The European Parliament visitors' centre in Brussels – known as the Parlamentarium – aims to convince rather than inform but it is nevertheless worth a visit, reports PublicServiceEurope.com
On display in the Parlamentarium, the European Parliament visitors' centre, is a press release from 1950. It seeks to persuade early Eurosceptics that European integration will not lead to the creation of a "cartel". Cartels seek to maintain the status quo, the release's authors point out, whereas the forthcoming European Coal and Steel Community – the forerunner of today's European Union – will "boost economic growth".
There are predictably few references of this sort, in the 3,000-square-metre exhibition, to the criticism that has accompanied the 60-year-old process of pooling European sovereignty. It is a €21m-plus shrine to EU propaganda, but do not let that put you off going.
All visitors are obliged to walk through what could best be described as Europe's corridor of shame. The walls of this dark passage are lined with moving photos of hungry Finnish children in soup kitchens after the First World War; of Jews having their noses measured in Germany in 1940; and of women fighters relaxing during a lull in the Spanish civil war. The message here is quite simple: if the EU did not exist, we would have to invent it, or something similar, to avoid a repeat of our continent's bloody past.
The corridor that follows is a potted history of EU integration. Visitors mark time on the left-hand wall: from the Soviet flag flying over the Reichstag to the invention of the mobile phone, via Brigitte Bardot in a bikini. The enlargement of the EU and the various treaty reforms are explained over the same timescale across the centre of the corridor. It is all very touchy-feely. The multimedia guides are clearly designed for the internet generation; you get quick blasts of information on demand.
Your history lesson over, you are then led into a series of chambers that explain the intricacies of the parliament's decision-making: the 'today and tomorrow' area. Here – what joy – you can pick up a pamphlet from one of the parliament's political groups, or watch a video message from Martin Schulz, the German former bookshop owner who has become the institution's president. "I want Europe's children to be able to live their entire lives without knowing war," Schulz says. Fair enough.
Tucked away in the far corner of the room is a screen showing a short message from British MEP Nigel Farage, leader of the assembly's Europe of Freedom and Democracy group. "This is the only parliament that cannot initiate legislation on its own," he says. Gabriele Zimmer, the German MEP who heads the mysteriously low-profile European United Left group, tells viewers that in her opinion the EU should focus on feeding the hungry.
Once you have had your fill of MEPs you can move on to the 'living room' area, where you can relax on a sofa while watching true stories of those who have benefited personally from EU integration. A former Latvian athlete explains why he moved from his homeland to Ireland to become a construction yard worker. The video ends with the message: "Everyone has the right to live and work in another EU country" – though its makers forget to mention that this right does not apply to the long-term unemployed
In another circular chamber, a film on the lifecycle of a draft EU law is projected through 360 degrees. As elsewhere, the technology is impressive and the production quality high, though the content clearly toes the official line. For example, Strasbourg is repeatedly called the parliament's official seat without a mention of the many MEPs who would rather dump the French town in favour of a single seat in Brussels. Scroll through your multimedia guide in search of an answer to the question "Why does the parliament have three working locations?" – the other one is Luxembourg – and you will be told: because member states so decided in 1992. That is just not a good enough answer.
The Parlamentarium aims to convince rather than inform, but you could hardly expect much else from the EU's most pro-European institution. On the way out, those who have fallen for the wishful thinking can visit the tourist shop where they can purchase a football with the word 'respect' written on it in all of the parliament's 23 languages. The chocolate euros cost €3.90 each, a fittingly overinflated price. Entrance to the visitors' centre on the other hand is free, as is the cloakroom.
At the exit, PublicServiceEurope.com
asks a young Turkish student what she thought of her visit. "I liked it," she says. "There was lots of useful information." Do you want Turkey to join the EU? "No," she replies. "I don't think we would fit in. If you walk down the street in Istanbul you will see that it is totally different from Europe."
Since it opened in September 2011 there have been just over 300,000 visitors to the Parlamentarium. That is below the 450,000-per-year target, though few people, even in Brussels, yet know of its existence. And if you think that €21m is a lot of money in today's austere times, the parliament would like to point out that in the United States, the Capitol Hill visitors' centre cost a whopping €421m. However, given the parliament's efficient propaganda machine, one can only wonder if these figures tell the whole story.