Does Europe need a £44m history museum?

Artist impression of the House of European History

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A "necessary" demonstration of Europe's shared history, or an expensive vanity project? The European Parliament's £44m (52m-euro; $70m) House of European History is one of its most controversial projects.

Surrounded by hoardings and rapidly-filling skips, the former George Eastman Dental Institute in Brussels is undergoing a dramatic transformation.

By 2015 the art deco building will be two floors taller and contain the story of modern Europe in 24 languages.

But what that story is, and how much it will cost to tell, is troubling those who are fighting for a rethink of the EU's size and purpose.

What its backers describe as a contribution to European understanding, the museum's detractors consider a contribution to the EU's sense of self-importance.

Shared history

German conservative MEP Hans-Gert Pottering, whose brainchild the museum is, is a former president of the European Parliament.

He says: "We have many national museums - in London, Berlin and other places, where the national history is shown.

Multicoloured extension to the Eastman building One of the entries to an architectural competition to extend the Eastman building

"But there is nothing which shows the history which Europeans share together, and somebody has to start one."

Despite reports that its story would start in 1946, to avoid dealing with contrasting views of World War II, the museum will in fact deal with both world wars, and the communist Iron Curtain that followed.

Mr Pottering says the exhibitions will then reveal the "European answer" to decades of war and division.

With the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize medal at the heart of the museum, he aims to show how the union brought peace to Europe.

It is a pro-European message, which might be disputed, but UK Prime Minister David Cameron said in his recent speech on the EU that the union's "first purpose - to secure peace - has been achieved".

Mr Pottering says: "We have spent billions and billions and billions of German marks and pounds and dollars to have wars.

"I believe (the museum) is a contribution to peace - and peace is something which cannot be paid with money."

'Extravagant vanity project'

But it is money - and the cost of Mr Pottering's vision - which has attracted the most criticism.

The Conservative Party's leader in Brussels, Richard Ashworth MEP, has his office in the vast complex of European Parliament offices just round the corner from the museum site.

He said: "My personal view is it is extravagant and it is a vanity project.

"This is a subject which needs to be learnt in school most certainly, but I don't think it's appropriate expenditure at this time."

His Labour opposite number, Glenis Willmott MEP, calls herself a pro-European. But she agrees the project is a waste of money.

She said: "I think it's a ridiculous way to spend money. We should be focusing our energy on getting the economy moving."

It is in the UK that the House of European History seems to have raised the most eyebrows.

Mr Pottering is critical of newspaper reports - later picked up on in the House of Commons - which suggested the cost had almost tripled to £137m.

"This is totally wrong. I have such an admiration for the United Kingdom, but some of what your newspapers write is not only nonsense, but against truth."

Entrance to the Parlamentarium The European Parliament's first museum, the Parlamentarium, opened in October 2011

And even if costs are under control, the museum is increasingly being held up in Westminster and Brussels as an example of EU excess.

A £22m "Parlamentarium", just a couple of hundred metres away from the House of European History, already explains how the European Union developed.

UKIP MEP Marta Andreasen describes that project, which opened in 2011, as a "narcissistic amusement park".

A spokesman for the Parlamentarium says it has had 340,000 visitors so far and most have been very positive about it.

One of its corridors features a glass panel representing each member state.

It has room at one end for more panels, as countries like Croatia, and perhaps Turkey, join the union.

If Eurosceptics get their way, a future referendum on Britain's membership could create yet more room - and perhaps rewrite the history Mr Pottering's museum is designed to tell.

Listen to the full report on how the EU spends its money on File on 4 on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday, 12 February at 20:00 GMT and Sunday, 17 February at 17:00 GMT. Listen again via the Radio 4 website or the File on 4 download.

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