The House of European History

Aaand we’re back. Some of you may well have heard the news that the European Parliament opened a new museum, dedicated to the history of capital-E Europe, and I discovered rather to my surprise that it’s about five minutes away from where I live, in Parc Léopold, where I’m accustomed to go for a walk if staring at my sofa is somehow fails to provide me with inspiration. Given this, I decided it would be a good excuse to give up on work early one day, and so a few weeks ago I went and visited; it is, pleasingly, free.

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Très belle, n’est pas?

As a museum, it’s fine. I was expecting it to be distinctly propagandistic, and certainly it has a particular viewpoint, but it’s not overwhelming; I hadn’t expected to find ‘state terror’ proposed as one of the historical experiences uniting Europe. It’s got some very fancy gizmos – you hand over your passport at the front desk, and in return they give you a highly-programmed tablet which has a variety of audio, visual and textual labels about the exhibits. With that said, there’s not a lot of interactivity: I can’t imagine children enjoying it much. It feels like it’s very much for aspiring European policy wonks.

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As the above indicates, there’s not actually a lot to say about the House itself. I recommend it if you’re in Brussels for more than a couple of days and you want to do something quiet and sober. What did interest me was how it didn’t quite justify its own existence, or rather how it didn’t quite justify Europe’s existence.

The first floor of the museum asks the question ‘what is Europe’? It fails to answer it, but the way in which it fails to answer it is interesting for this blog’s purposes. It fails, because it asks the question in historical terms. What factors of a European past unite Europeans? It proposes several different answers – Greco-Roman inheritance, democracy, Science!, experience of state terror, amongst others – but none of these encompass every EU state or exclude non-EU ones.

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Not joking about ‘state terror’

The clearest historical parallel for the modern EU – the previous historical entity which occupied close to the same space and proceeded with something approaching a reforming agenda and/or central policy making body – is of course one which no current European politician could ever point to as a precedent, because it’s the Catholic Church of Innocent III. Even if they are personally a very particular type of pious Catholic, ‘increasingly-intrusive papacy’ would be a hard sell, y’know?

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Although, who knows? It got a bit weird at points.

The problem here, I think, is that the real answer to the question ‘what is Europe’ – ‘a collection of polities bound together with duct tape and spit in pursuit of mutual advantage, driven by the seat of its pants due to the lack of any real historical precedent’ – is generally considered unpalatable. For all that a sense of pan-Europeanism has set itself up as an alternative to national identities, we’re still working off a nineteenth-century concern for the organic. The idea is that the most natural form of community is one which arises out of shared roots in the past, not connections in the present; personally, this all comes across as a bit Völkisch. This, perhaps, is where history can be useful politically without having to be Relevant in terms of concrete policy proposals*: if people can be made to recognise the contingency not only of their specific communities but of their ideas about community, some space can be cleared for the greater legitimation of different forms of social organisation better suited to the resolution of contemporary political and social issues.

My word, that was hard to phrase in a deliberately non-partisan manner…

*(“What do we want? An end to the bipartite estate! When do we want it? Before the millennium of Christ’s Crucifixion!”)