Ashton favours 'Lex' building for new headquarters
EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton is keen to house her new diplomatic corps in the so-called Lex building on Rue de la Loi in the EU quarter in Brussels.
The change of mind comes after months of talks with Belgium's Axa insurance group on the potential lease of its Triangle building, a few hundred metres up the road from Lex on the Schuman roundabout.
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Lex would be much cheaper than the €10-million-a-year Axa deal because the EU Council effectively owns the block and could lease it to the European External Action Service (EEAS) on sweetheart terms, a contact in the EU institutions said. Lex also has higher security specifications than the Triangle, the contact added.
The current home of the European Commission's foreign relations department (Relex), the Charlemagne building on Rue de la Loi, has been discarded as an option partly for image reasons.
"People would see it [the EEAS] as a kind of Relex-plus. But it's a unique, stand-alone institution," the contact said.
Time is ticking for Ms Ashton's self-imposed deadline to get the EEAS up and running by 1 December.
The Axa negotiators received the surprise news just last Thursday (16 September) at an advanced stage in the negotiations. And it is unclear whether senior EU Council management will back the Lex idea.
Lex currently houses Council translators and lawyers. "Member States would then have to give the Council an increased budget to enable it to rent accommodation for its translators. At present, the order of the day is budget cuts not increases," a source in the EU Council administration said. "Our management admits that they were asked to entertain the theoretical possibility, but that they had replied in no uncertain terms that they did not want to give up the Lex building."
The Brussels-based architects' firm, Jaspers-Eyers & Partners, built Lex between 2003 and 2006 for Belgian bank Dexia and the Belgian real-estate firm Immobel, which later sold the building to the EU.
Covering 15 floors and 84,674 square metres, the glass-fronted structure is said to be liked by Ms Ashton for its modern, open-plan office design and conference facilities. The building also has an underground tunnel connecting it to the commission's Berlaymont headquarters across the road and the main EU Council premises, the Justus Lipsius building, next door.
With senior EEAS personnel cleared to have access to documents up to "EU TOP SECRET" level, security is a major concern.
"Your keyboard, your computer monitor, all give off radiation. I could sit across the street, 500 metres away, and with the right equipment I could read what's on your screen and what is being typed," a security specialist in the EU Council said.