The timing is not ideal. The eurozone is apparently in meltdown, austerity measures are biting and the popularity of the European Union institutions is at an all-time low. But later this week the European Parliament will launch its latest initiative – a €21m, high-tech tourist attraction dedicated to explaining its workings.
For Euro-sceptics the 5,400 sq m, three-storey “Parlamentarium” is a sitting duck, especially as it took three years longer to complete and cost €6m more than initial estimates. The leader of the European Conservatives branded it “a shiny new temple for the glorification of the European project”. Whether you agree probably depends on your political stance – but is it worth a visit? Last week I got a preview, armed with a multimedia audio guide that doubles up as a card key to turn on specific installations.
I am greeted by models of the three European Parliament sites in Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg and signs portraying some of the issues debated there (fisheries policies, recycling, human rights and open borders are just a few). Things improve when I head downstairs to a section called “Visions”. This is where the interior fit-out by Atelier Brückner, the German studio behind the BMW museum in Munich, comes into its own. A long and sombre tunnel is filled with spoken and written quotations from those who championed the notion of a United States of Europe long before it became a reality. On one side a series of photos movingly portrays Europe before, during and after the two world wars (food rations, purges against Jews, air raids, and so on). The next room covers the history of the EU from inception to the present day.
It is all very interactive, high-tech and accessible and some of it – the glass sheet maps showing the EU’s enlargement for instance – aesthetically pleasing. I am most drawn to a wall called “Journey through Time”. It is filled with snapshots of iconic figures and events from the past 60 years and I use my multimedia gizmo to read more about the end of military rule in Greece, Willy Brandt’s famous genuflection before the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the bombing of the Stari Most bridge.
It’s when I get to a section called “Today and Tomorrow” that I begin switch off. This room is all about getting to know what the MEPs do. There are pictures and biographies of all 736 of them, as well as recorded messages from some.
Undoubtedly the most engaging part of the exhibition is a room with a massive multicoloured LED ceiling installation (actually a 3D map of Europe) that responds to salient European facts and statistics being screened below on a circular screen; the higher the statistic the more the lights glow. Elsewhere more screens (including two 360-degree screens on the walls of round rooms) allow you to witness the parliament in action and hear the real life stories of a selection of EU citizens. I sit on a sofa and listen to a peace campaigner in Northern Ireland, a female pony farm owner in Portugal and a migrant centre manager in Malta talk about the problems they face. I know these people have been chosen to show how the EU has played a positive role in their lives but their stories are interesting and timely nonetheless.
I leave impressed by the centre’s slick design and state-of-the-art exhibits that, at least in part, are genuinely entertaining and informative. The cynics might not be won over but there is plenty of inspiration here for those who still (want to) believe in the European project.