The year is 2060 and a ramshackle little museum is hosting the first international exhibition ever on “Life in the Former European Union”, a period “when Brussels, not Warsaw, lay at the beating heart of the old continent.”
Held in a derelict former boarding school, its rooms fitted with old white wash-basins, the show — destined for a supposed audience from the future and taking place a stone’s throw from current EU headquarters — claims to be hosted by fictional group The Friends of a Reunited Europe.
The fake exhibition looks back at the “Second Interbellum” from 1945 to 2018, or Final Years of the Long Peace, to chronicle how the EU developed and what went wrong when the Great Recession struck in around 2010.
Just how Project Europe actually collapsed remains unsaid, though there are dark shades of bloody protests by hungry migrant workers and a wave of Austerity Suicides in the decade to 2015 are painfully evoked.
The exhibition states that the EU’s 33rd and last member was Scotland, which joined in 2017. Current EU President Herman Van Rompuy was followed in the chair by Finland’s Jyrki Katainen, and Italy’s Mario Draghi remained at the helm of the European Central Bank until 2018.
Curator Thomas Bellinck said the mythical friends of Europe group and its fictional museum took shape in his mind after visits to tiny museums in Riga, Latvia and Timisoara, Romania.
The museums were poorly funded but run by people who cared obsessively, the latter a museum on the Romanian revolution set up by an elderly veteran to show his own collection of relics, Bellinck said.
“I thought I could try something similar with the European Union,” said the 29-year-old theatre director.
In a dozen rooms scattered over three stories of the building, Bellinck runs through how Europe “United in Diversity” after the continent’s violent wars, acting as a magnet that attracted nation after nation to its “Community of Values” — freedom, democracy, human rights.
In that context last year’s Nobel Peace Prize for the EU gets pride of place.
But as recession struck, “trust in the European Union diminished” and the old fault-lines returned, say panels in four languages, the most prominent being Esperanto — the invented 19th-century language whose creator hoped to unite humanity.
“In uncertain times the evils of the past proved more contagious than dreams of a united Europe,” the exhibition says of the effects of economic crisis.
Asked to comment on the dystopian show, Bellinck insists that “I’m not a eurosceptic, I believe in Project Europe” — though the poignancy of the exhibition would hearten many of the eurosceptic parties mushrooming across Europe.
Tongue in cheek, Bellinck stacks documents stretching three stories high through floors and ceilings to portray the 311,000 rules and regulations — weighing 1.5 tonnes, he says — agreed by 2017 by the Brussels bureaucracy.
Displays include the first euro-bills, photos and relics from the early 2000s, and famed EU directive 2257/94 setting the required dimension of a banana at 14 centimetres long and 27 millimetres in diameter.
By 2015, the exhibition states, Brussels had become the lobbying capital of the world, with 200,000 lobbyists — against 654 three decades earlier — whose dog-eared visiting cards line museum walls.
Disintegration began during the euro crisis, a period epitomised by a plastic lemon squeezer with an Angela Merkel head. The collapse of the European dream was exacerbated by an ageing population whose relaxed lifestyle — including a taste for year-round tasteless tomatoes at rock-bottom prices — wound up undermining Europe’s competitive edge and productivity.
So was there a future for the European dream? “The EU is at a crossroads,” Bellinck says. “It can be resuscitated before it is too late.”
Titled “Domo de Europea historia en ekzilo” in Esperanto, the exhibition runs until June 14