On the 7th floor of the Berlaymont, Mads Hansen, a Danish official working at the European Commission’s Directorate of Security, rubbed his eyes and took off his earphones. He had been listening to Rammstein since the lunch break, and now, around six o’clock, had arrived at the point where not even the most epic guitar riffs could overcome his tiredness.
He leaned closer to the screen of his desktop computer. On his desk, the warm light of an old-fashioned brass lamp balanced the blueish glow emanating from the screen. The desk lamp was the only personal item in his office. There were no family or holiday photographs on his tidy desk, no motivational posters on the walls, no pictures of a spouse or drawings by children which could have alleviated the cold of the standard blue carpet and depressingly grey walls, as they did for his colleagues. Only a few of them had worked out that Ross’ lamp was more or less an act of rebellion. He was probably the last person in the Berlaymont to use light bulbs instead of the mandatory LED lights.
Hansen had prepared ten of the slides for a presentation he was due to deliver the next day. He opened a new slide and thought hard about what to say without repeating himself. He had run out of ideas. Just for the sake of doing something, he changed the size of the title: HUMINT – A new approach to the Commission’s HR policies involving military intelligence methods. He saw the reflection of his lean face on the screen and smiled a bitter smile to himself. What a pompous title for an issue as trivial as checking the background of cleaning staff, he thought.
But when he glanced at the official document he was supposed to reference, he gave himself a mental pat on the back. Had he directly cited from the original, his audience would almost certainly have fallen asleep after the first sentence: “In this Communication, the Commission sets out the elements that are critical to achieving free circulation of information between the law enforcement authorities of the Member States, in a more structured way than has been the case up till now, Obstacles to free circulation of information currently exist, which cause inter alia the Directorate of Security to dedicate the third round of mutual evaluations to examine the exchange of information and intelligence between Europol and the Member States and among the Member States respectively”
In all his five years in Brussels, Mads Hansen had never got used to the Euro-English of Commission documents. It was painful enough to read and even more so to listen to in the meetings and speeches spoken with 27 heavy accents.
However, his presentation was about something important. The cleaning personnel were employed by an external contractor and the Commission had no idea who the cleaners were. In fact, they were almost exclusively Muslims from North Africa with access to virtually every office on the premises. After the terror attacks on the Brussels underground and the airport at Zaventem, it was time to find out who each of these cleaners were.
He glanced at his watch. It was almost six o’clock. He heard the phone ring in the nearby office of his boss, Fernando Ruiz. He hoped that nothing out of the ordinary would spoil his uncomplicated plans for a quiet evening, relaxing with a bottle of Bordeaux and binge-watching a film on Netflix until midnight.
He opened a new slide and pondered his experiences as an intelligence officer with the Danish special forces in Afghanistan. Over there, he could rely on the vast resources of his US counterparts, but even so it was an open secret that many of the local staff worked for the enemy too, or were at least seriously tempted to do so. So far, the circumstances were similar. In Afghanistan, on the other hand, everybody knew what was at stake. He could open his mouth and speak the truth. There had been no need to watch his language. But here? One of the high-ranking Commission officials he would be trying to convince with his presentation was a Muslim herself. Hansen wondered whether she had been vetted at all.
It occurred to him that his contract would expire that Saturday. In a week’s time, he would be looking for a job back in his native Haslev, or maybe Copenhagen. His prospects were not the best. In the world of intelligence, being 35 meant he was inconveniently close to an expiry date where his career was concerned. Still, whatever he would be doing later, Hansen was sure he would pick a job that would not require him to skirt around the truth for the sake of political correctness.
Another phone rang. Judging by the office where the irritating electronic chiming was coming from, it must have been Ruiz calling Ludwig De Bruyn. Hansen could never quite decide if his Belgian co-worker’s bizarre eye-tick was just a result of the appalling Belgian weather or if it was a symptom of untreated PTSD contracted in Rwanda as a paratrooper at the height of the genocide. Hansen liked him nonetheless. With Ludwig, he could talk freely about everything.
Step 1: Assessing the level of religious commitment, he wrote on the slide, and immediately deleted it again. He sighed heavily, frustrated by the absurdity of referring to a challenge which, according to official Commission policies, could not be called by its name.
He heard Ludwig’s heavy steps approaching on the corridor. This could only mean small talk or the end of his plans for a quiet evening at home.
In a few seconds, his door opened and Ludwig appeared. His usually grinning pink face had taken on a more worried look. Fernando Ruiz stood behind him, his tired eyes shrunk even deeper than usual into his dark-skinned face.
‘Mads, we have a situation outside,’ barked de Bruyn. He signalled to Hansen to hurry. ‘Get your coat.’