, the three mayors concerned are now “disclaiming any liability for any damage which might be caused by third parties’, confirming that “the Federal State will be held liable for any damage which might result from that harmful situation”.
BNP Paribas Fortis had come to the point of having its staff escorted by a BODYGUARD every day of the week from 8pm to 10pm to the station! 6
This extreme measure was necessary in order to alleviate “the growing feeling of insecurity in the Northern district also affects the staff of BNP Paribas Fortis offices located in this district.” and that “This applies in particular to employees working until late hours.”
It is of course needless to point out that this will be absolutely the case for our colleagues in the executive Agencies too, with many female colleagues who have to carry their laptop every day and thus become ideal targets.
It is absolutely astonishing that, during the meeting with Pascal Smet, the Director of the OIB omitted to mention the decision of BNP Paribas Fortis of October 2021, referring instead to the similar measures adopted 10 YEARS AGO by ENGIE, claiming that a few weeks after their introduction the fears for the security of the staff had proved unfounded!
For all these reasons, we would kindly ask you to please stop right now the building procedure for this relocation so that alternative solutions may still be explored in less expensive and better located buildings!
It should not be forgotten that the management of this unacceptable relocation takes place in an already tense climate in which social dialogue has so far failed to address the crucial issues relating to the continuous increase in workload, the substantial reduction in staffing levels for some Agencies and the lack of prospects for career development.
This is why we call on you to quickly and urgently act in the interest of the staff of the Agencies and to ensure that social dialogue can resume in a calm and constructive climate.
There is an urgent need to confirm with clear actions and decisions, and not with empty slogans, that executive agency staff is not a second-class staff!
Given the importance of the issues at stake we request an urgent meeting with you.
The Common Front,
C. Sebastiani / R.Trujillo, Alliance
E. Lieber, Generation 2004
N. Mavraganis, USF
G. Vlandas / H. Conefrey, RS- U4U/USHU
Mr. D. MULLER, Head of Cabinet Hahn
Ms. S. BIKAR, Member of Cabinet Hahn
Ms. G. INGESTAD, Director-General – Human Resources and Security
Ms S. BEERNAERTS, acting Director – Directorate of EACEA
Ms. L. MOREAU, Director – Directorate of ERCEA
Mr. J-D. MALO, Director – Directorate of EISMEA
Ms. M. ZANCHI, Director – Directorate of HaDEA
Mr. M. TACHELET, Director – Directorate of REA
Ms. P. ABA GARROTE, acting Director – Directorate of CINEA
Mr. M. BECQUET, Director of Office / Head of Department – Office for Infrastructure and Logistics in Brussels
Parent DGs and Staff
1 « For any building project likely to have significant financial implications for the budget, the Union institution concerned shall inform the European Parliament and the Council as early as possible, and in any case before any prospecting of the local market takes place, in the case of building contracts, or before invitations to tender are issued, in the case of building works, about the building surface area required and the provisional planning. »
2. « The Management Board shall, as soon as possible, notify the budgetary authority of its intention to implement any project which may have significant financial implications for the funding of the Agency’s budget, in particular any projects relating to property such as the rental or purchase of buildings. It shall inform the Commission thereof. »
3 Quartier de la gare du Nord : la zone de police et le parquet vont intensifier leur collaboration – BX1
4 Les violences explosent dans le quartier Nord à Bruxelles (carte blanche) (levif.be)
5 Insécurité dans le quartier Nord: trois bourgmestres menacent de réquisitionner la police fédérale (levif.be)
6 Insécurité dans le Quartier Nord : le personnel de BNP Paribas Fortis escorté par un garde du corps – BX1