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  1. The Weekend Report
4 March 2023

If the EU could speak, what would it say?

Eurocrats think museums can solve the union’s communication problems.

By Will Lloyd

A seduction was the first event in European history. Not a betrothal, nor a romance, certainly not a meeting of equals. A seduction with a seduction’s long tail: false promises, betrayal, ruin.

Europa was a bored Phoenician princess. One day she was gathering flowers with her servants when she saw a white bull. The animal was Zeus, who had spied on Europa from his palace in Crete. After dwelling on her beauty, Zeus being Zeus, he transformed into a bull. Perhaps Europa had never seen a bull before and, curiosity overcoming fear, caressed the creature that appeared before her. Perhaps bull-Zeus snuck up on her, and hooked her onto his back with his fake horns. Either way, Europa was soon riding the bull across the sea to Crete. When they arrived, Zeus revealed himself and gave her gifts. She was crowned: the first European queen.

Like every myth, the Europa story is unstable. Was she seduced, abducted, raped? In Greek mythology, they’re all the same. You would have to say that Europa was duped. Yet when Francisco Goya paints the scene in 1772 – the myth has been recycled for centuries – his Europa looks determined. She is a woman exercising a free choice, enjoying the rodeo, glaring back at the servants on the shore who wail for her return. By 1908, when Félix Vallotton paints her, Europa’s face is hidden. Her body is uncomfortably arched across the bull; one leg is submerged in the sea, her hands pink from the effort of clinging to him. This journey is more uncertain and less celebratory than Goya’s, though the destination is the same. Zeus will have a queen, and a continent will take its name from the myth: Europe.

Here in Brussels, the soft capital of the European Union, you will find a statue of Europa and Zeus along the Rue de la Loi, the traffic-choked artery into the city’s “European Quarter”. Leon de Pas’ 1997 rendering is a skeleton of copper and steel tubes, wrapped with dull bronze plates. Europa has no face, no expression to read. Yet the European Union makes much of the myth, and has done from the beginning, when it was the more modestly named European Economic Community. For an organisation with no agreed upon history, Europa’s image, whether printed on stamps, or frozen in the holograms of euro banknotes, or half-fleshed out in monuments, is a valuable claim to ancient heritage.

If ambiguity is the intractable core of the Europa myth, it is also at the core of the European Union. A simple question such as “What is the European Union?” has no meaningful answer. The scholarly literature regarding this question is full of retreats and despairing surrenders. The EU is just too complex to explain; it is only fathomable to specialists; it evades analysis altogether.

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Whenever you think you have the EU’s ontology surrounded, it slinks away like a deer through a forest. One academic calls it a “neo-medieval empire”. Another insists that it is “a network rather than a state”. No, no, says another, the EU is not a network but “a construct, a system designed and built by constitutional architects”. The historian Perry Anderson condemns this “simulacrum of a sentient democracy”; the political theorist Luuk van Middelaar celebrates this “adventure of turning a continent into a Union”. Is the union a bull or a god? Did it seduce the continent’s population or kidnap them? Nobody has an answer, though we salute Auberon Waugh’s attempt to taxonomise the EU as “a junta of Belgian ticket inspectors”.

The EU is the most impressive political project humanity ever embarked upon and the EU has no legitimate existence whatsoever. It is Roman, it is Carolingian, it is Hapsburgian, it is postmodern. The union is aware of these fundamental ambiguities. It is aware of the peril they present to its continued existence at this gloomy, threatened moment in its history. For if you cannot explain who you are, what you stand for, and what you actually do, then someone else, someone who may not have your best interests at heart, will come along and do so. Communicate, or you lose control of the narrative.

Eurocrats – a term coined by the Economist in 1961, not by Nigel Farage in a pub – are always communicating this need for the union to communicate. In a 2017 state of the union address Jean-Claude Juncker, then the president of the European Commission, said that the union needed “to achieve a better understanding by European citizens of the EU, its priorities and activities”. It had to “engage different target groups of European citizens about the EU’s political priorities”. The lifelessness of the way the union presented itself and its ideals was being recognised. In response, the EU began to populate the square mile of Brussels’s European Quarter with museums, gift shops, permanent exhibitions and visitors’ centres. There is the Parlamentarium (opened 2011), the House of European History (opened 2017) and Experience Europe (opened 2022). If there is an answer to the question of what the EU is, then it is being attempted here, by the union itself, with no shortage of agony. If academics cannot explain what Europe is, then perhaps the EU can. I visited the European Quarter in Brussels to understand how the EU sees itself, and how it wants to be seen. If these attempts at explanation fail, what does that tell us about Europe’s future?

