Eurosceptics cry foul as EU ‘history house’ costs soar

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Plans to create a museum to celebrate the history of the European Union were hit by controversy this week, amid soaring costs and claims from Eurosceptic MEPs that the project is beset by conflicts of interest. Parliamentarians yesterday (6 April) gave their green light to fund the institution provided that running costs are reduced and a proper business plan drawn up. 

The 'House of European History', the brainchild of former European Parliament President Hans-Gert Pöttering, is expected to open its doors to the public in 2014.

But work on the project is yet to begin and controversy has surrounded it since its inception, with MEPs repeatedly rowing over its exact purpose and total cost.

The museum – identified as "an essential part of the Parliament's information and communication strategy" – will focus on "the political, economic and social history of Europe and of European integration – including its background and achievements – from a European, and not a purely national, perspective," according to a funding request seen by EURACTIV.

Renovating and fitting out the Eastman Building in Brussels, earmarked to house the museum, will cost 52.4 million euros, the document reveals, while once open to the public the project will cost around 13.5 million euros per year to run.

Meanwhile, total cost estimates for the museum have more than doubled to almost 156 million euros before work has begun, according to the Daily Telegraph.

Estimates of initial costs, which relate to leasing premises to house the museum, carrying out renovations and starting the exhibition, have risen to 129 million euros from an earlier prediction of 58 million, the newspaper calculates.

Estimated running costs of 13.5 million euros per year are around 80% higher than originally foreseen, the Telegraph claims.

Parliament spokespeople contacted by EURACTIV said the Telegraph figures were wrong and "based on a misreading of the budget documents". "There is no increase in the projected costs of the museum," an official said, adding that the figures in the funding request "are already out of date and the eventual cost will be lower".  

MEPs demand cost reductions, business plan

Parliamentarians yesterday demanded that a detailed business plan be drawn up – setting out "the long-term business strategy of the House of European History" – before any agreement to provide funding in full. 

They were voting on a sensitive report drafted by Portuguese centre-right MEP José Manuel Fernandes detailing the European Parliament's estimated budget for 2012. The report was adopted by a majority of 479 votes to 176 amid 23 abstentions.

Having "taken note" of the estimated total costs related to the House of European History, MEPs yesterday backed an amended version of the Fernandes report asking Parliament chiefs "to reduce the estimated running costs" of the museum.

They also requested, "in order to maintain a transparent and fruitful dialogue with the parties involved – to be presented with a business plan setting out the long-term business strategy of the House of European History" and demanded "to be informed as soon as possible on the building project".

Pending receipt of the business plan the Parliament plenary agreed to create an initial reserve of two million euros to move the project forward. The budget committee had originally requested 2.5 million.  

Bid to postpone vote failed

Eurosceptics from the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) had tried in vain to postpone until May yesterday's plenary vote giving the green light to building the museum amid claims of conflict of interest.

French MEP Alain Lamassoure (EPP), chair of the Parliament's budget committee, which gave the project the green light, sits on the history museum's Board of Trustees.

"It is bad enough that this ill-conceived, pointless and ludicrously expensive project is even being allowed to see the light of day in the first place," said UKIP MEP Marta Andreasen.

"But […] worst of all […] the chairman of the committee responsible for giving the go-ahead to the House of European History sits on its Board of Trustees, whether or not the post is remunerated," she declared.

"This is a massive conflict of interest [which] in any other parliament […] would not be tolerated. The outcry from the public and media alike would be overwhelming," Andreasen claimed.

Conflict-of-interest allegations refuted

Lamassoure himself categorically rejected UKIP's objections to his role.

"There are differences of opinion between political groups. But I cannot allow […] Andreasen […] to say […] that there's a conflict of interest" between the position of budget committee chair and board member of the House of European History, he said.

"I am not there [on the Board of Trustees] as an individual. I am there ex officio as chairman of the budget committee in order to represent it on that body," Lamassoure said.

Indeed, other parliamentary committee chairs also sit on the museum's board fulfilling similar roles, including culture committee chair Doris Pack MEP (EPP; Germany).

"Frankly, if you hear words such as ‘conflict of interest' uttered in such circumstances, I believe it doesn't reflect the facts of the matter," Lamassoure declared.

The House of European History will reportedly only cover events after 1946 after MEPs were unable to agree on how to address the events of the Second World War.

The museum will instead emphasise "the roots of common European values," the planning document states.

Reacting to Wednesday's vote, UKIP MEP Marta Andreasen (Europe of Freedom and Democracy) said "today proves categorically and unambiguously that when the European Parliament speaks of austerity measures it applies to everybody else except the institution itself".

"Today MEPs were given the opportunity to lead by example and save millions and millions of euros in the budget for 2012. Instead they chose to show their true colours to taxpayers across Europe," she said.

Andreasen said that Alain Lamassoure's dual role as head of the European Parliament's budget committee and member of the museum's board of trustees "makes an absolute mockery of the policy process" and wanted yesterday's vote to be postponed until the matter is resolved.

Lega Nord MEP Francesco Speroni (Italy; Europe of Freedom and Democracy) supported his colleague Andreasen's call for the vote to be postponed. "We're only talking about four or five weeks and we really need to look into this issue, which deals with the spending of millions of euros of taxpayers' money," he said.

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at University of Kent, told the Daily Telegraph that the name "museum of the Lowest Common Denominator" would be more suitable than House of History.

"The EU has adopted a political vocabulary that self-consciously seeks to distance it from the past. Instead of the real Europe, with its age-old rivalries and disputed achievements, we are likely to get an institution devoted to the celebration of empty values like 'diversity', 'difference' and 'sustainability'," Furedi said.

The European Parliament wants to build a 'House of European History' to inform visitors to its Brussels premises of the history of EU integration.

Lawmakers found themselves in the spotlight last year over a similarly controversial decision to establish a 'European Heritage Label'.

In a drive to foster a common identity, last December the European Parliament threw its weight behind an initiative to brand monuments and sites across the bloc with an 'EU heritage label'.

Critics of the plans accused the EU of trying to create "a synthetic European identity", while a row broke out in the UK after European Commission officials confirmed that heritage labels would be used on war memorial sites.

The new voluntary scheme, which would initially involve only EU member states, replaces an existing intergovernmental arrangement. 

But EU lawmakers said that the new label should not merely be considered as a transformation of the existing intergovernmental heritage scheme, which dates back to 2006 (click here for more).

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