20th Mar 2019

Ashton set to take new office in EU nerve centre

  • The view from the seventh floor of the Hague wing, Ms Ashton's potential new office, with the EU commission headquarters on the right and the Lex building on the far left (Photo: EUobserver)

The EU is in talks to lease the so-called Triangle building in Brussels for its new diplomatic service, with Catherine Ashton's likely new digs to overlook the comings and goings in the EU Council and European Commission.

The commission's talks with the building's owners, the financial services firm Axa, have dragged on for 18 months, but are now "very close to the signature," a contact involved in the process said.

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The commission is expected to lease 50,000 square metres of the 60,000 square metre block for at least 15 years at a cost of around €10 million a year. Ms Ashton's European External Action Service (EEAS) will fill most of the space, with some room left for assorted commission departments. The EU institutions' careers office, Epso, has in a separate contract already leased a 10,000 square metre chunk from July.

If the EEAS is to open up shop on 1 December as planned, Ms Ashton will have to move fast. Axa estimates it would take three to four months to kit out its shell into working offices, not counting special security arrangements for EEAS branches such as the SitCen intelligence-sharing bureau.

Axa is to continue to run parts of the ground floor, installing sandwich shops and cafes. But the shops are to be accessible from the street side only and are even to have separate heating and electrical systems for tax and security reasons.

Foreign ministers visiting the EU external relations chief would enter through a towering hallway that opens onto a leafy atrium full of mingling EU officials.

The finest space and Ms Ashton's likely new office is on the seventh floor of the so-called Hague wing, overlooking the Schuman roundabout, which is also home to the EU Council and the commission, and which sees frequent protests by groups ranging from Belgian old age pensioners to Iranian pro-democracy activists. Another option is the seventh floor of the Luxembourg wing, with views on the Parc du Cinquantenaire.

"This side is much more beautiful. But the other side is better if she likes to oversee where everyone is going," Axa spokeswoman, Sabine Van Depoele, told EUobserver on a recent tour of the building.

"It's important for [Ms Ashton] to have her own premises, so that if she calls a meeting everybody is close to hand, but also to make the right impression when visitors come," an EU official said - the baroness is currently squashed into a corridor on the 12th floor of the commission headquarters.

Unlike the commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, the EU foreign relations chief will not have a rooftop helicopter pad (unless she rips up Axa's solar panels) or an underground tunnel to get to her parking spot.

If she needs to come and go without Chinese and Russian spies seeing, there is an option - a bricked-up pedestrian tunnel running under Avenue De Cortenbergh to the European Commission building, dating back from when the Triangle site was used by commission translators. "It could be opened up. Why not?" Axa real estate manager, Bruno Detollenaere, said.

The Triangle building was constructed with an EU clientele in mind. It conforms with the commission's health and safety code. It has the latest green credentials and its six wings are each named after the capital city of one of the union's six founding countries.

The final plan is a far cry from Axa's original concept, however.

The firm up until one year ago was planning to split the property between the commission, national embassies and private companies. The Dutch and Finnish EU embassies and lobbyist firm Hill and Knowlton got into talks before pulling out after the commission made it clear it did not want to share.

The EU Council's new Lex building and the Charlemagne building, the current home of the commission's foreign relations department, fondly called the Death Star by some EU officials due to its physical resemblance to an evil weapon in the Star Wars films, have also been considered for the EEAS' new home.

Both are located a stone's throw from the Triangle building on the Rue de la Loi. But EU officials' trade unions said the EU Council translators who recently moved into the Lex block are unwilling to budge, while the Death Star is a bit too small. "There is no real alternative [to the Triangle]," another EU official said.

"No decision has yet been taken on where the EEAS will be situated since we are still creating the service and it is a work in progress. It is correct that we will need additional office space since the EEAS is a bigger body than the current external relations directorate of the European Commission," Ms Ashton's spokesman, Darren Ennis, said in an official statement.

"I can categorically tell you that we will not be purchasing a new building. Regarding the additional office space we are currently looking at some options, notably current EU buildings (already leased or being used) and vacant space."

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