This week will be pivotal in the future of the European Union and its currency, the euro. Meetings of EU countries in Brussels will determine if the euro will survive, and here in Britain, a vote in the Commons will determine if there will be a referendum on whether or not the UK will continue to grace the EU with its presence.
For united we stand
Divided we fall
And if our backs should ever be against the wall
We'll be together, together, you and I
--"United We Stand" by Brotherhood of Man, Europop band
I've got no dog in this fight, but I have had something of a front row seat these last few years, living on the periphery of the EU. Belgium, where the EU holds its plenary sessions (when it's not in Strasbourg) is almost next door. My concern is mainly economic: How much will the exchange rate affect my purchasing power when I visit the eurozone?
But I can't deny there are advantages to living in the EU: its laws affect us here in Britain, and those laws tend to be more humanitarian than many in Britain would like. Among other things, EU regulations affect the food I buy and the conditions in which animals are kept, two important considerations for me.
So when I was in Brussels last week, I was delighted to learn that the EU Parliament building was open to visitors, and coincidentally the new visitor center, the Parliamentarium, had just opened days before. Since my husband had a meeting at the Parliament, I went along and took the "tour" they offer.
If the European Union is half as chaotic as the visitor experience, I frankly hold out little hope. It took me a while to find the entrance—there was no signage of any kind. The tour was to begin at 10 a.m., and for the half hour beforehand, I and other visitors were told to sit in the waiting area, while tour groups went through security and began their guided tours.
Then we were sent through security and were abandoned to our own devices, so to speak. I found a kiosk offering audio devices, with 23 official EU languages available. So far so good, but then I spent 20 minutes—I kid you not—trying to figure out how to work the damn thing. (Just like some men have an aversion to asking for directions, I hate to ask for technical help.)
Finally, after listening to the introduction, I wandered over to the elevators, following the instructions on my device. That's when I noticed a young man who seemed to be in charge of us. He made sure I'd come to the part on my device that instructed me to head to the elevators—sort of like border control—and then I entered one of the lifts and proceeded as directed on my device. I duly photographed the sculpture in the center and then proceeded to the auditorium (the hemicycle) where the plenary sessions are held.
Again, I had to listen to the spiel on my device before I could move on, and then I discovered the tour was over. That was it.
I left confused. I'd expected to be able to see the new Parliamentarium, but there was no trace of it in the building I was in.
So I hefted my umbrella and headed back toward the city. Luckily, I happened to look to the right. There was the entrance to the Parlimentarium! It was hidden in a side building of the complex—were they ashamed of their €21 million Parliamentarium?
It was raining and windy and cold, so I eagerly closed my umbrella and entered the building, went through security again, and accepted the device they handed me—identical to the one at the previous location.
It didn't work any better, although I could at least adjust the volume, unlike on the first one. That's likely because it was brand new, as was everything in the Parliamentarium. Again, I fumbled around for a while before I realized that the device was the key to unlocking the displays, which showed information in your chosen language as you waved the device over the key symbol. But some of the displays didn't work, no matter how many times I waved the device over them.
I suspect French sabatoge.
But when it did work, it unlocked information presented on interactive tables like giant iPads, utilizing a touch screen filled with facts about the history of the EU. I read about the original impetus for a central union, shortly after WWII and the need for a common currency. With international borders so close together, anywhere from 100 kilometers to 1000, economies were intertwined unlike anywhere else on the globe. Europe's trading partners were primarily themselves, and they needed a way to trade without fluctuating exchange rates interfering.
Would the original rules have prevented a situation like the one facing the Eurozone now? Perhaps if Greece hadn't hidden its debt (the previous government is at fault there) the crisis would have been averted. I don't know, though I had a hint when I read the Convergence Criteria on one of the displays, which would have expressly forbidden a situation like that of Greece.
After less than an hour, I happily returned my device and left the Parliamentarium. I had a few euros to spend, and I wanted to get to the city center—a 20 minute walk from the Parliament building—before my husband was out of his meeting.
The Royal Museum of Fine Art gift shop—one of my favorite gift shops in Brussels—was happy to take my euros, apparently heedless of the impending crisis. The exchange rate isn't very favorable—despite its troubles, the euro hasn't been devalued much against the dollar or the pound.
Will Britain leave the EU? Not likely. The euroskeptics, as they're called, aren't a majority in Parliament, though they represent a sizeable force in the Tory party. They won't likely get their referendum, either, but they'll be appeased by voting in favor of it on Wednesday.
The European Union will hold, and if German and France and the other major nations of the EU are smart, they'll reinforce the eurozone with the confidence and cash it needs to stay afloat.
But then, my earlier visit to Ieper, site of senseless WWI destruction and death, is a reminder that Europe doesn't always heed the call of wisdom.
For more information about visiting the EU Parliament chamber, go here. For more information about the Parliamentarium go here. Admission is free and the Parliamentarium is open most days of the year. They cater to physically impaired visitors but not technically challenged.