You’ll find Experience Europe in a promisingly grey office block on the corner of the Rue de la Loi and the Rue Froissart, opposite the star-shaped, prison-like Berlaymont building where the European Commission is housed. I visited on a Friday afternoon, as dozens of nicotine-stained bureaucrats, sagging after another day of institutional rivalries and email chains, headed down into the Schuman metro station. Experience Europe’s aim is to explain what the European Commission does. It takes up a single floor of the office building, which is filled with interactive screens, a miniature interactive cinema and a bank of chairs attached to VR headsets.

The experience is free, though while I am there only two other people experience it. I interacted with the screens. They gave me a potted history of the union, from the glory days of Jean Monnet to the launch of the Galileo satellite programme. I learned that the Berlaymont contains 45 lifts, has an environmentally friendly facade, and that the galleries inside “display a wide variety of artistic techniques”. Another panel allowed me to meet the staff of the commission. A German called Helmut appeared in a blue bubble. He is described as a senior expert. If you push another bubble, labelled “My feelings when the EU is criticised”, Helmut begins to talk. “Criticism helps us,” said Helmut, coldly.

Later I met Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, inside a cinema booth. “She’s not actually in there,” said a helpful Experience Europe staffer. No, sadly, this was only a video Ursula. Again, the visitor pushes buttons to make a projection speak. Inside, a life-sized von der Leyen appeared on a white background, studded with grinning, representative euro-citizens. She is simply another one of us. “Europe is the guiding star of my life,” said video Ursula. Each time another button was pushed, she gave another minute-long answer. At the end of each, you could all but see a message pass from her mind to her mouth: SMILE, read the message. Video Ursula seemed like a person who would look you in the eye while turning down your application for a loan.

So what does the commission actually do? Two hours in Experience Europe gave clues, not answers. Clearly the commission is important – look at the enormous building over the road – but this is an importance afraid to speak with clarity. Many of the exhibitions focus on the commission’s philanthropic work, giving the impression that the organisation is a giant NGO, a force for Europeanised noblesse oblige. And the language used to describe this work (a dire Esperantist pidgin, stripped of anything that could cause offence) only deepens my sense that the commission is too afraid to say what it actually is.

On the way back to my hotel, I stopped to admire Stepping Forward, a bronze figure on the Rue de la Loi of a blind (or sleepwalking?) man taking a step from a plinth into the void. When the statue was commissioned in the Noughties, that step was a hopeful one. The union was expanding eastwards. Greece was solvent. Crimea was Ukrainian territory. The future was there to be confronted. While I looked at the statue, a tourist posed underneath the bronze foot, as if he was being crushed. He looked up, and pretended to laugh, or to scream. The future isn’t what it used to be.

I hoped to have more luck understanding the EU in the Parlamentarium. This is the visitors’ centre of the European Parliament, nestled across a square from Stefan Zweig House in the Espace Léopold complex. It is billed as the “heart of European democracy”, which is a bit harsh on every other parliament in Europe.

There were many more tourists here, and they wandered around the floors of the Parlamentarium with aching brains. Information about the parliament, expressed with formidable banality, was everywhere. On screens, on panels; in films and blocks of text. In a large room that pastiches the hemicycle of the European Parliament, two films were projected circularly. You sit in a chair, as if you are an MEP. Whichever way you turn, the projections surround you.

One movie was older, from a more confident time. It breathlessly explained how a vote in the European Parliament works. The second film resembled Koyaanisqatsi, a visual collage featuring satellite shots of Europe from space, and polar caps shedding skyscraper-sized ice shelves into the sea. It must have been made more recently, for its tone was bleak. European integration was presented defensively, unlike the goofily advertorial film that played before. “We have continued to be a model,” mourned the narrator, as she reeled off statistics about rampant population decline and industrial dysfunction in Europe. A museum should try to make you see the world outside its walls with new eyes. The Parlamentarium struggled to do anything but enforce my prejudices.

