A virtual reality plane ride, a quiz, a presentation from the “most powerful woman” in the world, and a souvenir photo: all this is part of the offer at one of the tourist attractions to come to the Brussels – European Commission exhibition center.
The European Experience, which has been open for just under a year, seeks to explain the work of the commission, which proposes and enforces EU law, and for many it is the highlight of “Brussels”. It is the latest example of how the bloc is trying to appeal to the public. Stung by criticism that it is an elite project with bamboozling and opaque processes, the EU has stepped up communication efforts over the past 15 years. The European Parliament opened a visitor centre, the Parlamentarium, in 2011, followed by a museum dedicated to European history in 2017.
Even the most secretive EU institution, the European Council has a visitor center and an app, where ministers and heads of government negotiate. On “EUcraft” players can negotiate laws on behalf of their government; for example, lobbying to delay the introduction of a ban on single-use plastics – a fair illustration of how governments tend to slow down ambitious EU proposals.
Located off a traffic-congested roundabout opposite the commission’s Brussels headquarters, the €4.2m (£3.7m) Experience Europe space has features shared by other EU museums and exhibitions in Brussels: it’s free and mostly paper. Touch screens are more effective in ensuring that content is available in different languages.
At Experience Europe, visitors can put on immersive virtual reality headsets to get a 360-degree view from inside a firefighting plane in Spain, or from an EU aid mission to a refugee camp in Bangladesh. Meeting the president of the European Commission”, Ursula von der Leyen – recently declared by Forbes as the “most powerful woman in the world” – will be heard reflecting on being the first female head of the Commission and how she spends her free time. She tells viewers that she enjoys listening to Adele while running through the forest, as well as looking after ponies and chickens in her German country house.
Elsewhere there are short films about fictional Europeans, such as a bright romance involving an Italian farmer named Federico interwoven with references to EU policies on regional products, capitals of culture and the abolition of roaming charges. The quiz also has a heavy policy, with some opening questions. The statement that the EU is “lagging behind in the development of artificial intelligence” appears to be “fiction”, when it is at least debatable.
Opened with little fanfare, the European Experience doesn’t want to compete with the top tourist attractions in Brussels, and instead is aimed at just under 30,000 visitors a year.
When the Guardian calls in, there are only two visitors, but they are enthusiastic. “We love it and agree that it’s a shame that we’re here almost alone,” says Tomas Novotny, a 29-year-old research analyst, on a weekend break 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 current and usual problems. [is] of the European Union.”
He and his partner, Tomas Braha, took part in the EU’s Erasmus exchange program in Ireland, an experience they think makes them not the older generation. If people were better informed they wouldn’t believe what they read on disinformation websites about the EU, says Novotny. “I think this kind of exhibition should be everywhere in every country,” says Braha.
Their enthusiasm may not be widely shared. On the Guardian’s return visit, the only people who see the glowing touch screens and flashing electronic tickers are the staff. A spokesman for the Commission said 20,000 people had visited in the first 10 months since opening.
It is much busier in the Parlamentarium, where students are queuing for security checks. The European Parliament visitor center is much larger and claims to be one of the most visited museums in Brussels, having welcomed 2.5 million people since it opened in 2011. Telling the continent’s history from first world war to Brexit, it also informs people. about how parliament works, with pen portraits of its 705 members. The display is updated quickly. After Britain left the EU, British MEPs were removed overnight. Eva Kaili, the Greek politician accused of bribery and corruption, is still on the MPs’ wall but without formal titles or party affiliations – she was stripped of her responsibilities and expelled from the Socialists and Democrats group 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 “horrific” and had “the potential to hurt the reputation of the European Parliament and citizens’ trust in EU institutions”. However, Karas, who co-leads the parliament’s work on public information, was optimistic that places like the visitor center helped the EU reach people. “Only if you talk to each other, interact and explain how the EU works and how it benefits us all can you keep the spirit of our European Community alive,” he said in email responses during his illness.
It will probably never be enough to appeal to the toughest audience – a bored German teenager on a school trip. Ivan, 17 from Dusseldorf, said he and his friends mostly didn’t enjoy the exhibition and complained: “There’s a lot of information. He reiterated the history we had already learned at school.”
Shahid, an international business student from Groningen in the Netherlands, was more positive. “It was really good to get all this new information,” she said, adding that there was a lot about the war and the formation of the EU that she didn’t know.
Alberto Alemanno, professor of EU law at the HEC business school in Paris, estimates that around 1,000 adult students have accompanied him to Brussels, who have enjoyed the various EU offers. “Any attempt by the institutions, or anyone else, to create a more entertaining experience, which could provide [the public] What decision making and humanizing the bubble might look like should be welcomed….”
But it may 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 citizen’s 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 to create beautiful museums that will be very entertaining for the usual suspects. We haven’t necessarily addressed the actual needs of people traveling to Brussels trying to understand how they can engage with institutions.”