Hidden in an underground bunker and patrolled by guards is a place known to a privileged elite. Only the chosen are allowed into this special place – the most exclusive shop in the world. The shop is called the Economat, though there is no name to reveal its whereabouts above the door, or in any published EU documents. And it provides a tax-free haven…for the EU’s top Eurocrats.
(Mail on Sunday, pp8-9, 19 September 1999)
There was nothing sinister or untoward about the Economat shop in Brussels. In its coverage, the press combined a number of serious inaccuracies to support a predetermined Eurosceptic caricature of the European Commission.
Most notably, the Economat was not tax free. All products sold in the shop were inclusive of normal Belgian VAT rates. The store was run on a non-profit making basis and, although some products were cheaper than elsewhere, others were more expensive. Whilst it is true that the shop was on Commission premises, its running costs were not met by the EU budget. Its revenue had to cover its expenditure and, though it was managed by Commission officials, the costs of most staff had to be covered by sales revenue.
The store was not restricted to a ‘privileged elite’. It could be used by all Commission staff (upwards of 17,000) as well as anyone else entitled to hold a Commission pass. This included accredited journalists and UK government representatives.
The Economat was not secret. It had been established in the 1960s to provide EU officials, who now come from 15 different countries, with products not readily available in Brussels. Since the shop was not provided for the general public, it would be bizarre for it to be externally signposted. This does not mean it was secret.
The Economat has since been closed as part of the Commission’s review of core activities.