And yet, up the stairs from the imitation hemicycle, flicking through pictures of Europe’s founding fathers – Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Paul-Henri Spaak – I found myself unaccountably moved. Try to remember their energy: they were visionaries. For once, one of these exhibits chose the right word. After the Second World War, the continent was shattered. Rationing, craters, graveyards. War-crimes trials were processing the continent’s demons. Sacrifice had buckled whole societies. It was in that moment that this lopsided collection of bureaucrats, planners and diplomats made their move and set in train their plans for a Europe bound not by blood, but by treaty arrangements, tax codes and subsidies.

Those bland words – treaty, tax, subsidy – efface the genius of Europe’s founding fathers, their determination to make the ideal of European unity into a reality – federated or integrated, constructed or consecrated.

What unambiguous force that ideal has. Nonetheless, 65 years after the Treaty of Rome was signed, thirty years after Maastricht, I ask you: was the idea of European unity ever so beautiful as it seemed when Schuman and Monnet were the men who were deciding what it ought to be? When it was all still a fantasy, a longing, a white bull in a glade? Not the reality of farm subsidies and disbursement funds and Qatargate that we live with today, with the future revealed to us. There was a romance then, an ardency that has disappeared from the union. Time has extinguished the ideal’s seductive force. Around me, the whelmed great-grandchildren of Europe’s founding fathers shuffled in silence around the Parlamentarium, towards the gift shop, and the exit.

Brussels made Boris Johnson. It formed him. It was Paris to his Frédéric Moreau. It is hard not to think of Johnson when you read the local press here. “A Brussels politician is accusing Eurocrats of feigned outrage for not wanting to move to poorer quarters of the city blighted by drug abuse,” read one report, “quipping that many of the EU’s civil servants are themselves drug users.” How Johnson would have loved that story thirty years ago, when he was a reporter covering the EU for the Daily Telegraph. He would have taken it further, though. It is possible to imagine him on his hands and knees gleefully swabbing Berlaymont lavatories for evidence of cocaine use.

When Johnson arrived in Brussels in 1989 British newspapers reporting on the EU were a cosy, quiet, obedient club. They recorded the activities of the commission, parliament and European Council with straitjacketed accuracy. By the time Johnson left in 1994 the club had become a circus. Johnson created modern euroscepticism in the old Telegraph office in the Belle Époque Square Marie-Louise. Today there is no evidence of his time there, no plaque.

While stationed in Brussels, Johnson developed a powerful counternarrative to the official EU line. Johnson knew exactly what the EU was: he had been steeped in it since childhood. His father was a Eurocrat, and he was educated, before Eton, at a special EU school. Few Englishmen have ever been more European. Johnson knew what the EU was and twisted it, day after day in the Telegraph, into an unfamiliar new myth. As Margaret Thatcher and then John Major cracked up over Europe, Johnson painted his picture. Grey, bureaucratic Brussels, a paper-pushing ghetto. A sunless office comedy, where squabbling lawyers and accountants, absurdly removed from the beefy commonsense of plain Englishmen, made their corrosive plans for further European expansion.

In Johnson’s reports, Brussels, fax by fax, was giving birth to a superstate that no one had asked to midwife. He lampooned the insane grandiosity of the European Commission under its president, Jacques Delors. It did not matter if the commission was neither insane nor grandiose; humour, and humour’s cousin, timing, were all that mattered. Before Johnson was thirty, commission officials were “Boris-proofing” their proposals. A story he wrote probably swung the 1992 Danish referendum on the Maastricht Treaty for the “No” side.

A mute, incomprehensible EU was being mockingly outsmarted by a twenty-something reporter who’d been unable to hold down a job at the Times. Johnson’s writings became, according to his biographer Sonia Purnell, “the English position”. The imaginarium he built, with its plots and traps, its Eurocrat follies and its Brussels red tape, remains lodged in the English mind like a splinter. “We answer his attacks,” said one EU official back then, “but the problem is that ours aren’t funny.”

