Brussels Babylon: An Insiders' Guide to Sex, Money and Bickering in the EU's HQ
What happens on the EU gravy train? NGO workers, journalists, civil servants, lobbyists, consultants told us as candidly as they could about the pleasures and pitfalls of Eurobubblin' it.
With their own tax code, their own dense jargon, the EU's Brussels-crats are intellectually and socially a class apart. The Eurobubble of your Sun editor's imagination really does exist. Everywhere's got its worldview, its anthropology, and our "unelected, unaccountable" (elected, fully audited) Brussels guv'nors are no different.
The difference is that 90 minutes on the Eurostar translates in the British media into a far-off land of which we know little. In Brexit's ongoing ping-pong of bald assertions, we're now in danger of diluting even that little we thought we knew.
So I decided to call up a bunch of these Eurocrat orcs and ask them about how it all goes down there. What follows are their stories, anonymised and jumbled up, but also verbatim. They're NGO workers, journalists, civil servants, lobbyists, consultants – three Brits, one Irish, one French, one Anglo-French, who all agreed to talk as candidly as they could about the pleasures and pitfalls of Eurobubblin' it.
"For those working at the Commission, if you're a stagiaire, an intern, you'll generally be on a short term contract and taking home very little. But if you make it to fonctionnaire – a proper job as a civil servant – the money's great. You start at around 4500 Euros a month. And rent's about half what it is in London."
"But a mid-level – say AD12 – which could easily be someone in their 20s – takes home about 14k a month. That's 20 percent more than David Cameron gets. It's certainly more than enough for his 'n' hers Mercedes when you only pay a special Eurocrats' 12.5 percent tax rate. There's a shopping mall actually inside the EU complex with subsidised prices – a 10 percent discount for diplomats."
"Where else could an average civil servant put all four of his kids through private schools, have a lovely house in the suburbs, all the trappings of wealth? They call it the golden cage. People really want to leave, but they're addicted to the lifestyle."
"If you don't directly work for the Commission, the thing that trips most people up is that tax rates in Belgium are around fifty percent. So even if you've bagged a 3000 Euro salary – well, sorry, you'll only be taking home about 1500. Loads of people on the perimeter of the circus are just getting by."
"Like any international environment, people shag a lot. When you arrive, it can feel like one big summer camp, one long Erasmus. You've got lots of people from different countries who normally arrive there single, and are often leaving again after a few years or just a few months. They're all from very similar educational backgrounds. It's a boozy culture anyway. It's a great recipe for shagging like rabbits. Tinder has changed the scene, as anywhere. It's not so bar-focused anymore."
"Because its so village-y it's very easy to know everyone's business. There are plenty of stories of married MEPs turning up on Tinder. Then there's the inevitability – and it's happened to me – that someone you've shagged will turn up opposite you in a meeting the next week. Or worse, as your new boss."
"The Place Du Luxembourg is legendary in Brussels. It's right outside the EU complex, and filled with bars, so it's the place where people end up drinking when they start. After a couple of years you learn to avoid it, to disdain it. You only go back if you're doing so 'ironically', or if you're on the prowl for easy-meat interns."
"Thursday nights, not Fridays, are the key dates. It can get so packed that the police re-route the public transport. Friday morning, all the MEPs go back to their own countries, so the bosses are never there to see you stumbling about with a hangover. It's a strange constellation of sex and networking. People hand out their business cards there."
"In recent years, the UKIP crowd has gone from being your traditional stuffy old colonels to a young, quite hard-drinking yobbish one, so if there's ever a fight on the Place Lux, you know it's nearly always the UKIP."
"There's this odd thing where you have to pay 50 cents to take a piss in all the bars."
"National stereotypes do unfortunately often apply. The Germans are dynamos. Most Italian MEPs do pretty much shit-all. The Romanians and Bulgarians are barely there. You'll see them in the bars of the Plux from about half-five every day."
"They're all the kids who were at the front of the class with their hands up. They've all got at least two masters' degrees. Few of them are Oxbridge though. It tends to be more the LSE crowd – people doing very specific degrees in European studies, federalism, bureaucracy."
"The other big incubator is the Ecole Nationale d'Administration. Chirac, Hollande, de Villepin, Juppé, even EU Commissioner Pierre Muscovici – they all went to the ENA."
"But the real finishing school for the Brussels elite is in Bruges, it's called the College of Europe. It's where Nick Clegg met his wife. Admission is super-competitive. It's the best 200 EU-destined graduates, who all spend a year there together, in a tiny town where there's nothing to do but drink and fuck. So by the end of it, this elite has formed itself, and it's very incestuous in that sense, because they're all going to go on to do big things but they all know each other very intimately."
"Over-education is everywhere. There's a relatively small supply of meaningful executive level jobs and thousands of people who come here to get one. There are plenty of people who've been to some of the finest schools in Europe whose job it is to hand out name tags at conferences until they can work their way up the ladder. Which could take years."
"Yes, some of it's very, very boring, technical. But you know that already. The thrill is the game. You've got 20,000 working at the Commission. 5000 at the Parliament, and another 20,000 lobbyists, all locked into this game of influence, these tightly wound spheres of personal power and horse-trading. It's like nothing else."
