European Parliament employees are furious over a secretive hike in canteen prices that they say has left the most democratic EU institution with the least democratic lunch menu.
The increases, carried out in recent days while most MEPs and Parliament staff are on vacation or working outside of Brussels, pumped up prices of some items by 25 percent or more — and prompted a formal complaint from staff unions.
A side portion of frites, previously €2, according to workers, now costs €2.50, a jump of 25 percent, while the price of the soup du jour — oignon a la cheddar on Thursday — has skyrocketed to €1 from 8o cents, also a 25 percent rise.
The increases include the addition of Belgian value-added tax, which previously had not been charged, as well as price rises that coincided with new contracts with private vendors that took effect on August 5.
“The soup is one thing, but the salad bar and even the coffee is much more expensive,” one Parliament employee from Poland said as she perused a station of €8 appetizers.
The price of soup alone is reason for Parliament workers to go nuts.
A spokeswoman for the Parliament said that the changes, including the new VAT charges in Brussels and the plan to issue new contracts to new vendors, had been communicated to MEPs and staff, both before and after the new tender was issued in December 2018.
However, one union mocked the Parliament explanation citing recent EU “fiscal directives,” saying a previous directive on VAT was dated 2006. And Parliament employees have complained that the higher prices coinciding with the new vendor contracts were never announced in advance, leading to shock as they loaded up their lunch trays in recent days.
Adding salt, or perhaps Tabasco, to the wound, are the markedly lower prices at canteens in the European Commission and Council — institutions that many in Parliament feel already get unnecessarily favorable treatment by the press and the public.
If you thought there was no basis for interinstitutional rivalries in Brussels beyond geeky disagreements over migration policy and the EU’s long-term budget, think again: The price of soup alone is reason for Parliament workers to go nuts.
On Thursday, a soup of borlotti beans and pasta in the canteen at the Berlaymont, the Commission’s executive headquarters, was on offer for just 63 cents. In Parliament, an organic minestrone was €1.30, even more expensive than the €1 onion soup. (Don’t get distracted by the question of who eats soup in August. This is Brussels, where coats are often necessary at this time of year.)
In any event, the situation is no different with more summery fare. The salad bar? A whopping €1.30 per 100 grams in Parliament compared to 82 cents for 100 grams in the Commission.
Or how about the vegetarian plate? A vegetable couscous was €7.50 in Parliament on Thursday compared to just €4.95 for the Commission’s vegetarian option: chili sin carne.
And what about the Council — where heads of state and government gather for their summits (and for their own specially cooked meals)? All of the restaurants are closed right now — perhaps evidence to support Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s jab that the Council works only part time.
But even when open, prices at the Council canteens are still lower than in Parliament.
Steak frites in the Council’s Justus Lipsius canteen (now shuttered for a yearlong renovation) never cost more than €8, longtime employees said, and that included a soft drink. In Parliament, an entrecôte is €11.50 compared with €9.17 for a contre-filet (the closest comparison) in the Commission or just €6.01 for a regular steak de boeuf.
In an age of zero to negative interest rates and prolonged low inflation in many eurozone countries, an increase of 25 percent on anything seems a tad unreasonable.
Parliament officials said one reason for their relatively higher prices was a decision to phase out taxpayer subsidies that still persist in the other institutions — meaning prices are, in fact, more democratic since European voters do not enjoy subsidized lunches.
According to the minutes of a meeting of Parliament officials in March, subsidies that once cost European taxpayers €5 million or more per year have been virtually eliminated, and the annual catering budget slashed to less than €1 million. (The Parliament operates canteens in Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg.)
“The end of the direct food subsidies in 2015 and the gradual pricing linked to developments in the food prices in the market allowed for a 70 percent cut in Parliament’s budget allocated to the food and restaurants sector,” the Parliament spokeswoman, Delphine Colard, told POLITICO.
Colard said that the VAT charge “does not mean that prices are automatically 12 percent higher than previously.” Some Parliament catering facilities had already been charging the tax, she said, and the new prices also reflect the elimination of subsidies.
But Parliament workers said the higher prices charged by the new vendors are just one of several increases in recent years that have previously drawn complaints. And when combined with the imposition of 12 percent VAT, which previously had not applied, they say price increases, on a percentage basis, have far outstripped any salary increases.
Prices notwithstanding, the food in Parliament is fairly good, employees said, and a quick taste test seemed to confirm that verdict. Certainly it is not like NATO, where some alliance employees liken the canteen fare to a chemical weapons attack on the free world.
Still, in an age of zero to negative interest rates and prolonged low inflation in many eurozone countries, an increase of 25 percent on anything seems a tad unreasonable.
According to union officials, it’s not just unreasonable but unconscionable given that many employees who use the canteen are not high-powered, high-paid political aides but modestly compensated secretaries, janitors, security staff and, well, canteen workers.
And even the best canteen food is still, well, canteen food — a fact that somehow comes into clearer focus in the context of price increases.
For instance, does an appetizer portion of mille-feuilles de légumes rouges (which looked suspiciously like a limp lasagne) merit a price tag of €8? Or how about the same price for the other appetizer: a plate of sliced ham (dry and brittle at the edges) with a bit of hard-cooked egg, lettuce and tomato?
Is a slice of canteen cheesecake in Parliament really worth €4.70, especially when the cakes and pies in the Commission can be had for just €2.74?
In a notice to staff, the Parliament’s Directorate-General for Infrastructure and Logistics said that employees are getting much more than food under the new regime — they are also getting more nutritious options and more environmentally friendly operations. And taxpayers are saving thanks to a single big contract being broken up into eight different concessions of varying sizes, officials said.
“Under the new contracts, the catering offer will be further refined, including new menus with healthy, fresh and quality ingredients, enlarged nutrition choices, single-use material reduction and waste-free approach, new design, modern communication allowing members and staff better information and feedback, and extended opening hours,” the memo stated. “All contracts have a strong environmental and social dimension and will be gradually offering a fully plastic-free service.”
“Each restaurant will continue to offer a daily dish at a fixed price, with a further reduction granted to trainees and students,” the memo added, noting that the 12 percent VAT was the reduced rate for food.
One Parliament employee, who was ladling out a bowl of onion soup, acknowledged that the prices are higher but did not seem outrageous. The employee, who would not give his name but spoke with a pronounced French accent, conceded that the food was not bad, but quickly added: “I think it’s better in Strasbourg.”