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European Commission to close half its buildings in Brussels by 2030

An aerial view of the European Quarter in Brussels. (BELGA PHOTO THIERRY ROGE)
09:05 28/04/2021

The European Commission says it wants to halve the number of buildings it manages in Brussels by 2030, from 50 to 25.

The buildings they intend to stop using are mainly those outside the European quarter. The plan appears to be to concentrate operations on and around Rue de la Loi, and in the area close to Parc du Cinquantenaire while abandoning existing Commission locations at Rue de Génève, Beaulieu and Champ de Mars. The non-EU quarter location at Place Charles Rogier will remain open.

According to reports, the Commission will begin the consolidation of its operations as early as this year.

The plan will reduce the amount of office space the Commission uses from 780,000m² down to 580,000 and, according to the Francophone newspaper l’Echo, will save the Commission between €280 and €440 million.

The European Commission's desire to streamline its real estate portfolio in Brussels is nothing new. In 2007, there was already talk of concentrating activity around Schuman and at a maximum of three other sites, moving the majority of its activities into several larger buildings.

It now appears that the coronavirus crisis and the effects it has had on the way people work has added increased momentum to these plans.

Since the first round of restrictions, which came into force in March 2020, a majority of Commission employees have worked from home, and that is unlikely to change any time soon. In the Commission’s new human resources strategy, which has not yet been finalised, it is foreseen that large numbers of employees will continue to telework beyond the end of the health crisis.

Like many companies, the Commission will adopt the "flex desk" concept which could see the removal of 20% of workstations. There will be no more dedicated offices and employees will work from shared and flexible spaces.

"The Commission estimates that telework could be sustainable by at about 40%,” said Alain Hutchinson, the Brussels government's Commissioner for Europe, in charge of the liaison between the capital region and the institutions. “It means they go to work for three days, and they work two days at home. From week to week, it could vary."

The Commission itself has yet to officially confirm the plan to halve the number of occupied buildings or to leave its satellite sites by 2030, mainly due to the ongoing work to finalise its new human resources strategy. However, a statement released by the Commission did suggest changes were afoot.

"The Commission is constantly adapting its real estate policy to new realities and needs,” a spokesperson said. “The Commission strives to establish a green, digital and modern administration that provides staff with a good working environment. The real estate policy will consider the impact of Covid-19 with a wider and more widespread use of telecommuting and the objectives of the European Green Deal in order to reduce its carbon footprint."

Pascal Smet, the Brussels secretary of state responsible for European relations, told l’Echo that he is “perfectly aware of what is going on” and that a meeting with the European commissioner in charge, Brussels minister-president Rudi Vervoort and himself will take place in the coming weeks to discuss the proposed plans.

While an estimated 40% of Commission staff could continue to work from home, there will still be a need for buildings to house those who will work in the flexible office spaces in and around the European Quarter and to accommodate those who will transfer from the closed locations. The Commission, in line with its own Green Deal environmental policy, is already looking into replacing low-energy buildings with newer buildings with the highest standards of energy performance.

These buildings are mostly located in the European quarter. Recent examples include the offices of the Copernicus building at the intersection between Rue de la Loi and Rue de la Science, which have just been leased to the European Commission for 20 years, or The One Tower on Rue Jacques de Lalaing.

More offices are expected to be built soon, such as the 128-metre-high Realex Tower. Next to The One, the tower is expected to house the Commission’s conference centre. There is also the Loi 130 project, which will combine more offices with restaurants, shops, public spaces and green areas.

All this could mean the speeding up of the controversial Master Development Plan (PAD), which is intended to allow the construction of taller buildings in the European district. It is a strategy that has not been fully implemented so far, not least because of the urban planning delays of the Brussels region, but it is far from being abandoned. Now, with the Commission seemingly planning to move out of all its satellite sites by 2030, it could mean that high-rise development projects could start making progress very quickly.

However, people living around the areas where new Commission buildings will be built in the city centre are concerned about the impact the consolidation of EU activities in their neighbourhoods will have.  

"If you want things to change, you don't need more square metres of office space,” argued Marco Schmitt, the president of the Association Quartier Leopold. “We have to think more generally, with so many empty rental spaces elsewhere.  And there’s not only a functional mix to be considered in these neighbourhoods, the buildings, but also the social mix, the residents that live there.”

In addition, news of the proposed Commission plan has caused concern in the communities where EU locations will close, especially among those businesses which provide services to those who work there – at least at a time before the pandemic caused a suspension of their operations. Restaurants, cafés, and hairdressers who served Commission staff will see a huge reduction in clientele should the sites outside of the European quarter be closed. Once the health restrictions are lifted and businesses can resume, many wonder if there will be anyone left in their neighbourhoods to serve.

Written by Nick Amies