While I was in Belgium in 2012, I paid a visit to the European Parliament. Now I'm as sceptical about The Project as the next man, as long as the next man is Bob Crow, but even I was shocked by what I saw inside the belly of the beast. Here is my Brussels diary:
There is a dirty sexy secret lurking alongside the dull and respectable facade of the European Union. Two hotels in easy walking distance of the Brussels Parliament provide short-term rooms to rent for grubby encounters. It costs £21 to hire a room for two hours in Studio Intime in Parnassusstraat – and nobody books one to sleep. Inside the air is heavily perfumed and cupids adorn the walls; outside the canopy is blue with yellow stars mirroring the European Union flag. The two establishments known locally as "fuck hotels" are used largely by EU staff for afternoon delights. Over an hour long period, I watched three couples leave and walk back to work in the lavish Parliamentary building less than fifty yards away. Studio Intime is open about its purposes, advertising its services as providing "rendezvous rooms in Brussels... totally intimate." Nine different rooms are available from 9am until midnight. The ad promises "complete discretion, impeccable rooms with showers".
These fuck hotels are an open secret within Parliament. But when you consider the many official perks on offer here you might conclude that tax-payers are the ones getting properly screwed. The children of EU civil servants get free private education, they pay tax at special low rates and they get preferential mortgage rates from banks. The first car they buy is VAT free. Staff can smoke in their offices and bars, where the booze, like the coffee and the high-quality canteen food is subsidised. Half a lager costs you £1 and you can have it for breakfast. The Parliament has a brand new massage parlour, a state of the arts gym, and two saunas. The masseuse is Melody Fortuna, a beautician whose tasteful promotional picture features her naked bathing in milk she has poured from a stein: . Despite the beauty treatment studio being called "POKEuroparl", there is no suggestion that anything underhand is available here. But has milk ever looked sexier? Talk about Watch out there's a Hump about...
The Brussels Parliament is bigger than the grandest Las Vegas hotel, but depressingly soulless; the labyrinthine nature of the building perhaps mirroring the baffling complexity of the institution. Inside, the carpets, like the corridor walls, are uniformly as grey as a ghost. The building's nine bars appear to be thriving though. At 3pm on a Monday I watched a merry group of eight demolish several bottles of champagne. They were interpreters, all on a little under 1,000 Euros a day. In the EU, you get to say "Cheers!" in twenty-three different languages...
The gender imbalance is hard to avoid. Civil service figures reveal that 80 per cent of the younger staff are female, while 70 per cent of the oldest are male. The atmosphere is sexually charged and affairs are rife. "Conversation is how much they get paid and how they get laid," shrugs a cynical barman. In the EU's second seat, in Strasbourg, open smoking in the MEPs' bar is allowed. In Brussels, smokers are supposed to use smoking shelters, which are sited bizarrely inside and are wide open, so that the smoke drifts out anyway. But MEPs who choose to light up at the tables instead go unpunished.
My investigation unearthed a staggering catalogue of waste, privilege, and double standards. More than 1,000 EU officials earn more than David Cameron, who is on £142,000 a year. Civil servants are big earners too. Those in the highest pay grade take home more in a month – £15,482 - than a British nurse earns in a year. Four in every ten are on more than £70K a year – for working a 37 hour week. In Britain, the MPs expenses scandal shocked the nation; but MEPs have it much easier. They don't need to claim expenses, they all receive a monthly allowance of just over £3,000 – no receipts required. There are 754 MEPs who in addition to their hefty salaries get £237 a day just for signing in; many sign in and disappear. "No-one ever checks," one tells me. They have chauffeur-driven limousines laid on for them at a cost of £4.25million a year; all drivers sign a confidentiality clause "guaranteeing absolute discretion." It's unclear where they are taking them however because, as debates on YouTube show, the chamber is usually empty. The only place you will see it full is in filmed footage inside the recently opened Parliamentarium – a plush visitors' centre built at a cost of £18million which is devoted to plugging the EU. The centre is as bizarre as it is deserted. One wall, more than 100 yards long, is covered in historical pictures which bafflingly include minor British pop stars Sigue Sigue Sputnik. Another long wall displays head-shots of MEPs. A third room boats an array of furniture and flat film footage of the sea and various citizens. It's like Armchair Theatre for the lobotomised. But on the plus side, visiting school-kids do get the chance to role-play at being MEPs.
The EU has also given the go-head for a House Of European History at a cost of £137million to "promote an awareness of European identity." Its history will begin in 1946 so it does not include World War Two – known here as "the European Civil War." They don't want to upset the Germans.
