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Connecting European Citizens: Never Mind the Institutions, Where’s Birgitte?

‘Brussels’ is boring: the dullness of institutions…
Nobody cares about EU institutions, and how they change. I’ve given enough lectures at universities and public talks in a range of countries to know that even the ins and outs of the historically-unparalleled, and thus inherently fascinating, ‘ordinary legislative procedure’ bore people to death. Its dull-as-ditchwater name doesn’t help.

Over the years, the EU has become much more democratic in terms of its institutions. The directly-elected European Parliament has long been the Council’s equal as a legislator in many areas of policy. Since the Lisbon Treaty, national parliaments have been given the role of subsidiarity watchdog, meaning they have a potentially key role in EU policy-making. Since Maastricht, citizens of every Member State have a secondary citizenship, that of the EU; its duties are non-existent, but its entitlements are pretty impressive, and as far as we know unique in the history of international organisations. But none of this seems to resonate with the EU population.

Of course, ignorance is part of this. Many people simply don’t know about the way the EU works, or their rights as EU citizens. But even when they do, this doesn’t usually change the way they feel about the EU or the inhabitants of other Member States. Again, there can be good reasons for this; for instance, many people from the EU-27 who live in the UK have no right to vote in the upcoming referendum on UK membership, although their lives could be the most marked by the result. Many people – myself included – have been sceptical of EU citizenship rights that allow you to vote in local and EU-level elections in the country you live in, not just the state of which you are a citizen, but give no such entitlements in the elections that count most: those for national governments. But the uncomfortable truth is that changing the EU’s institutions has done little to connect it to the people within its borders, or to connect such people to each other. If it had, we’d be seeing a very different set of popular reactions to the ongoing Greek tragedy, migration crisis, and the euro-zone’s mix of dithering and cruelty.

…and the need for drama
I’ve come to the view that this failure is not so much the result of inadequate changes to the EU system as it is a reflection of human nature, and the inability of supranational politics so far to capture the imagination.

A basic human need is to express ourselves in story, art and song. Contemporary forms of culture are doing much the same as prehistoric humans did with their cave-paintings – it’s all about recording, expressing, wondering. Among their many benefits, the arts allow us to think, reflect, mock, celebrate and console. They enable us to get out of our heads, and into our hearts. And that’s when real transformation can happen.

In academia, people have in recent years begun to challenge what is called ‘methodological nationalism’ – the unthinking use of the nation state as the model of political life, which fails to consider how those states have changed through processes such as globalisation. I think we need a similar process in the realm of culture – not just extending open arms to work from other countries and in other languages (which I know many countries do more generously than the UK), but consciously re-imagining ourselves and our lives as part of an interconnected and interdependent planet. So, exposing oneself to the culture of another country is a useful first step, but we need to do more – we need to rethink our cultures and forms of artistic expression to catch up with the real world, in which national borders are often meaningless. If we can manage this, then maybe we can make people feel more open to, or connected with, institutions and systems at a level beyond the nation state.

A proposal: dramatise the ‘Brussels Village’
How might this be done? I suggest looking to Denmark for answers. One of the best TV series in recent years was Borgen, the story of how a gifted and decent politician from a minor party became prime minister, lost that role and made a comeback. Birgitte Nyborg, luminously played by Sidse Babett Knudsen, went on an odyssey of transformation; she achieved her ambitions, lost a husband, found a new one, dealt classily with adversity, and rose like the proverbial phoenix at the end. It was manna from heaven for a big ole gay diva-worshipper like me.

Alongside the personal dramas of Ms Nyborg and her fellow characters, Borgen was a vehicle for helping viewers understand the battles between principle and feasibility that colour political life. In that, it was like many good political dramas. However, in at least two respects it stood out from the rest. The first such distinction was that it acknowledged that it was set in an EU Member State; although the principal focus was in Copenhagen and national politics, the links between the national and the European were acknowledged more than in passing. The second distinction was that it focused on the way modern political systems in the West actually function, so alongside aspects of the Danish constitution and party political machinations, there was prolonged examination of the role of international organisations and law, the media and interest groups in shaping political outcomes. It provided all the colour and drama needed to interest viewers in many countries about the politics of a state most of them may never have thought about very much, and about which they previously probably knew very little.

Where is the equivalent series about the EU? I have frequently searched the web to identify something like this, and have had very little success. There are films in which cross-border mobility is the plot device that brings the characters together; there are films in which one or more of the characters are EU politicians or officials, but so far as I have been able to find out, this role is treated as secondary to the main dilemma of the movie, like in Paris By Night (1989).

There may be others that I haven’t discovered; I hope so. But it’s certainly not a mainstream concern. This is a great shame, because a first step in identifying with the EU as a political system is understanding how it works, but in a way which is immediate, and which resonates with the psyche. If we want Europeans to understand how the system in which they live functions, and the interests in it that they share with people like them in other EU countries, let’s give them drama. Why not bring Birgitte to Brussels as the new President of the European Council? I’d be happy to help with the writing, and my fees are very reasonable.

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