He bewildered the Europeans. When Johnson shuffled (late) into one commission press briefing, smelling heavily, one grand French journalist asked “Qui est ce monstre?” The answer, by that point, was “England’s favourite journalist”. Privately, Johnson had benign views of the EU. Publicly, he appeared as something he was not, the better to seduce the Telegraph’s readers. The rest was Brexit, and that seduction’s long tail: false promises, betrayal and, perhaps, ruin.

Johnson was the first to exploit the EU’s smug, hermetic inability to explain itself. Many more would follow him. Decades later, the Parlamentarium and Experience Europe might be interpreted as his legacy in this city. They exist to explain. They want to drown visitors in so much altruistic information that they cannot conceive of attacking the union. They are answers to his attacks, and they still aren’t funny.

The five-floor House of European History (HEH) in Léopold Park, the last stop on my museum tour, was full of soothing disasters. Beyond a disinfected euro-idealism, the one thing all these exhibitions had in common was a shared understanding of the past. The past was contaminated, and had only one lesson for the present: do not follow its example.

The HEH, which cost £47m, is the first museum dedicated to pan-European history. It was described by the Guardian as the EU’s “boldest cultural project” and by a UKIP MEP as a “house of horrors”. It is neither bold nor particularly horrible. The curator of a museum like the HEH cannot explain everything that ever happened in Europe. They can edit the past, they can omit, judge, interpret and compose. They must invent the truth the best they can.

Ambiguity was, initially, the chosen calling card of the museum. “Europe has always been hard to define” reads one text near a Greek vase, illustrated with Europa and Zeus. “Can we even talk of common European history?”

The exhibits dutifully tick off the themes: Christianity, colonialism, the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution. There are no nations, no national heroes, nothing that might whisper of national identity. As you progress up the floors into the early years of the 20th century (the First World War is described, phlegmatically, as “a low-point in European relations”) the picture, already dark, turns pitch black. The only individual Europeans given any breathing space in the HEH are Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.

It is difficult to discount the possibility that the totalitarians ruined European politics for good. The rallying cry of the EU always has been, and always will be, “never again”. Every European value – freedom, democracy, social inclusivity – was designed to repudiate Nazism and Stalinism. Europe is still living within the terms that the totalitarians set for it, still living in a haunted house. At least, from Brussels’s perspective, any criticism made of the EU can then be interpreted as evidence of a totalitarian attitude, a subliminal wish to drag the continent back to the 1930s.

History, loose and unpredictable, has been rationalised by the time you reach the final floor of the HEH. “Whether they like it or not, Europeans’ modes of life are increasingly similar,” intoned a screen. The EU’s achievements in disinfecting this filthy continent are summed up by a copy of the Acquis Communautaire. This 90,000 page document is the accumulated legislation, legal acts and court decisions that constitute the endlessly fertile body of European Union law, swelling and multiplying since 1993.

Over four days in Brussels staring at trinkets, the Acquis might be the only thing that shocks me. Stacked horizontally, it stretches out for metres. Its complexity is movingly unfathomable, like a city’s lights seen from a plane window at night. This, not the Erasmus programme or quick steps through passport control, is what British Remainers cried in the street for a few years ago, though they didn’t realise it. None of the visitors in the HEH give it a second glance.

Power in Europe, like a god seducing a princess, comes to the ball in a disguise. The tangle of museums, exhibitions and visitors’ centres set up by the EU to explain the EU are lobotomy wards. The chilliness and austerity of the European Quarter where they are housed tell the real story of this political project now. Mile after mile of glass office blocks, mile after mile of opaque windows, where the work of the union grinds on. When Marlow visits Brussels in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, he describes the art nouveau city, built on the mega-profits of late 19th century colonial exploitation, as a “Whited Sepulchre”, a place that throws up a facade of beauty to mask its true malignancy. Europe is less straightforwardly evil today, but it still wears masks.

The slogans of these museums talk of enlargement, transformation, democracy, plurality and social dialogue. To say what the EU is, a system where executives are appointed by governments, elections yield neither oppositions nor governments, would be admitting too much. To admit its own power would be to reveal that this project has no fundamental democratic backing, that it’s idealism has congealed into a suffocating legalism. For the EU to speak plainly as a god, not a bull, would be to jeopardise the entire thing. Europe’s long seduction would be over. Europa would be left, at last, with a free choice to make.

[See also: The twilight of the British Union]

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This article appears in the 08 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why universities are making us stupid