How can we feel more European if we don’t laugh together about what goes on in Brussels?
20 December 2021 /
The Schuman Show is a brand-new satiric show that takes place in Brussels on a monthly basis. Its goal is to criticise with humour decisions taken within the Brussels bubble. Named after one of the founding fathers of the European Union, the Schuman Show aims at making fun of the EU insiders by including the outsiders. Kelly Agathos and Lise Witteman co-created the show in 2020, and keep seeking inspiration in European news or in the daily life of the European institutions. They gathered a team of actors, comedy-writers and journalists, all experts in European Union matters. Kelly Agathos agreed to answer some questions for Eyes on Europe. She worked for nine years in European affairs, took part in NGOs and worked for Permanent Representation of the United Kingdom during the Brexit period. She is now a professional improviser, actor and voiceover artist.
After working in European affairs, Kelly witnessed a considerable lack of communication on European issues.
No matter where I worked, whether it was inside or outside of EU institutions, everyone who works in European affairs is not as aware as they should be about how bad we are at communicating what we do. We are terrible communicators because we assume a lot of prior knowledge. I genuinely believe that the rise of populism around Europe and Brexit, in particular, resulted from people not understanding what the European Union does and, more specifically, what the politicians in Brussels do when they come here to negotiate. The biggest takeaway from this professional experience was that, even though there is a lot of excellent work done in Brussels, we are terrible at explaining what we do.
When she co-created the show with Lise, their main goal was to raise awareness and interest people in European issues.
When Lise and I met in September 2020, we agreed that explaining why the EU is relevant to people who don’t work in the bubble is complicated. We both believed the advantage that America or national countries have over the EU is that what happens in their politics gets mentioned at the dinner table, on the radio and on TV, because they have integrated it into their pop culture. That is where the inspiration for the show came from. We see amazing late-night shows in America take the headlines and explain what the news of the day is, but in a funny and easy to understand way. These explanations are missing from the EU sphere, even in fiction. For example, Robert Menasse wrote The Capital in 2017, and Maxime Calligaro wrote Les Compromis in 2019. M. Calligaro is also a screenwriter for a French TV series called Parlement and Costa-Gavras released the film Adults in the room in 2019. But these are not big pieces of pop culture that everyone is involved with and knows about. So, we both got inspired to start the Schuman Show because how can we feel more European if we don’t even laugh together, if we don’t know what is going on in Brussels and can’t discuss it with our friends?
Kelly recognises the responsibility of the EU to communicate its decision-making process in a more approachable and understandable way, but decided not to wait for the institutions to do so.
I think it is everybody’s responsibility. Also, there are many reasons why Brussels does not communicate effectively. For example, Americans and Brits are better at communication from the get-go. English being the lingua franca, they may also have a linguistic advantage to explain themselves rather than us, who are constantly working with a second or third language. Moreover, the European Union is de facto more complicated than a national government, because we all more or less probably know how countries’ governments work. It is not easy for a big institution to communicate the way a private institution would, just like NATO or the UN, because of their nature. There are a lot of internal difficulties that come with big institutions like these. The Congress and the Senate are pretty complicated, yet Americans know more or less what the Congress and the Senate are. I don’t know if it’s because the politicians are very good at explaining the difference, or because some TV shows and newspapers are doing their job exceptionally well. The EU could improve its attitude towards communication. The Commission has a whole department called DG COMM, responsible for communication and extensive campaigns. During the elections of 2014, a friend of mine made a comparison to the apathy towards European elections. She explained that if the EU functioned as a company and its clientele were low, people would probably get fired. But you don’t do that in the civil service.
After seeing the miscommunication of European institutions from the inside, Kelly also recognises the lack of involvement of the Member States in spreading European knowledge.
When I worked at the Commission and debated with my colleagues, one answer I got very often was that it is not our job to communicate Europe because we implement what Member States decide. They created the Union, so they are the ones with the responsibility. Member States should indeed defend the EU more than they do, they should be the cheerleaders of the European Union. Still, you see what is going on with Poland and Hungary. They are in the EU but not acting as club members right now. They are scapegoating Brussels in a very similar way as the Brits. But even if you don’t look at the extremes or at the Eurosceptic countries, one issue is that Member States come here to negotiate new laws. Then they go back home, and very often, if the rules are not popular, they will say, “Brussels made us do it”, even if they agreed to it. They always have a get-out-of-jail card that enables them to blame Brussels because that won’t cost them the next election. Member States are responsible, but it is not just one party that has to do something. We all have to preserve the Union and protect it because we live in a terrifying time now, considering Brexit, the abuse of the rule of law and freedom of the press in Poland and Hungary, the current pandemic, and the border issues with Belarus. Now more than ever, we should be standing together because we are stronger when we are together.
The company wants to involve as many people as possible in European issues. The show is a satire meant for the Brussels insiders, and any outsider can watch the videos. Having no previous knowledge about Europe should not prevent the audience from laughing at the jokes.
