There’s a virtual reality plane ride, a contest, a ‘world’s most powerful woman’ presentation and a souvenir photo: it’s all part of the deal at one of the latest tourist attractions to arrive in Brussels: the exhibition of the European Commission. hub.
Experience Europe, which has been open for just under a year, seeks to explain the work of the commission, which proposes and enforces EU legislation, and for many is the epitome of “Brussels”. It is the latest example of how the block is trying to attract the public. Stung by criticism of being an elite project with deceptive and opaque processes, the EU has stepped up communication efforts over the past 15 years. The European Parliament opened a visitor center, the Parlamentarium, in 2011, followed by a museum dedicated to European history in 2017.
Even the EU’s most secretive institution, the European Council, where ministers and government leaders negotiate, has a visitor center and an app. In “EUcraft”, players can negotiate laws on behalf of their governments; for example, pushing to delay the introduction of a ban on single-use plastics, a fair reflection of how governments tend to delay ambitious EU proposals.
Located on a traffic-choked roundabout opposite the commission’s headquarters in Brussels, the €4.2 million (£3.7 million) Experience Europe space has features in common with other EU museums and exhibitions in Brussels : It’s free and largely paperless. Touch screens are more efficient in ensuring content is available in multiple languages.
At Experience Europe, visitors can don heavy VR headsets to get a 360-degree view from inside a Spanish firefighting plane or an EU aid mission to a Bangladeshi refugee camp. . “Meeting with the president of the European Commission”, Ursula von der Leyen, recently declared by Forbes as the “most powerful woman” in the world, is listening to her reflections on being the first woman leader of the commission and how she spends the free time from her. She tells viewers that she likes to listen to Adele as she runs through the woods, as well as tending ponies and chickens at her German country house.
Elsewhere, there are short films about fictional Europeans, such as a light-hearted romance involving an Italian farmer named Federico that weaves in references to EU policies on regional products, culture capitals, and the abolition of roaming fees. The quiz also has a lot of politics, with some trick questions. The claim that the EU “lags behind in the development of artificial intelligence” is apparently “fiction”, when at least it is debatable.
Launched with little fanfare, Experience Europe doesn’t try to compete with Brussels’ biggest tourist attractions, instead aiming for a modest 30,000 visitors a year.
When the Warden calls, there are only two visitors, but they are excited. “We really like it and we agree that it is a pity that we are here almost alone,” says Tomas Novotny, a 29-year-old research analyst, who is on a weekend trip to Brussels from Prague. “In the Czech Republic, people are worried about the future of our country and they are looking for someone to blame for the current problems and usually [is] the European Union.”
He and his travel companion, Tomas Braha, participated in the EU’s Erasmus exchange program in Ireland, an experience they believe sets them apart from the previous generation. If people were better informed, they wouldn’t believe what they read on disinformation websites about the EU, Novotny says. “I think this kind of display should be everywhere in every country,” adds Braha.
Your enthusiasm may not be widely shared. On the Guardian’s return visit, the only people who see the glowing touch screens and blinking electronic tickers are the staff. A commission spokesman said 20,000 people visited in the first 10 months of opening.
It is much busier in the Parlamentarium, where students queue for security checks. The much larger European Parliament visitor center claims to be one of the most visited museums in Brussels, having welcomed 2.5 million people since it opened in 2011. It tells the story of the continent since the First World War until Brexit, and it also informs people. on how parliament works, with pen portraits of its 705 members. The exhibition is updated quickly. After Britain left the EU, British MEPs were ousted overnight. Eva Kaili, the Greek politician accused of bribery and corruption, remains on the wall of MEPs but without formal titles or party affiliations: she was stripped of her responsibilities and expelled from the group of Socialists and Democrats after being accused. Kaili has denied any wrongdoing through her lawyers.
Othmar Karas, vice president of the European Parliament, said the allegations against Kaili and others were “shocking” and had “the potential to damage the reputation of the European Parliament and citizens’ trust in EU institutions.” However, Karas, who co-leads parliament’s work on public information, was optimistic that places like the visitor center helped the EU reach people. “Only by talking to each other, interacting and explaining how the EU works and how we all benefit, can you keep the spirit of our common Europe alive,” he said in emailed responses during illness.
It will probably never be enough to appeal to the toughest audience: a bored German teenager on a school trip. Ivan, 17, from Düsseldorf, said he and his friends largely skipped the exhibit, complaining: “It’s too much information. He repeated the story that we already learned in school.”
Shahid, an international business student from Groningen in the Netherlands, was more positive. “Actually, it was a good experience to get all this new information,” he said, adding that there was a lot about the war and the founding of the EU that he didn’t know.
Alberto Alemanno, a professor of EU law at the HEC business school in Paris, estimates that he has accompanied some 1,000 adult students to Brussels, who have greatly enjoyed the various offers from the EU. “Any attempt by the institutions, or anyone else, to create a more entertaining experience, which may provide [the public] with direct exposure to what decision making and humanizing the bubble could look like… should be welcome.”
But it might not be enough, he said, urging the EU to engage with the public as citizens and not just tourists. He would like to see a ‘European citizens’ house’ in Brussels, where people could, for example, find out how to meet and contact EU commissioners, or sign petitions.
Otherwise, he argues, “there is a risk that we have invested hundreds of millions of euros in creating beautiful and quite entertaining museums for the usual suspects. We have not necessarily addressed the real needs of people who travel to Brussels when trying to understand how they can interact with the institutions.”