A couple of days back I received an e-mail from Jonathan Isaby, formerly a luminary of the Daily Telegraph and Conservative Home, but now with that excellent operation Tax Payers’ Alliance (what a CV — Jonathan is a sound man). Nothing remarkable about an e-mail from Jonathan — I hear from him from time to time — but the address was remarkable. It came not from the Isaby lap-top, but from the European parliament’s “Parliamentarium” (named, presumably, as an ill-conceived parallel with “Planetarium”).
And the Parliamentarium, dear reader, is actually in the bowels of that same Will Brandt Building in which we Conservative MEPs have our offices. Yes, I have the honour of working in a building which celebrates the life and achievements of a prominent German socialist.
Jonathan’s e-mail was kind enough to commend the one-minute video I had placed on the “MEP Wall” in the Parliamentarium, and reminded me that the place has been open for some time, that I had never seen it, and that I ought to have a look. So I popped down with my trusty Press Officer Neelam Cartmell.
It’s the largest parliament visitor centre in Europe (now there’s a surprise). It covers three floors and seems to have several snacketerias. It cost over €30 million (of our money) and was opened three years behind schedule. But now it’s here, in all its glory.
I dread to think what the running costs are — entry is free, and it’s crawling with staff. We tried to avoid the electronic gizmos issued to visitors to interact with the exhibits, but were told we would see nothing at all without. We walked through the three floors. We visited the “360o Room”, surrounded by video screens, giving an in-the-round live panorama of the Strasbourg Hemicycle — perhaps the most striking exhibit. And we saw the “MEP Wall”, where pictures of all 700+ MEPs are displayed, and the visitor can access data about them, including (for those MEPs who have bothered to record a statement) their sixty-second declaration of faith.
The overall impression is curious. The Parliamentarium is artificial and remote, cut off from reality. It’s full of information, but communicates little. It’s illuminated, but dark. It’s vast, but claustrophobic. It focusses on what the parliament wants to tell us, not on what we might want to know. I was very glad to get out, and back into daylight. It is, in fact, an excellent metaphor for the European Union itself. It’s a mighty propaganda machine, paid for by the hard-pressed public. As Samuel Johnson said of the Giant’s Causeway, it’s worth seeing, but not worth going to see.
When it’s been running for a bit, it will be interesting to compare and contrast costs with visitor numbers. When Chris Heaton-Harris started asking similar parliamentary questions about the Parliament library, he found that each book borrowed cost the tax-payer around €3000. I suspect that similar numbers will emerge from this vast vanity project.