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Rewriting History

Civitas, 7 April 2011

In 2008, MEPs gave the green light to a new museum, designed to showcase the “common historical memory” of the European Union and “bring Europe’s history alive”. Set to open in 2014, this Brussels-based “House of European History” (HEH) will sprawl over an acre and has an expected price tag of several million euro. However, while its construction has yet to begin, the project is already riddled with controversy.

House Museum

The brainchild of the former president of the European Parliament, Hans-Gert Pöttering, the HEH has remained true to its founding mission to “promote an awareness of European identity”, and create an arena in which “the concept of the European idea can continue to grow”. According to an internal document, the HEH exhibitions “should make it clear that, in a world of progress, a united Europe can live together in peace and liberty on the basis of common values”.

Yet the museum has been censured as a “palace to European vanity”, and MEPs branded hypocrites for investing tens of millions on a controversial, and unashamedly political, project, while preaching austerity to the EU member states.

The decision to endorse the HEH has come under intense criticism, after it was revealed that the Chair of the parliamentary budgets committee, Alain Lamassoure, also sits on the museum’s board of trustees. The Parliament has been quick to defend Lamassoure’s dual role, insisting that the overlap is in place “precisely to ensure that the two committees are kept fully abreast of all developments”. However, with such considerable sums at stake, and the very ideology informing the project in dispute, these statements have done little to assuage fears of a “massive” conflict of interests.

Quite how many euro are at stake, however, is far from clear. Spanish MEP Miguel Angel sought to placate critics, insisting that the museum “will be a very modest, very cheap project”, and initial costs were set at less than £60 million. Yet, using figures from two official documents, The Daily Telegraph disclosed that the total price of the HEH has more than doubled since figures were first published, skyrocketing the required investment to £137 million. Having seen the Arts Council England budget slashed, British taxpayers will contribute £18.6 million of this total, to “cultivate the memory of European history and European unification”.

Most concerning of all, however, are the HEH ambitions to sculpt a single European history from the fragmented, and often conflicting, narratives of the 27 member states. Such plans have been criticised as driven by an unjustifiably political agenda, with scant regard for “historical objectivity”; indeed, the project has been forced to settle on 1946 as the EU “year zero”, unable to reconcile member states’ vastly different perspectives on key historical events. Opinions on the role of America during the Second World War, for example, have proved particularly dissonant, with anti-American French politicians clashing against the Czech Republic.

But these “omissions and misinterpretations” are to be expected. By seeking to use historical education as a political platform to promote a specifically euro-centric agenda, some of the intertwined, and discordant, threads that make up the history of Europe will inevitably be diluted, distorted, even erased altogether. Eastern European MEPs, for instance, have expressed particular concern over the message of some planned exhibitions that the 1979 elections to the EU assembly indirectly caused the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Conversely, this highly selective presentation of history is unlikely to draw attention to more turbulent episodes in the EU’s past; it is difficult to imagine that the failed Dutch, French and Irish referenda will feature prominently in a history crafted to promote and bolster European ideology.

Noting its determinedly political “vocabulary”, Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at University of Kent, has argued that the EU’s historical curriculum “self-consciously seeks to distance it from the past”. “Instead of the real Europe,” he contends, “we are likely to get an institution devoted to the celebration of empty values like ‘diversity’, ‘difference’ and ‘sustainability’”.

In pursuing this “Lowest Common Denominator” history, the HEH can achieve nothing but a disingenuous paradox, aiming to tell the history of all the 27 states, but in fact relating no history at all. With substantial and escalating costs, and the potential to dangerously smother historical narrative that jars with pro-EU politics, the HEH should either be abandoned or enabled to embrace the distinctive past of each member state. As it stands, the European museum is a “grossly narcissistic project”, that “[n]obody wants to be involved in”.

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