Museums about the European Union are a bit like the No. 71 bus in Brussels — you wait ages for one to arrive and then three show up at roughly the same time. The first to open its doors was the Parlamentarium, which sounds like a giant water tank filled with EU lawmakers swimming around, but is actually the European Parliament visitors’ center. The museum, which was inaugurated in October 2011, is stuffed with interactive gizmos like a 3D tactile model allowing starry-eyed guests to explore the EU assembly in its three places of work — Strasbourg, Brussels, and Luxembourg. There is even a “tunnel of voices” which “immerses you in Europe’s multilingual heritage” — although you can get the same experience on the No. 71 bus.
If that’s not quite enough of a draw to throw the kids in the back of the car for a weekend jaunt to Brussels, in two years, the next official EU museum will open its doors. The House of European History, the dream of former parliament president Hans-Gert Pöttering and set to cost over 56 million euros, will house a permanent exhibition on 20th century European history with a strong focus on the last 60 years of EU integration — perhaps unsurprisingly given the continent’s bloody past. Like the Parlamentarium, the House of European History has a clear pedagogical aim: “To remember that peaceful cooperation is not to be taken for granted,” in the words of the museum’s website blurb.
But if the anticipation is killing you, visitors in Brussels right now have a chance to experience a less sanguine and more creative, anarchic, fleeting — and fun — exhibition about Europe in the dystopian future.
The year is 2063 and the Friends of a Reunited Europe have organized the “first international exhibition on life in the former European Union” — which collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions in 2018. The show focuses on the last decade of the Union, when “prosperity and stability lulled Europe to sleep,” according to the mock “House of European History in Exile” pamphlet handed out to visitors. It was a time when “people everywhere used a single currency called the ‘euro,'” when “national borders were blurred” and Brussels, not Warsaw, lay at the beating heart of the old continent.
The exhibition, organized by the Royal Flemish Theatre, is housed in a derelict former boarding school several hundred yards from the headquarters of the European Commission, in the architectural wasteland of this city known as the “European quarter.” A slow but steady trickle of visitors trudges up two flights of rickety stairs to a lobby that looks like the waiting room of a regional Polish tax inspectorate circa 1974. The walls are clad in formica, the sink is filthy, the flatpack cupboards unhinged, and a neon light flickers overhead. A mousy receptionist hands me a lottery ticket with my assigned number and tells me my personal tour will start in 10 minutes. When my number is called out, I move to pick up an ancient audio guide but it’s stuck to the table. “Sorry, but it’s out of order,” says the receptionist, with a wry smile.
The first room contains a stack of paper, rising out of the floor below like a demented Corinthian pillar piercing the ceilings four floors high. This is the European Union’s infamous “Acquis Communautaire” — or body of European law — which, the exhibition informs us, grew to about 311,000 pages by 2017.
I pass a fading poster trumpeting the European Union’s Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. The award feels like prehistory as I enter the dimly-lighted third room, entitled “Return to the Past.” The exhibits are neglected and color-faded — in fact, very much like Brussels itself. The room, like much of the museum, smells of slow decay. “By the end of the Second Interbellum, Europe’s motto “United in Diversity” had become quite the overstatement in terms of unity, and an understatement in terms of diversity,” I am informed in Esperanto — the exhibition’s main language — as well as French, Dutch, and English. “Throughout the Great Recession it became painfully clear how little people had learned from the past, how much they had forgotten the meaning of war. In uncertain times, the evils of the past proved more contagious than the Dream of a United Europe.”
Two maps of Europe graphically describe how the twin “evils” of extremism and regional separatism combined to kill off the EU dream towards the end of the second decade of the 21st century. The first shows the inexorable rise of right-wing populist parties like Vlaams Belang in Flanders, Golden Dawn in Greece, and the Lega Nord in Italy. The second highlights the splintering of nation-states — Scotland, Corsica, and Catalonia are now all independent — as a result of separatist movements.
