Andrew Osborn








Brussels 'fat cats' to lose their cream - Closure for elite's cut-rate food shop targeted by tabloids.

The Observer, 30th July 2000 16:54

By Andrew Osborn Brussels.

BRUSSELS will never be the same again. A controversial supermarket which has supplied Eurocrats with cheap booze and food since the Sixties is to close within the year after scathing attacks in the British tabloids.

Described as 'one of the EU's most damning secrets' and 'the most exclusive shop in the world', the Economat is stocked with delicacies from the EU's 15 member states which officials can buy at highly competitive prices. The much maligned shop has long since passed into Brussels folklore and was clearly becoming an embarrassment which did not sit well with the Commission's publicly stated aim of cleaning up its tarnished image.

Tucked away in the basement of a nondescript commission building on Rue de la Science, the shop is not signposted and its doors are shut to the general public. Entry is by EU identity pass only. Often compared to the former special shops for the Soviet elite, its shelves are laden with virgin olive oil for the Italians, breakfast tea for the Brits and a legendary selection of wine and spirits. It also stocks cut-price bottles of champagne whose labels bear the EU's stars emblem.

Its raison d'etre when it was first set up was to allow homesick Eurocrats to enjoy their favourite food and drink, then not readily available in Brussels.

But controversially, staff salaries and running costs are effectively paid by EU taxpayers, a fact which has made it an easy target for some of the UK's more Euro-sceptical tabloids. It is often claimed that the food and booze is tax-free, but in fact it is simply cheaper because the shop is run on a non-profit basis.

Its days are now numbered and a decision has been taken to shut it down as part of a review carried out to determine what the European Commission's priority tasks should be.

The issue has proved so emotive in the past, however, that the Commission is noticeably reluctant to publicise what some consider to be a rather humiliating climb-down and others believe to be a dose of common sense.

News of its closure is buried in a document detailing which activities the Commission is set to phase out, but no mention is made of its name and its demise is disguised as job losses in 'techni cal service'. Neil Kinnock, who is charged with reforming the Commission, did admit last week, however, that its existence can no longer be justified.

'I couldn't justify the continued maintenance of shopkeeping as one of the roles of the European Commission,' he said. 'It's been very clear to me that the Economat had its place at the beginning of the Commission, but as the decades have passed and it became evident that you can get the same foods in the local supermarkets the justification for retaining it has diminished.'

The store is not, he was at pains to stress, a perk for 'fatcat Eurocrats'. But the British tabloids beg to differ and 'exposed' the Economat's existence last year with fierce indignation.

'A carefully guarded shop where the bloated EU porkers can dip their trotters into piles of cut-price caviar and reservoirs of champagne,' was how the Sun described it, while the Mail on Sunday dubbed it a 'Eurocratic Harrods'.

EU officials vehemently deny that the decision to close it down was prompted by media criticism and many continue to argue that there is nothing unsavoury or untoward about its existence.

But at a time when public support for Britain's membership of the European Union, let alone the single currency, has plunged to its lowest level in 20 years, EU spin-doctors are acutely aware that the Economat has had its day.