We are called the Schuman Show and not the European Daily Satire Show, for example, because the EU label can already put people off, associating it with tedious European bureaucracy. The title of the show already creates curiosity for the viewers. They might get sent a video by a friend and even if they don’t know the title, the video might make them laugh. Then, they might want to learn something more and watch other videos. Naming our performance the Schuman Show allows us to include most of our European audience and gain wider viewership. That said, Schuman is one of the founding fathers of the European Union, so the insiders will know what the show is about and want to see themselves be made fun of. The Brussels audience will look at themselves and laugh, the ones who don’t reckon the EU will learn something. It is also a way for us to put up a mirror in front of them and pass straightforward messages. For example, our first show in September had a sketch about the response of the EU to the situation in Afghanistan, which was that there was no response. I think it is good to speak the language of the people who live and work here to their face because we already have an audience of MEP’s, commissioners and journalists following what we do. However, our goals don’t stop there. We already have videos online, and we will keep making more of them in December and January because we want people around Europe to know what the EU does. There is one video online about flirting when you are part of the Euro-bubble, and the whole joke about it is that technocrats talk obscure language even when they flirt. The point is to make what happens here familiar. I teach improvisational theatre, and the great thing about improv as an art form is that you laugh so much with the exercises. And you learn better enjoying yourself and having fun than reading a Powerpoint. If you can pass the same message with jokes, it is more likely that people will remember and understand. That is why we think this work is worthwhile, and it will reach a wider audience and hopefully not stay at the level of Brussels. Finally, I believe our job is necessary as other comedy shows because one of the functions of satire is catharsis. After all, when things are very dark and alarming on the news, one way to tame something is to make fun of it. One way to handle bad news even in your personal life is to have a sense of humour about it.
For Kelly and her team, the videos posted online are a way to expand the show beyond Brussels.
We want to attract viewership from all over, including those who don’t know what the EU does. Thanks to the videos, they will learn more about the good and the bad aspects of the EU. We are not all cheerleaders of the current leaders; we believe that some people are doing a great job, and some others are not pulling their wave. We think that some things the EU is fighting for are worthwhile, and in some other areas we are disappointed by its inaction. It is also necessary for us to criticise and make that widely known. We are planning to do journalistic field pieces for the two following videos. We will take on a policy area or a new law to be voted on and explain where it is in the process. Lobbies have a lot of power in Brussels, and citizens should know how they influence the decision-making process of the EU.
When selecting the topics for the show, the team follows European news and points at some more systemic issues of the European Union.
There are some timeless topics. For example, in the last show, we joke about the European transparency register, an institution in the European Parliament where lobbies have to sign up to lobby MEPs inside the institution It records who comes and goes, who had a meeting with whom… and we decided we could make a fun sketch out of it, but there was nothing in the news about lobbies and transparency. We also talked about the Polish situation regarding the rule of law, as judges and the Court were in the news in October. It is a mixture of what is relevant and what is already in the environment that we think could be funny.
For Kelly, one of the main assets of the show is interpreting songs.
We take songs with well-known lyrics and change them to verses that have to do with what is happening. For example, we have changed Jay-Z’s 99 problems about racial profiling by the police. Instead, we rapped to Poland because it has 99 problems, but the budget is not one. It was an excellent way to create something entertaining and culturally relevant, and to pass a message. We would like the Commission to show the same combativeness, as Poland has been a problem for the rule of law ever since the PiS government came into force. With that song and those new lyrics about Poland, we were able to pass a strong message in a clever and relevant way.
The Schuman Show tackles any concerning topic about the EU. For example, it criticised the very permissive reaction of the EU to the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan.
We do not want to have a limit; it is not what we tackle but how. It is not a matter of what we decide to put the spotlight on, even if, of course, humour is very subjective. The discussions we usually have are not about whether or not we should tackle a subject but how we should explain it, make fun of it, and whether our accusations are fair.
Beyond diminishing the citizens’ interest in European issues, the lack of communication coming from European institutions has significant political consequences, which Kelly and her team are concerned about.
One of the most questionable aspects of the European Union is probably the lack of transparency of what goes on in the Council. What happens in the European Parliament is better documented. You can watch plenary sessions and see what reports were voted on, and all the laws are accessible on the European Parliament’s website. However, the Parliament and the Council have the power of co-decision. They both have equal weight in deciding EU laws and the final outcome of the decision-making process. The summits of the Council, gathering ministers of every EU Member State, are a bit like a black box because there are no records of the negotiations happening. They might be accessible to diplomats, but not to civilians. For example, when the financial crisis was happening and Greece was one of the ‘bad kids’ because of its high debt, Alexis Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis were coming and going to Brussels and meeting with all the EU leaders. If you hear Varoufakis’ version of events as the Greek finance minister, it differs from the Dutch or the German finance ministers. Then what would you believe? If you don’t have the meetings televised or recorded, even if negotiations are secret for a reason and concessions need to be made close-doors, it also allows things to be concealed and hidden.
Fortunately, the Schuman Show is just getting started and has plenty of issues to tackle. The experience and motivation of the performers will make the EU a little more fun and understandable. There will always be the need to explain what the EU does, especially to those who care less about it. The challenge to create a European dialogue is hard, but the humoristic component of the Schuman Show makes such discussion more approachable and concrete.
Special thanks to Kelly Agathos for answering my questions.
Go check out the Schuman Show’s website!