After the European Parliament elections of 2014 saw a spectacular breakthrough for nationalist parties advocating a repatriation of powers from Brussels, the European Union went into free-fall, we are told. “Fortress Europe — illustrated by a menacing border guard and German shepherd dog — kept immigrants out but Europeans stopped having babies themselves, leading to ‘Demographic Bulimia.'” Finally, the “Great Recession” and the collapse of the Eurozone “heralded the beginning of the end of European integration.” One exhibit shows a forlorn-looking German chancellor peering out from what looks like a toilet pan, but is — I am informed — in fact, a real-life lemon squeezer. Another features the main protagonists of the Eurozone drama — including balaclava-clad protestors — in a Greek theater stage diorama. Clearly it’s a tragedy. “As the former Member States increasingly turned inward, Project Europe lapsed from a tangible daily reality to the memory of an intriguing experiment,” the curators explain.
The final room is totally dark except for a shaft of light from a window slit illuminating a deeply moving and richly poetical real-life note written by exhibition creator Thomas Bellinck to a close friend after he committed suicide due to a crisis-related bankruptcy.
These are indeed bleak times for the European Union. The bloc’s economies are mired in recession, public support for the EU project is at an all-time low, xenophobic far-right parties are on the rise, and European leaders openly discuss the break-up of the union. Speaking at a press conference marking his first year in office in mid-May, French President Francois Hollande said that “If Europe does not advance, it will fall or even be wiped off the world map.” And in February, European Parliament President Martin Schultz warned that the European Union’s very survival was threatened. “When people turn away from a project or an idea, then at some point it will come to an end,” he told Germany’s General Anzeiger newspaper.
So, is the collapse of the European Union in the cards? I ask Bellinck — who, in keeping with the retro-communist vibe of the museum, is busy serving visitors Romanian blueberry brandy, Hungarian wines, and Czech beers in a tatty, makeshift bar at the end of the exhibition. “This is not science-fiction,” says the jovial Flemish theater director. “It might be a possibility. It is important to consider the worst case scenario — a scenario that is becoming more and more possible every day.”
Bellinck says he was inspired by contemporary museums about life in the former communist bloc, as well as articles and books written before the outbreak of World War I, almost a century ago. “People thought war was impossible because of economic links and blood ties between the nobility,” he says. “It scares me to think we’re back at the point that we no longer consider the possibility of war in Europe.”
Although tongue-in-cheek allusions to the “former European Union” would appear to play to into the hands of euroskeptics, Bellinck is at pains to point out that it is a “very critical but ultimately pro-European exhibition” that uses dark humor rather than pro-EU propaganda to make its case. Former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt clearly agrees. After visiting the exhibition last week, the Liberal politician described it as “fantastic” and recommended it to his legion of Twitter followers.
Bellinck and his co-conspirators at the Friends of a Reunited Europe have certainly managed to unearth a horde of light-hearted relics from the wreckage of the EU edifice. The complexity — and absurdity — of EU laws is lampooned by framed charts outlining the maximum curvature of bananas, size of tomatoes, and noise levels of lawnmowers. And in a room explaining how Brussels became the “Lobbying Capital of the World,” hundreds of business cards are mounted inside glass frames like butterflies in a natural history museum, while the essential tools of the lobbyist — Blackberry phone, iPad, a fast car, fancy menu — gather dust inside a display cabinet. There is even a sneaky reference to the closure of the official House of European History several years after its opening and the transfer of most of its collection to the House of European History in Exile after the collapse of the European Union.
“I hope it is very clear from the exhibition that I’m a huge believer in the EU project and its values,” director-turned-barman Bellinck tells me as he pours another shot of Polish vodka for a visitor. At first, this admiration is not entirely obvious — the EU’s Byzantine decision-making procedure, for example, is ridiculed by flow-charts resembling a complex mathematical equation. But leaving the exhibition, one understands why Bellinck named the final room “Fear of Loss”: For all the European Union’s many faults, few in Europe want to return to a continent divvied up into a patchwork quilt of competing cities, regions, and nations, each with their own passport controls, environmental policies, import duties, and train gauges. Some relics of the past really do deserve to belong in the soon-to-be-opened House of European History — providing the European Union doesn’t splinter by then, of course.
This article first appeared in Foreign Policy magazine in June 2013