Even before the shock of last week’s deadly Brussels bombings, gallows humor had taken hold in the square kilometer around Schuman Roundabout, the heart of the city’s European district.
It’s been a miserable start to the year for the European Union with the unresolved migration crisis poisoning relations among member governments, negotiations to avert a British exit getting trickier, Greece’s debt crisis dragging on, and Islamist militant attacks exposing serial cross-border security lapses.
A succession of emergency summits of the 28 national leaders has fueled an atmosphere of permanent crisis. And political weather forecasters say worse storms may be on the way.
Among staff working for EU institutions, long used to being unloved scapegoats for national politicians, the mood oscillates between despond and defiance.
“The European Union is like the orchestra that played on the Titanic,” Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said in January, urging EU officials to redirect their focus to promoting growth and employment instead of “this mistaken bureaucratic approach”.
Officials have been strictly instructed not to do or say anything that may affect Britain’s knife-edge June 23 referendum on whether to remain in the bloc.
Legislation on issues from the energy efficiency of electric kettles and toasters to the social rights of workers have been put on the back burner to avoid inflaming the British debate.
In private, veteran European civil servants say they are gloomy about the state of the Union, anxious for their own future and increasingly questioning the way the EU operates.
After performing legal acrobatics to craft an agreement on British Prime Minister David Cameron’s “new settlement” without violating EU treaties, and a deal to return asylum seekers to Turkey that is at the edge of international law, Brussels is crossing its fingers that neither turns to dust within weeks.
For two decades, a handful of mostly British journalists and EU officials led by journalists Geoff Meade and Jacki Davis have poked fun at the EU and at themselves in a charity Press Revue which is one of the hottest tickets in town.
More irreverent than the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, at which the U.S. president is supposed to be gently humorous about himself and the media and everyone dresses up in tuxedos, the show is like a thermometer shoved under the armpit of the Eurocracy.
‘BEFORE THE EU BREAKS DOWN’
This year’s reading was a high, perhaps terminal fever.
Staged before a sell-out house of officials, diplomats, lobbyists and journalists, the sketches reflected a foreboding that six decades of “ever closer union” may be coming to an end, at least with Britain and possibly with other member states.
They also highlighted EU officials’ awareness of their own unpopularity with the electorate, and their sense of unfairness that voters in many countries have turned against European integration rather than blaming their own governments.
“Let’s just reach one more impasse before the EU breaks down,” was the refrain of a blues that mocked acrimonious late-night negotiations that are the increasingly unwieldy union’s standard mode of governance.
“Hey let’s throw a council, way into the night/ I wanna set fishing quotas till the morning light/ One thing I know, baby, some kind of reckoning’s comin’ around/ Let’s pass one more directive, before the EU breaks down.”
In a sketch on David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, Major Tom adrift among the stars sees the EU from space as a ghostly, desolate landscape after a Brexit.
In another, Cameron anxiously asked the senior British European Commission official, Jonathan Faull, who helped draft his agreement whether it was a good deal.
“It’s a good deal less than you might have got,” Faull replied. “But it’s a good deal more than you deserve.”
That encapsulated the can’t-live-with-you-can’t-live-without-you neurosis inside the Brussels beltway about a country that stayed out of the euro common currency and the Schengen zone of passport-free travel and has opted out of much EU police and judicial cooperation.
Exasperation at seemingly endless British demands for exceptions to EU rules and the fear of setting a precedent for other awkward members in an a la carte Europe is tinged with uncertainty about the bloc’s future if Britain leaves.
In the finale, to the tune of Gloria Gaynor’s “I will survive”, Europeans implore Britons to finally make up their minds and stop thinking they can bring the EU to its knees.
“Oh no not us, we will survive/ As long as we can integrate, we know we’ll stay alive/ We’ve got other member states/ We’ve got plenty on our plates/ But we’ll survive, we will survive.”
If Britons do vote to leave, their sense of humor is something the EU would certainly miss.