£576,000 office renovations will save taxpayers money, EU official insists
A vice-president of the European parliament is facing questions after it was revealed he had spent nearly €690,000 (£576,000) on lavish office renovations.
Rainer Wieland, a Christian Democrat MEP from Germany, spent €486,011 on a state-of-the-art office and €134,774 “showroom” next door, both built from scratch on the 15th floor of the European parliament in Brussels, according to a leaked report seen by the Guardian.
The “showroom” – that Wieland said was a meeting room that can be used by anyone in the parliament – is equipped with top-range IT equipment, including €42,722 transcription tools and a €26,482 videoconferencing system.
The final bill could be even higher if the MEP goes ahead with plans for a €49,864 mobile studio.
Wieland oversees the internal management of the European parliament’s buildings and was testing a new office set-up he called an “idea laboratory” to see what features could be extended to all 705 members. “The institution will be able to act in a financially responsible manner, as features that could originally seem useful, but during testing would be ruled out, would not be acquired by the institution,” states an internal report drafted by senior administrators seen by the Guardian.
But the staggering costs have rung alarm bells. In order to build the new office, Wieland spent nearly €35,000 demolishing the existing space, dismantling two existing bathrooms, pipes and ventilation systems, as well as windowsills, partitions and false ceilings. His new office was equipped with bespoke doors costing €25,000, a separate sliding door at €14,810 and €57,948-worth of built-in furniture, including a kitchenette with appliances.
Inside the office, partitions costing €33,619 change from translucent to opaque at the flick of a switch. Doors are sealed with electronic locks costing €10,968. The “showroom” is equipped with a wall of monitors, a €3,500 table and a €25,000 ceiling light that looks like a window. “It’s nice, this kind of light is very pleasant, it’s also very, very expensive,” said Daniel Freund, a German Green MEP, who is responsible for overseeing the parliament’s 2020 spending. He said he feared the revelations would damage the image of the European parliament.
“Looking at this from the perspective of a budget controller, I find it very difficult to justify that kind of expense to the EU taxpayer. I am conscious as well these are bad stereotypes, that there is a perception that the European parliament is expensive … We need to be very conscious of how we spend taxpayer money and this project is not a great example of that.”
Freund is also concerned that the plans appeared to have been waved through by senior MEPs, with no fixed budget or tracking of costs. “There has never been a dedicated budget and no budget oversight,” he said.
“I want to make sure that the money is spent according to the rules, so that needs to be clarified now with the administration … or the rules need to be changed to make sure projects of this size have proper accountability.”
The spending is likely to raise eyebrows among EU member governments, who regularly complain that the parliament demands too much money for unjustified projects.
MEPs have offices in Brussels and Strasbourg, which were renovated at a cost of €17.6m in 2019 to update IT and replace furniture. They can also claim expenses for a work space in their constituency.
Speaking to the Guardian, Wieland said the project would save taxpayers money. “This is an idea lab where we test ideas, whether they are useful, usable – and we want to think out of the box … I am deeply convinced that testing costs money, but not testing costs also money and sometimes even more.”
He added: “Most of the costs which are at stake are behind the walls and it’s not a luxury.” Each MEP’s Brussels office is equipped with a toilet and shower, which Wieland said was “an anachronism” that required staff to run water for 10 minutes every fortnight to prevent legionella.
He rejected the term “showroom” from the internal report as misleading, describing the space as “a multifunctional meeting room” that can be used by all MEPs and staffers.
He said the parliament had a shortage of medium-sized meeting rooms, adding that such a room may not be on every floor in the future, “because if we test it we also test how strong is the need”.
Sources close to the MEP disputed suggestions that the IT equipment should be included in the total costs, claiming that the licences for the videoconferencing system and transcription technology covered the whole parliament.
Wieland, who is bidding to be re-elected as a vice-president next week, also defended other elements of the project, saying: “We believe that normal keys are not appropriate any more, [in case] keys are lost.” The €25,000 light fixture was necessary, he said: “If you have high-quality cameras for high-quality communication, then you need high-quality lights.”
A spokesperson for the European parliament said a test for an “innovative architectural concept for MEPs offices” had taken place in 2020, adding the size of the project had not allowed for any economies of scale. “After finalisation, evaluations will be carried out whether it would make sense to envisage some of the new features for other offices. Any decision would need the approval by the political and budgetary authorities of the EP.”