Brexit: What About the EU’s Headquarters in London?
You read that right. Since 2010, the European Union has nestled a base in Westminster’s Smith Square. It aimed to provide a reference point for stakeholders, specialists and the general public on all matters EU. Often known simply as ‘Europe House’, the place has long been London’s best-kept secret. But how could Brexit impact it?
What Was the Point of Europe House?
Firstly, some background. The purpose of the quasi-ambassadorial “Europe House” was always directly akin to that of the BBC: to inform, educate and entertain. It was long a source of information for nationals of the mainland continent based in the UK for any length of time. By answering questions relating to their rights while living and working in Britain, Europe House was always a go-to support measure for Europeans abroad.
Yet the vital information service was equally open to any British people who felt under-informed about the EU, its many committees and then-28 Member States, the irony being that only those with a working knowledge of political science were likely to even know such an information service existed. In regards to its educational component, Europe House ran a lively events program, including recent discussions and debates such as “Brexit and Gender” (2018) and “Climate Rights as Human Rights?” (2019). Evenings dedicated to learning the basics of EU languages were also commonplace. Most, if not all, of the educational events were free and open to all. The –somewhat highbrow- entertainment value of the EU’s London was to be found in its Twelve-Star Gallery, showcasing the artistic talent from across the Member States, with art that explores the very idea of Europe. An exhibition by Maltese artist Josette Fenech commemorated Malta’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union, coupled with an evening of Maltese song, language-learning and performances. The European Union at its absolute best.
Jan. 31, 2020: Europe House Gets Rebranded
The institution hosted by Europe House was officially known as the Representation of the European Commission in the UK. It closed on the 31st January aka Brexit Day. Walking into the building in the aftermath feels like entering a bank in the wake of the 2008 crash. The place exemplifies the dual meaning of the German word “Botschaft”: “embassy” and “subtext” with the undertone of Brexit simply inescapable. The Union Flag has been removed from its central room and has not been flying outside. The Twelve Star Gallery is also bare. Yet, following a brief period of uncertainty, this is not the end for the EU’s London headquarters.
What was previously the ‘Representation of the European Commission’ is now the ‘Delegation of the European Union to the United Kingdom’. The crucial change is the switch from ‘Commission’ to ‘Delegation’ and new signage has been installed to formalize this change. The ‘office will ensure continuity in the working relationship between the European Parliament and UK Houses of Parliament.’ It also wishes to continue informing and supporting the ‘3.6 million EU citizens who have made the UK their home.’ Its art gallery will be reinstated and a new program of events is already emerging.
Europe House Shows that UK-EU Relationship is Still Alive
As the issue of the Cuban Embassy in the United States tells us, when a country gains or is granted a base in another, it is never without significance. Opening the Delegation of the European Union to the United Kingdom signals that the UK and mainland Europe have not severed relations and remain on speaking terms. Statues are symbols that orientate us towards the version of history we wish to remember and teach. Such a version of history is based upon and carved out by the demands of the present. Similarly, the presence of the Europe House building clearly indicates the desire for EU-UK co-operation. The recent movement to remove statues of certain historical figures (#RhodesMustFall) indicates a climate in which any opposition to European presence or iconography in the UK would be made known.
The crucial point unearthed by the continued presence and usage of Europe House is the tendency to confuse the European continent with the European Union. As such, many on the Remain side have felt that leaving the EU is synonymous with Britain turning her back on the mainland continent as well as all our friends and fellow British there. This is not the case. It just seems that the phenomenon of Europe is one we are still fathoming and yet to arrive at a thesis for. Surely the EU’s presence in Britain can only be helpful to this end: to show the Isle how the mainland sees itself, not least of all through its Twelve Star Gallery. We have yet to find a thesis for the very idea of Europe and the recent Brexit chapter is only the latest chapter of this odyssey. Even if the EU crumbles, Europe is still intact.