"The best job if you really don't want to bust a gut is working for a trade association. I have a friend who was comms manager for the margarine industry. You just write a few reports, attend the odd meeting, and hope that nothing changes, legislatively."
"With most folks, there's a point – normally around the two or three year mark – where they're faced with a choice. They've got on the ladder, but now they're locked into a system where advancement is glacial. You're basically waiting for a 60 year old Eurocrat to die or retire so everyone can move up a notch. If they think it's too boring for them to wait it out, they move on. If not, then they're probably in it for life. And life can be good here when you start to get a bit old and bourgeois and think about having kids. The schools are great. You can get to see a doctor on the same day unlike in the UK. The suburbs are pleasant. It's very comfortable."
"The Belgians really are atrocious people. They should be wiped off the face of the earth. They're the most fatalistic, uninspired, of all the European nations. There's a bit in Lawrence of Arabia, where Prince Faisal says 'It is written,' and that's what I associate with Belgians – if something happens, it's because there's a procedure to make it happen, and it will take its own sweet time. It's no surprise Belgian customer service is probably the worst on the continent."
"I love the Belgians. I have good Belgian friends in Flanders. It's taken a while to get to know them, but they're really friendly and lovely people. Very open. Very welcoming. Belgians are out and about a lot. They travel a lot, so they really get it. It's very easy to socialise with them in that sense."
THE BELGIAN VIEW ON THE BUBBLE
"There's a big town-and-gown divide. Most people on the inside don't have more than one or two Belgian friends."
"The Brusselois are always complaining about the EU. The EU people don't pay tax, and that's always been a big sticking point. Then, whenever there's a big political function in town they close a lot of the roads. After Obama came here, the town was locked down for a week, and there were lots of big editorials in the papers about how if the EuroParl wasn't here, everyone could get to their jobs. Right, but what jobs? Unemployment's pretty bad in Belgium anyway. Take away the EU and there's precious little left."
THE LANGUAGE OF THE BUBBLE
"It's not French any more. It used to be, but since the accession of the Eastern European states, English, their second language, has completely taken over."
"Of course, it's not quite English either – it's more Globish, and it's sprinkled with French and German words, plus a load of jargon – for instance, if you're going to meet up with someone, you might say you're going for a "bilateral". Instead of "intern", we use the French word: "stagiare". And so on."
"It's become a lot more cool in recent years. Even four years ago it could feel pretty dead. But now there are more underground dance parties and obviously, this being Belgium, a strong electro scene that extends up into Flanders – which is still an easy night out, less than an hour away on the train."
"It's pretty word of mouth. You can't just turn up and expect to find cool places."
"It's a weed-n-coke scene. I don't notice much MDMA."
"The French don't tend to mix with anyone else. There's a sort of Northern European unity thing going on between the Brits, the Dutch, Swedes and the Germans. Then you've got the Spanish and Italians doing their own thing. They tend to have large gregarious friendship groups. Often, you can end up at house parties where nearly everyone is Italian or Spanish. Then when they move on as one flock, the whole place just clears out."
"Overall, people are fairly keen to socialise across nationalities. Remember these kids are all committed federalists. To meet people from other nationalities and bond with them – at the groin or otherwise – is exactly what they've signed up for."
NETWORKING AND LOBBYING
"The networking never stops in Brussels. The face-name stuff is vital. So there are always breakfasts, and sundowner events, and lunches and dinners, and endless conferences. There's always cheap white wine and non-organic orange juice."
"I once worked for a lobbying firm that did an event where we served a different range of pork products to various MEPs and commissionaires, where I served Nick Griffin and Nigel Farage among others. What you're looking for, as a lobbyist, out of anything like that, is basically soft power. You probably don't have anything immediately vital to talk to them about, but you want to have the contacts for when the day comes that they try and lower the quantity of bone and gristle allowed in the standard EU sausage."
"Because you've got so many people doing the same job, a job almost anyone with that education could do, standing out becomes vital. Social media become very important. Normally the people who are the most active on social media in the Eurobubble are the people who've only just arrived. Often they don't have much to do, so they plough all their energy into their profiles."
"To be honest, it's a lot of drab. People retweeting what the Commissioner said or what this MEP thinks. There's a lot of sucking up going on there."
"It's a big topic of conversation, obviously. But it's not like it's snuck up on people. The Europeans have known for years about how ambiguously the British feel. And frankly, for a lot of them, they'd be really happy for the Brits to go because they want to see a proper federal Europe, and Britain's position means they're always driving with the handbrake on."
"People here just despair at the British position."
"One of the most interesting questions if we left is what's going to happen to all the Brits who work for the Commission – they'll become foreigners overnight, but would that mean they couldn't or shouldn't be employed there? My guess is they'll just give them all massive payouts."
"People are worried. Very worried."
"I suspect things would go on as normal, on the whole. There'll be two years to sort out the tangle, and even after that Britain would still need to be sending permanent delegations here."
THE EUROPEAN PROJECT
"I think most of the people who come to work here are starry-eyed committed European federalists, who believe in the dream, and are keen to meet with other Europeans. As time goes on, though, they become a bit jaded."
"Despite everything, most people still feel it's a very worthwhile thing. Certainly, it's a lot better than the alternative."
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