Does the European project belong in a museum?

As Brexit is fast-tracked, changing tides are lapping at the shores of the EU. And signs of choppy waters ahead are already evident at the EU's visitor centre in Brussels – the Parlamentarium – right in the heart of Europe

In the years that followed the Brexit referendum, Remainers retrospectively regretted not making a bigger song and dance about all the positive things the EU has done for us. And they are countless. But the disconnect between our day-to-day lives and those easily dismissed as bureaucrats in Brussels was a bridge that couldn’t be broached.

So how does the EU sell itself? In Brussels it has its own museum, the Parlamentarium, where it can shout as loudly as it likes about its impact and legacy, but times have a-changed since it opened in 2011.

Situated in the modern but characterless Espace Léopold complex in Brussels, there is no reticence about emphasising and reinstating the EU’s original aims and ambitions. Expansionism and federalism are themes that permeate. The ‘Visions’ tunnel leading visitors into the exhibition has statements plastered on the wall. “We must build a kind of United States of Europe,” said Churchill in 1946. “What, in concrete and practical terms, does the independence of nations mean in the world of today?” wondered Austrian-born Jewish historian Julius Braunthal in 1943.

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Until recently, the European Union was largely a success story. The original pact of six countries – Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands – had grown to 28 with the accession of Croatia in 2013. But Brexit has rocked the boat. Wider political repercussions are still to be determined; at the very least, some remodelling will have to be done at the Parlamentarium.

The UK joining (after two failed attempts kiboshed by de Gaulle) in 1973 is presented as a watershed moment, “marking the very beginning of expansion that has not stopped to this day,” according to the audio guide, which will soon need updated.

The next exhibition is titled ‘Today and Tomorrow’. The signage is covered over. “This map will be updated to reflect recent changes to the exhibition.” Is it the exhibition that is changing or the entire politics of a continent?

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Last time I visited around five years ago, this section went out of its way to give a platform to politicians across the spectrum, even if they opposed the institution’s existence. Then, a table of video screens displaying various MEPs talking about an object that represents the European project to them included Nigel Farage loosely interpreting the concept, as you can see in the picture above, harrumphing about his chosen item: an anti-EU speech Thatcher gave in the 1980s. Today (the week before the UK’s December general election) most of the screens are out of order.

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While EU flags are handed out by eager staff like lollipops at a kids’ hairdresser, gone are the libraries of leaflets from political bodies within the parliament that provided more disconcerting freebies. Last time, as a souvenir, I picked up one from the Europe of Freedom and Democracy [EFD] group, with its introduction from co-president Farage, who tore into “an EU led by technocrats, experts, officials, judges and bankers… the beginning of a terrifying anti-democratic era.” These damn experts using knowledge and experience, the nerve!

Other handouts promoted further enlargement of the European Union, with picture postcards of prospective members Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey. ‘So similar, so different, so European,’ went the catchphrase, written across Sarajevo sunsets. That dream may be over, as the number of EU countries is about to drop for the first time in its history.

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What about the work of the European Parliament? A role-playing game lets you act as a politician (without the expense account), giving you the chance to decide on the kind of policies they vote on. But the main takeaway is how pointless it can seem. First question: “Should streaming services meet quotas for European films and series?” Seventy per cent of MEPs said yes, only 37 per cent of citizens did.

Repeatedly, the museum highlights the motto ‘United in Diversity’ without acknowledging that the celebration of cultures is undermined by one-size-fits-all policies that don’t really fit anyone. Should it really be the EU’s role to insist Netflix streams more European content? Another question about the collection of biometric data (approved by 78 per cent of MEPs, only 46 per cent of normals) also underlines the disconnect between parliamentarians and public, often spoken about but here illustrated by colourful bar charts.

Disenchantment with the EU drove debate during the general election, but the discord is not only felt in Britain. Just before exiting (to the cafe and through the giftshop) sits a final screen where visitors can upload their ‘Wishes for the Future’. “Death to Brexit”, reads one. “Italy should be invaded by any country”, reads another, hinting that politics is fracturing across the continent. Or that people just like posting inappropriate comments on fancy digital displays.

But what is going on in Italy? The biggest noise in their domestic politics is Matteo Salvini, until recently the deputy prime minister responsible for closing Italian ports to refugees. He is leading a Eurosceptic movement in Italy. On New Year’s Day #Italexit was trending on Twitter in the country as people expressed what their hope for 2020 was (with plenty of others saying what a terrible idea that would be – and also what a terrible hashtag it was, #Italeave being much preferred).

At the time the aforementioned EFD brochure was printed, with its rundown of the most sceptical Eurosceptics, Salvini was one of the right-wing MEPs listed. In the leaflet he is pictured just to the left of Farage, though in real-life he’s even further to the right.

The EFD wound up in 2014 but the movement it represented is growing in Italy and beyond. The Freedom Party is in government in Austria, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party was suspended from EU groupings due to its anti-EU stance, Alternative for Germany got the first far-right politicians into the German parliament since the war, Vox has become the third biggest party in Spain, calling for suspension of Catalan autonomy (a cause the EU has been deafeningly silent on) and in Sweden, that beacon of democracy, the Sweden Democrats, a party with roots in Nazism, is on the verge of becoming the country’s biggest.

Many of these parties founded a new bloc in the European Parliament, called Identity and Democracy, and are likely to increase their influence. If it doesn’t wake up to its critics, who knows what future the remodelled ‘Today and Tomorrow’ room in the Parlamentarium will have to reflect.