EU parliament's fading welcome
By Peter Teffer
Two years ago on Friday (7 October) a group of Kurdish protesters stormed the Brussels building of the European Parliament, overwhelming security forces and raising questions about the institution's safety.
The Kurdish protest was peaceful, but MEPs wondered: what if they had had guns?
Efforts to prevent such a scenario, have led to a situation where the only EU body with directly elected members gives the least inviting welcome of the three major EU institutions.
Following the incident, the parliament decided to beef up security. The Paris attack on the Charlie Hebdo office in January 2015 reinforced the feeling of necessity.
But while the original Kurdish activists said around 150 of them had stormed the building and between 50 and 60 managed got in, their mythical numbers had swollen eight months later during the parliament committee debate about the building's security.
“Three hundred Kurdish demonstrators managed to burst through the doors because the doors couldn't withstand the physical pressure of their charge”, German centre-right MEP Monika Hohlmeier said.
And while Hohlmeier said the new security strategy was “not meant to look like we are all barricaded in”, visitors cannot help but feel like a fortress-like entrance is exactly what has been built.
Anyone regularly visiting the buildings of the European Parliament, the European Commission, and the EU Council – where member states meet – will notice that the security screening in the parliament is most tight, but also the most fickle.
The past year, this reporter has noticed security requirements changing sometimes overnight.
In February for example, security officers asked to take off a jacket, but the next day did not.
In April this reporter was suddenly asked to take off a belt for the first time – even though the metal detector did not detect it – but it was not until two months later that guards started requesting this more regularly.
“Even if it doesn't make a sound, we are instructed to ask you to take off your belt,” one of the guards said.
However, some of his colleagues were less cooperative when asked why one had to take off a belt that was not registered by the detector.
“I can explain why, but I don't want to”, he said.
Then, in September, a guard asked to remove the laptop's sleeve, before it went through the screening.
You seem to come up with new requirements every day, the journalist noted.
“No, it's always been like this since I've been here”, the response was.
But the next days the laptop was allowed to enter hidden in its sleeve.
There are good reasons for the parliament to have the most tight security of the three institutions. Once you are in, you can roam freely in the entire building, unlike in the commission and council.
But the issue is broader than just the negative effect the parliament's security screening has on the author's mood.
The inconsistency means either of the following two.
One: laptop sleeves and belts are indeed a potential terrorist hazards, but there is a large chance you can get them through security unnoticed.
Two: the items are harmless, but visitors to the parliament are unnecessarily bothered to create a false sense of security, which leads to needlessly long queues.
A recent busy day saw the wait taking 4.5 minutes. If you multiply that by the number of visitors to the parliament – sometimes as much as 10,000 – there is a massive loss of efficiency and potential labour activity.
The EU parliament, like other institutions and most member states, has been convinced by the security frame.
Take the banners one can see in the hallway, nudging employees to wear their identification badge.
“For your own safety, wear your badge at all times when on Parliament premises”, the text says.
But this is a logical fallacy.
Someone's objective safety is not linked to the parameter of wearing a badge or not – unless security guards have the mandate to shoot those without a badge.
The only difference is that others may feel more safe when everyone around them wears badges.
This sense of security may also improve for those who are reassured by uniforms.
The institutions, later this month, are set to approve the employment of 35 additional security agents in the European Parliament, because "recent terror attacks have led the Union institutions to review their security needs".
Let's hope that the increase in staff also leads to an increase in efficiency and coordination.