The Eurozone crisis may be sparking chaos across southern Europe but in the EU the spending never stops. Arguably the biggest waste is Strasbourg. Each month staff and MEPs pack up and commute to eastern France. This "travelling circus" costs £135million a year. But the arrangement, thought up to symbolise French-German friendship, brings so much money into Strasbourg the French won't allow it to stop. The third seat in Luxembourg has two debating chambers that have never been used and more than 3,000 permanent staff. Their new HQ, with sports facilities and a swimming pool, cost £716million to build.
While the EU lectures member states about austerity and cutting their budgets, they're merrily raising theirs. The thought of economising never seems to cross their minds. When van Rompuy and Commission President José Barroso flew to China last year, they went in separate jets. This place is the biggest organised racket since the Kray Twins – and vastly more lucrative. But sensitive to mounting criticism, the EU pays news agency AFB to pump out pro-EU propaganda. In 2008, they also launched a European parliament TV channel which costs £7million a year to run and has 830 viewers a day. The total cost of pro-EU propaganda is £2.02 billion per year, according to research by reform group New Direction. The BBC has benefited from low interest loans from the European Investment Bank. And the EU look after their own. Two British MEPs who lost their seats in 2009 were given jobs working for van Rompuy. The EU also gifts money to professors to undertake 'research on the EU'; many of these Jean Monnet professors teach European studies at UK universities. Their classes are of course uncritical.
THE European Commission, a short walk from the Parliament, is the real seat of power. 5,000 laws a year are passed but only one in five appears before MEPs, the rest go through as directives and decrees. This allows critics, like UKIP MEP Paul Nuttall, to write off the Parliament as "a democratic facade, a confidence trick." It's a hard charge to argue with. Article 17, paragraph 2 states that the Commission has the sole right of legislative proposal. If MEPs make amendments, the Commission has the power to insist on a unanimous decision... Yet rules and regulations don't seem to apply to the EU themselves. Despite passing laws to force down greenhouse gas emissions, they ignore the fact that travelling to Strasbourg creates an extra 18,884 tonnes of CO2 per year. Similarly despite their energy saving policies, the large neon sign on the Paliamentarium building is left on all night, even though there is no-one to see it and no passing traffic. More disturbing is the revelation that Eurocrats are breeding. It is estimated that around one in eight civil servants are second generation, a small but rising number are third generation. They are becoming a hereditary class. "It's the death of democracy – at your expense," says Nuttall. "EU membership costs the British tax-payer £50million per day. If people knew what was going on here, they would be up in arms." If you support a British referendum on EU membership, sign up here.
There is another, dearer 'fuck hotel' called the Treviso on Place Stephanie which is used by the more well-heeled Eurocrats. This one rents out its rather more glamorous, brothel-style rooms at a hefty £66 an hour. Its promotional material tempts would be adulterers with a promise of "room service and discretion assured." Anne De Schepper, the hotel's manager, said that EU officials prefer to book out rooms over their long lunch breaks. "Eurocrats are 80 per cent of our business," she revealed. "We are busiest at lunch time, followed by early evening in between the end of office hours and the time people need to get back to their homes." She added: "Unlike the traditional hotel industry, we have not experienced the economic crisis thanks largely to the Europeans in Brussels."
Euro Facts: EU security bosses recently issued a memo warning that middle-aged Eurocrat adulterers were being targeted by Mata Hari style interns who were said to be trading sex for EU secrets. They said they were easy prey for the "pretty trainee with the long legs and the blonde hair."
Reports by the Parliament's internal auditor leaked last year revealed that EU staff are allowed to authorise their own expenses and pay allowances to family members. The auditor, British accountant Robert Galvin, found serious problems with the way "personal entitlements" and perks, worth more than £81 million a year, are being paid to civil servants. His investigation, kept secret from most MEPs, revealed multiple examples of officials being paid twice for the same thing or claiming allowances they were not entitled over a three year period. Cash is paid without proof of "eligibility of costs" or any proper audit checks that the money is spent properly. Rule-breaking is common. The reports also found "critical" irregularities and conflicts of interest concerning procurement contracts worth more than £600 million a year. Marta Andreasen, the former whistle-blowing European Commission chief accountant, said: "The parliament's bureaucracy operates with a total lack of transparency, which is how it gets away with these irregularities."
Euro Stats: Total number of staff employed by EU: 6684. Of whom, 5540 are civil servants, 129 are temps and 1015 work for political groups.