7th Jul 2022

The EU in exile - a cautionary tale

For Doomsday enthusiasts and eurosceptics, 2018 should be the year they put in their calendar as the year when the EU will disintegrate. At least, that is according to theatre director Thomas Bellinck's dystopian vision 'The House of European History in Exile'.

The location of the museum, which is housed in an run-down former boarding school in an otherwise anonymous street just a couple of blocks away from the EU institutions, is appropriate. If you didn't know it was there you would never find it. From the windows behind the bar, visitors can see the palace of concrete and glass otherwise known as the European Parliament.

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  • Derelict and dystopian. The EU in exile.

Bellinck, a Belgian who sees Brussels as a uniting force in his own country, says that his museum looks at the disconnect between citizens and the EU institutions. The museum, which did not receive any EU funding, has proved a popular haunt for eurocrats and ordinary Belgians alike, and should serve as a reality check for the EU officials who still say "crisis, what crisis?"

Attempting to sum up the rise, decline and fall of the European Union in a dozen spartan rooms spread over three floors is ambitious.

The mood of the exhibit is unremittingly bleak but die-hard eurosceptics will be left disappointed. Bellinck's creation, which is set in 2063, a generation after the bloc's demise is more of a cautionary tale about the demise of a noble and idealistic project than an exercise in schadenfreude. The pamphlet explaining the exhibition describes the EU as "one of the most spectacular peace and modernisation projects of our time."

The experience starts in the waiting room, where a map dated from 2017 shows the number of MEPs each of the 33 EU member states have. There's mixed news for Scottish nationalists, who will learn that their country not only left the UK but was also the last country to join the EU before it collapsed.

Meanwhile, Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia are all listed as EU members leaving Bosnia as the last remaining nation in the former Yugoslavia outside the bloc. More unlikely is the claim that Iceland joined in 2016.

Visitors take a lottery ticket from a silent receptionist and then wait for their number to be read out before walking single file through derelict rooms coated with dust and formica paint.

In one room is a faded poster commemorating the EU's "rightly" awarded Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 which the narrative states "could still serve as a source of inspiration - perhaps now more than ever."

Another looks at the political forces of nationalism, euroscepticism and separatism which ripped Europe apart in the 20th century and returned to bring the EU down in 2018. The 'art of the compromise' and the rise of political lobbying in the law-making process are also explained.

Meanwhile, there are some nods to the EU's propensity for bureaucratic absurdity.

One room shows visitors the bloc's infamous rules on fruit and vegetables, with some faked regulations on the shape, size and complexion of leeks, cucumbers and tomatoes. Another feature is the pile of documents that extends through three rooms and two ceilings, representing the extent of the EU's rule book.

By 2018 the acquis will account for over 80 percent of Europe's legislation, spanning over 311,000 pages of regulation and weighing more than 1.5 metric tonnes, according to the exhibition.

Bellinck's narrative claims that the EU's downfall came when "the Long Peace gave way to the Great Recession," with voters and governments becoming increasingly nationalistic. In the end, "Europe dwindled to what it had always been: a politically divided continent."

Some of it is deeply personal. The final room is completely dark except for a thin strip of light over a letter from Bellinck to a friend who committed suicide after being forced into an crisis-related bankruptcy when his farming business collapsed, a stark reminder that the economic and social crisis is far more than mere statistics on a chart.

Perhaps the gravest threat to the EU's future existence lies in its response to the economic and social crisis that has enveloped most of Europe, and to its so-called 'democratic deficit'.

The two are closely interlinked.

In the EU's four bailout countries, the so-called Troika, composed of officials from the commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, is effectively taking the major economic decisions.

For the rest, the commission now has sweeping powers to intervene in budgetary policy. But public accountability is lacking. The troika is not really answerable to anybody while the lines of democratic control between the Commission and ordinary Europeans are weak.

A quarter century ago the Berlin Wall, which symbolised the Cold War divide between east and west, still existed.

Go back a further fifty years and the continent was on the brink of a war of unimaginable cruelty which killed an estimated 40 million people and reduced many of Europe's greatest cities to rubble. Over the course of fifty years, the project of European integration has, in the main, been an undeniable force for good.

Perhaps Bellinck's real achievement is to suggest that we won't appreciate the value of European integration until it is taken away.


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