Dressed in black jackets and cargo trousers, the security guards stationed at the entrance of the European Commission’s headquarters, the Berlaymont building, tend to be the first point of contact for any visitor. Depending on their mood, they can make one’s visit to the European Union’s corridors of power a mundane, pleasant or slightly miserable experience.
But who, exactly, are they?
According to a spokesperson for the Commission, the EU executive’s body doesn’t have any security guards on its staff. Instead, a contract to secure and monitor the Commission’s buildings in the Belgian capital is put out to tender every six years.
In the past few decades, the lucrative security contract has been won by one of two private security giants – the UK-based G4S or Sweden’s Securitas. October 2022 marked the first time a newcomer won the contract.
For a budget of €329m, Protection UNIT, a Belgian company based in Liège, will secure and monitor 70 of the Commission’s buildings over the next six years, manage the tens of thousands of visitors who show up at the Commission’s buildings, carry out security patrols and handle interventions when a security alarm goes off, according to a statement released when the company won the bid.
But don’t think there’s a complete change of personnel each time the bid goes to a new firm – the guards employed by the company that previously held the contract generally join the new winner of the bid in what feels like a very high level game of musical chairs. And any prospective guards must undergo a security screening by the Belgian authorities, according to a source close to the Commission and familiar with the matter.
So far, so straightforward. But it’s not all plain sailing in the security business. The two companies that have won the tender in the past and newcomer Protection UNIT have previously had run-ins with authorities.
In 2021, G4S’s Belgian subsidiary paid a fine of $15m (about €14m) over its involvement in a conspiracy to rig bids and fix prices for a 2020 multimillion-euro contract to guard the US Department of Defence’s military bases and installations in Belgium.
Securitas, meanwhile, is currently being investigated by Belgium’s competition watchdog over potentially anti-competitive practices.
As for Protection UNIT, at the beginning of May the Liège council chamber decided to refer the company’s founder, Samuel Di Giovanni, to the criminal court over his alleged involvement in insider trading.
And what of the people on the frontline? With the thousands of visitors who pass through the institutions every year, you might think the Commission would receive many complaints about guards. Not so.
According to a spokesperson for the European Ombudsman, they’ve received “very few inquiries” relating to access to the EU institutions: one from a visitor who complained about having to put his lunch through a scanner following heightened security checks after the Brussels 2016 terror attacks; one from a visitor protesting in front of Parliament’s entrance who felt a guard had interfered with his right to freedom of expression; and one from an employee who wasn’t allowed to bring her baby into the Parliament’s building to breastfeed. Babies, of course, pose a considerable security threat.