Review: ‘Parlement’, the new series on the European Parliament

If someone asks you to define EU politics in one word, “entertaining” and “fun” are unlikely to be the first words that come to your mind. The common perception of EU institutions as lifeless and dull also explains why they have been rarely subjects of TV shows, movies, and series. Even the numerous US-based political series tend to ignore the EU and prefer to focus more on US relations with Russia or China. This lack of interest by the entertainment sector deprives the EU of an opportunity to become better known to a wider audience, at a time when EU institutions are scrambling to be perceived as less aloof and distant. This is also the reason why the release of a new TV series on the EU Parliament, Parlement, has drawn substantial interest in Brussels.

This is ostensibly the first time that a TV series is centered on the activities of the EU Parliamentary chamber. The series was co-produced by companies from different EU countries and it is available in France (France.tv), Belgium (BeTV), and Germany (WDR – starting from June). 

We were curious to find out how the EU decision-making is portrayed in this comedy whose first season has 10 episodes.   Here are our takeaways:

‘Parlament’:  shifting the focus towards politics

Overall, the series is light-hearted and entertaining. It seems that the series achieves a fine balance between providing information on EU institutions and engaging the audience with lighter topics. This represents a fresh change from the usual dull institutional communication and helps to dispel the perception of the EU institutions as technocratic bodies by shifting the focus towards the political side of the EU.

In a different way, the show is trying to achieve similar goals as many organisations in Brussels and across Europe, including our own.  The main difference is that TV shows are, of course, artistic productions whose purpose is to stir emotions while communicating information, and for this reason, it is understandable that producers pay less attention to representativeness or even historical or geographical accuracy. However, since at VoteWatch we deal heavily with stats and have developed a reflex for accuracy, we cannot help but draw attention to some shortcomings that could perhaps be addressed in the following seasons (or other similar series in the future).

*VoteWatch Europe is a leading intelligence source on EU policy-making. Our premium subscribers (such as EU public and private influencers, top universities, etc.), benefit from the most advanced analytical tools in EU politics. We also deliver tailored research, presentations, or training on MEPs’ and governments’ likely positions and majority building in specific areas. If you are interested in a private service, send us an email ([email protected]) or give us a call (+32 2 318 11 88).

‘Parlement’ highlights the multiculturalism of EU institutions, but where is the East?

The series does highlight the multiculturalism of the European project. The characters alternate in speaking French, English and German and cultural differences are finely highlighted: the series keeps a fine balance in its ‘ethnic jokes’ addressed at European cultures and succeeds in triggering humour without crossing the sensitivity lines, which does require a high degree of skills in the current European context. Importantly, the main characters are seen as working together across political and national differences, which accurately reflects the complex politics in the EP. In fact, no single national (or political) group is able to influence the outcome of the legislative process on its own, therefore building bridges with others is essential. Cultural exchanges are not limited to work though. The show’s representation of the games of seduction between the different characters is a representative portrait of cross-nationality romances in Brussels and the challenges of dating people whose culture is different than your own.

On a less positive note, the sample of characters falls well short of representing the geographical diversity of the EU, as the main characters are all from Western Europe (France and its neighbours). From a certain perspective, the series gives us the impression that we’re looking at the EU from 20 years ago: it features almost no characters from the ‘new Europe’. The only character from ‘new Europe’ is a Polish EU bureaucrat who shows up in one brief scene and who is depicted as having alcohol issues. This kind of approach does not help at bridging the gap between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Europe, but risks widening it: the Western audience will not broaden its horizons, while the audience from new Europe will get further frustrated.

While Easterners get little screen time, the opposite can be said of the British. In fact, the developments surrounding Brexit play an important role in the series, as shown by the very first scene. In a way, the relationship between the main characters of the series sheds light on the ambivalent views of the EU towards the UK. The pursuance of a young British assistant seems to mirror the efforts by the continentals to seduce the UK to stay in the EU, or at least to remain closely aligned. Conversely, the show’s grotesque representation of British politics highlights the rising dismay and frustration of the continentals while trying to make sense of Brexit-driven politics.

