EU must be joking: TV comedy shines new light on Brussels

New series Parlement imagines political infighting in the European Union

It’s late at night in a Brussels office. A group of rowdy British politicians are ripping apart the blue and gold-starred European flag, swilling beer, dancing with the Union Jack aloft. One MEP clambers up onto a table: “We’ve taken back control,” she shouts, before falling flat on her face.

Welcome to the European parliament as imagined for the small screen. Parlement, a Franco-German-Belgian co-production, is a 10-part comedy series and something rather unusual: a slice of the European Union in popular culture.

The show was conceived by Noé Debré, a French screenwriter who grew up in Strasbourg, close to the European parliament’s second seat near the Rhine. Comedy, he thinks, is a great way to approach the EU: “The complexity of the European institutions offers a lot of opportunities for misunderstanding and funny situations.”

Over 10 30-minute episodes, the show charts the progress of Samy, a political naïf who arrives in Brussels to work for a member of the European parliament, knowing nothing about the EU and caring less. His boss is Michel Specklin, a feckless French MEP from an unnamed centrist party, who passes the days hiding in his office or running away from requests to do any work. “What will I talk about for one-and-a-half minutes?” he despairs, on being cornered into making a speech in the fisheries committee.

It’s a world of backstabbing and intrigue, where European parliament officials in three-piece suits quote Bismarck and assistants connive to split the Spanish delegation with sweeteners for Catalan nationalists.

Tricked by one official, Samy ends up in charge of an amendment to ban the practice of cutting off sharks’ fins - a law the real European parliament passed in 2003. The hapless novice teams up with Rose, a cynical British assistant, who has watched her boss turn from moderate Tory Europhile into full-throated Brexiteer after being “radicalised” by her internet reading, including Boris Johnson’s articles on condom sizes and banana shapes. Rounding off the main characters is German assistant Torsten, who sums up the history of the European peace project in a sentence: “Guys, we’ve got to stop fighting and work on regulations and shit.”

A scene from Parlement
Parlement is launched on Belgian TV next week. Photograph: Jo Voets/

Although French media have likened the show to The Thick of It, the comedy is gentler, without the sweary aggression of Malcolm Tucker, the fearsome director of communications played by Peter Capaldi. The dialogue shifts between English and French, sometimes German, occasionally some of the EU’s other 24 official languages.

Insiders will recognise a lot: the real plenary calendars on the walls, Italians who complain about the coffee, and the “celebrity commissioner” that young assistants swoon over. There is a Danish politician who has fined Apple and inspired a TV show, a character clearly modelled on EU competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager.

Parlement airs on Belgian TV next week and in Germany in June, following its launch in France. It is still unusual to see a primetime show about the EU, and in France, where there is no tradition of political comedy, Parlement was a difficult sell. The show was in development for two years at another channel before finding a home on France Télévisions.

“It’s not the easiest topic to sell,” Debré says. “Drama is conflict and conflict is drama. And without conflict you don’t have action. And the EU is a place designed to produce compromise not conflict.” The show, however, does bring to life amendment battles and faction building, which rarely get public attention.

Maxime Calligaro, a policy adviser in the European parliament who became a co-writer, thinks Brexit “sort of helped” galvanise interest in the project. “Since the Greek crisis,” he says, “the EU has become so dramatic … The boss of the network wanted more Brexit in the show.”

The show even delves into the thorny question of the Irish border, when Brexiteer MEP Sharon Redlion comes up with a plan to solve the biggest conundrum of the Brexit talks. “Just track it all with a massive GPS. You could just do something like Deliveroo with a bit of Bitcoin,” she says, a suggestion that satirises the real-life and ultimately doomed “alternative arrangements” proposed by Tory MPs.

Debré, a fan of The Thick of It and Veep, has been surprised by the lack of British comedy on Brexit. “British comedy hasn’t seized on the subject yet, which is really weird for us, because the British are so good at doing comedy.” He suggests the subject was too divisive to joke about. “It’s easier for us to make jokes about it, so it felt like we had this whole land of jokes that we could take over.”

While the show has picked up good reviews in France, it has provoked some unease inside the EU bubble.

Olivier Costa, director of European political and administrative studies at the College of Europe, the elite training school for European officials, questions what he sees as the writers’ indulgence of Eurosceptic cliches, such the stupid, lazy MEP, while he adds that no one would ever hire anyone as ignorant as Samy.

The show’s creators are taking a big risk, he wrote in a recent issue of the French magazine La Vie. The viewer not steeped in EU politics will conclude that the European parliament is “a chaotic institution, where incompetents, rogues or nationalists stir things up without aim”.

Calligaro thinks that verdict misses the show’s nuances, such as the trajectory of Samy, who discovers his conviction for the unpopular cause of sharks during the season. “All the characters have redeeming features. Yes, the MEP is very lazy, but he is a very nice guy and maybe he is an outstanding local politician. The German policy adviser – she is cynical, she is Machiavellian, but ultimately she is fighting for a good cause.”

Calligaro and another co-writer, who works for the EU, were ultimately convinced “that what the EU is dying of is just being ignored.

“I guess what mattered to us was to show that the EU institutions are human – for better or worse.”


Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

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