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19th Jan 2020

EU parliament staff object to canteen price hikes

  • 'You have the same quality for a 20% higher price' (Photo: European Parliament)

People carrying trays with food, manoeuvering around tables of seated eaters, looking for a place to sit themselves or perhaps trying to recognise a colleague between the rows of men and women.

In many ways, the European Parliament's self-service restaurant in Brussels resembles any regular company canteen. The EP is not only an institution of the European Union, but it is also a workplace for around 8,000 people – and they also need to eat.

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  • The 2013 deficit for the catering service, which the EP settles, was €3.5mn (Photo: European Parliament)

One difference with the average company canteen may be the cacophony of languages that can be distilled from the eating crowd.

But otherwise, many of the patrons of the restaurant reacted in exactly the same way as any employee would when the supplier of their daily lunch changed at the end of September. They complained.

“You have the same quality for a 20 percent higher price”, said one of three assistants to the European Parliament's largest political group, the centre-right EPP.

The employees were standing outside the EP's self-service restaurant in Brussels on Friday (16 October) and were happy to share their grievances about Eurest, the company that took over the restaurant after it won the open tender from competitor Sodexo, which had supplied the parliament with food for over thirty years.

“They don't showcase the food any more”, as the previous company used to do with the meals that were available that day. “You have to go to the front of each queue to see if that meal looks good, and then go back to the end of the queue of the meal of your choice.”

While Eurest publishes the options available on several screens, the young assistants complained “it's all in French”.

But the biggest grievance is about the price hikes. While the previous supplier offered several hot meals for €5, on Friday, only one meal was available for that price (breaded plaice fillet with cheese, dill, cucumber and potatoes).

The daily vegetarian meal is now €6.95. A meal called “balanced choices” (a lamb burger this Friday) was €5.95. In the first week, a piece of bread was €1 – this price has since been halved.

'Astronomical prices'

The culinary upheaval was not limited to hallway gossip, but reached its way to a debate in the Committee on Budgetary Control on Thursday (15 October).

Centre-right German MEP Markus Pieper said the canteen was a “chagrin” and said especially interns and assistants were complaining about the “astronomical prices”.

“I can definitely agree with them. Things have gone out of control”, Pieper said.

The EP's secretary general, Klause Welle, told Pieper that there “are excesses in certain areas that need to be corrected” and that he was having discussions with Eurest.

However, the change follows a June 2013 decision by the parliament's administrative body to implement a “new canteen strategy”.

The Bureau of the EP, which consists of president Martin Schulz and fourteen vice-presidents (divided among political groups by size), decided to aim for “the significant reduction of the financial burden to the institution through a new type of contract and better resource effectiveness”.

Subsidies

Welle reminded MEPs that they had decided to stop subsidising the canteen, noting that costs for European taxpayers had been on the rise for several years and reach around €3 million a year. In 2013, the deficit for the catering service, which the EP settles, was €3.5 million.

“We don't want to have a subsidised system... We had been asked to phase out these subsidies and that is what we have in the new model”, said Welle.

In their annual discharge, the signing off of the previous year's budget, the EP said it “is surprised that an increase of customers by around 150% during the period 2002 to 2011 didn’t provide the opportunity for a balanced financial situation”.

However, the discharge, which was adopted in April 2015 well before the current controversy, also showed that the complaints about the food prices was nothing new.

The MEPs wrote that “the substantial increase in the prices of the menus offered has not been accompanied by any improvement in either quality or variety, which, on the contrary, have deteriorated considerably”.

In times of austerity, it was politically difficult for the EP to maintain subsidising their canteen with taxpayer money.

On the other hand, one of the restaurant's visitors told this website that a lot of companies pitch in to keep prices in the canteen low.

“It saves me maybe 40 minutes over going outside for a meal. As employer, you ensure that your employee can work more for you”, he said.

Outside of the parliament building however, prices can be even higher. Most of the restaurants around the Place du Luxembourg serve meals that start at €10.

New options coming soon

But the situation within the EP's walls is expected to improve.

In a document prepared for Thursday's committee meeting, the EP's secretariat wrote that the new catering contracts “do not any longer foresee exclusivity for one catering provider”.

It said it expects that two sandwich bars elsewhere in the building “will be operated by small or medium-sized local providers on the basis of concessions”.

In addition, 2016 will also see the opening of two new catering providers, “one inspired by an offer based on bio/fair-trade products and one inspired by Mediterranean cuisine”.

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