The political pluralism of the EP emerges, but dissenting views often ridiculed

On the plus side, the legislative process, with all is burdensome administrative complications, as well as the multifaceted political negotiations, is very well portrayed throughout the series, and so is the natural ‘conflict’ emerging between the bureaucrats (‘gate-keepers’) and the elected officials (‘keyholders’). Defying common tropes about the technocratic nature of EU institutions, the show is full of politics and pays homage to the wide political pluralism within the EU Parliament. The series shows that a diverse array of political forces, from the Greens to the hard-core nationalists, dwells in the European Parliament. Political battles are fierce and there is no sparing of low blows, while avoiding descending into a ‘House of Cards’-style carnage (this is still a comedy after all). Finally, while the show does make fun of civil servants, it does not forget to highlight their key role in ensuring that politicians play by the institutional rules of the game.

However, there is a tendency to ridicule people with different political views than those of the main characters. Politicians or staff with a different political agenda are not presented as having different values or representing different legitimate interests (as is the case in more mature political dramas), but rather the message being sent is that those having different views should be seen as either being intellectually inferior or ill-intended. This again, while understandably intended to build support for certain causes, might have the non-negligible side effect of damaging the respect for the plurality of views, a fundamental pillar of democracy. Ridiculing those with different views may be fun and psychologically liberating, but we would have wanted to see this balanced with a showcase of the efforts for mutual understanding of the reasons behind each other’s points of view. After all, it is dialogue, rather than mutual ridiculing that has helped build Europe in the post-war era and this is underrepresented. 

Also, while different national sensitivities are keenly spelled out throughout the series, actual political differences are far less visible in the series, with the exception of the main characters’ contempt for the Eurosceptic right. The characters do not seem too concerned about the core differences among the other political groups, from the EPP to the far-left. This is not the case of the actual European Parliament, where political tribalism is much more prominent. As the stats compiled by VoteWatch.eu have shown over the years, coalitions in the EP are much more frequently built along ideological lines than along national ones.

‘Parlement’ shows that special interests do not dominate EU politics, but seems to perceive them as illegitimate

Usually, the media tends to overstate the powers of special interests on EU policy-making. Make no mistake, special interests are key players in Brussels, in particular as the EU public institutions lack the same amount of financial and human resources of their national counterparts, which makes them more reliant on third parties’ contributions and expertise. However, there are so many advocacy groups, often representing opposite interests, that it is difficult for individual special interests to ‘dominate’ EU politics. This is fairly represented in the show, as it sheds light on this complex coalition-building at the EU level. Special interests do not seem to always get their way, as other forces are pulling in the opposite direction. The show is keen on displaying that politicians have a will of their own (and their own agenda), which set them aside from the lobbyists they interact with. Also, ‘Parlement’ points out that most lobbying is conducted through information exchanges and networking. This has an important educational purpose in setting lobbying aside from corruption (while in some extreme cases lobbying might involve corruption, this association does not reflect how lobbying usually works).

However, such a push to set the politicians aside from the lobbyists leads the series to present elected officials as the good guys and stakeholders’ representatives indiscriminately (both companies and NGOs) as the bad guys. This reinforces the trope that interest representatives are somewhat interfering with politics, while they often contribute to it, by providing info on how a segment of society feels about a specific issue. Additionally, this fails to send the message that the elected representatives also act as representatives of interests (of segments of the society), and not in their purely personal capacity. Elected officials are employed from society’s taxes and should be held accountable throughout their mandate. It is important to foster a deeper understanding of how democracy is supposed to work, which is about dialogue between those represented and those representing them.

Is ‘Parlement’ like Macron?

All in all, while the series laudably aims at raising the profile of the European project, as it puts in a favorable light the centrist ‘pro-European’ forces, certain limitations with which some of the topics are approached risk to partially undermining its intentions, i.e. the series does bridge some gaps while broadening others. In a way, this soft divergence between the intentions and some of the outcomes reminds us of Macron’s European ‘parcours’ so far: while flamboyantly asking for his “European brand label” by having the EU anthem played before the French one at the news of his victory in Presidential elections, a couple of years later he stunned some of his Europeans counterparts with his veto on the EU enlargement and, to a lesser extent, the push of the highly-divisive restrictions on the mobility of the workforce. Let’s now see whether both Macron and the ‘Parlement’ series will provide us with further ‘seasons’ of European drama.

*VoteWatch Europe is a leading intelligence source on EU policy-making. Our premium subscribers (such as EU public and private influencers, top universities, etc.), benefit from the most advanced analytical tools in EU politics. We also deliver tailored research, presentations, or training on MEPs’ and governments’ likely positions and majority building in specific areas. If you are interested in a private service, send us an email ([email protected]tewatcheurope.eu) or give us a call (+32 2 318 11 88).

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