A Superhero always arrives on time – so does Captain Europe when he agreed to meet up with us for an interview. His blue spandex costume, enveloped in a EU flagged-cape, stands out from the sea of suits on Place de Luxembourg, in the heart of Brussels European district. Yellow boots and a blue mask complete the outfit of Europe’s Superhero, who has become a well-known figure in the Eurobubble and who has appeared for instance on TV reports of broadcasters “France 3” and “ZDF”.
“Captain Europe, mild mannered servant by day and superhero… well, mostly at weekends and at other times on request” – this is the self-ironic description one can find on his Facebook page. (British) Humour, but also facts are the Superhero weapons of Captain Europe. Wherever he goes, people react to him, ask him questions and want to have their picture taken with him. Captain Europe gives a face to the EU, to an entity that has always struggled with this task.
In 1999, Nicolas De Santis of the consulting firm Twelve Stars created a comic-book-style EU superhero for the EU institutions, which had the task to promote the EU and also the Euro. The result was the character “Captain Euro”, whose elements clearly reminded of Marvel’s “Captain America” and who was described as a “polyglot” and “son of a famous European ambassador”. In his real identity, he worked as a professor of paleontology. He wore a metal alloy joint in one of his knees because of a motorcycle accident. Together with sidekicks such as “Europa”, Captain Euro formed the “Twelve Stars Organization”, which had the tasks to “defend the security of Europe and uphold the values of the Union” and fight “Dr. D. Vider”, a “ruthless speculator”. The Captain Euro campaign turned out to be a failure and was torn apart by media such as the “Guardian” upon his release, which wrote that it had “the sort of history only a marketing company besieged by focus groups could devise”.
Compared to the Captain Euro fiasco, the public and media feedback to Captain Europe has been far more positive. With “Au café de l’Europe”, Captain Europe talked about his origins, his actions, his purpose, the aftermath of the EU elections and UK’s relationship with the EU.
Who is Captain Europe and how did he come here?
A few years ago I came up with an idea that was supposed to be just a kind of a costume, something that is different from people dressing up as Batman, Superman, etc. And now, it has taken on a life of its own. So here I am, trying to symbolize the combined strength of Europe and its states.
Since when have you been Europe’s Superhero?
I came up with the first prototype in 2006 and my first appearance was then in 2009, on the open day of all European institutions in Brussels. It really started to go viral in 2012 after some pictures of me were uploaded on the web. Now it get asked to do a lot of public appearances, about once a week.
There are rumors which say that you are acting as a part of an elaborate EU communication campaign to improve its image. Are you part of an EU communication strategy or are you acting on your own?
I have nothing to do with the communication of the EU institutions; however, I do work in the European public service. I have a back-office desk job that has nothing to do with public relations. I’m doing all this entirely on my own initiative.
I saw in a France 3 clip of you that Martin Schulz, the president of the European parliament, crossed your path and then talked to you. How do EU figures react when they meet you?
Usually they’re happy, although sometimes some people are a bit reticent. I’ve had endorsements from commissioners, from the secretary general of the European parliament and also from several MEPs who came up to me and wanted to have their picture taken with me. So the reactions from politicians are actually similar to those of the public. In general, it’s about 90 percent positive and ten percent negative.
You are very active on Facebook and Twitter besides your public appearances. How do reactions from people online differ from those in real life?
People tend to be a lot ruder online than in real life, I think that’s the main difference. The positive reactions don’t differ greatly. People ask me questions online as in real life. It’s the negative people who tend to be ruder and more threatening online. They issue threats they would never carry out in real life. I think they are either too lazy or too cowardly for that.
So how do you react to criticism?
Usually with humor. Most of the time that works, except with the French (laughs). Yet you can’t please all people all the time.
Let’s get back to your person. How many people know your real identity?
This number has increased since I have been doing this for long. I’d say that now probably 40, maybe 50 people know my true identity.
What is your real purpose being Captain Europe?
The main purpose really is to stimulate debate and discussion about Europe. It’s often thought that Brussels, the European institutions are remote and disconnected from the citizens. By getting out on the streets – not so much in Brussels, that doesn’t really count, but in other member states – it gives people a chance to engage. Even if the encounter is partly obscured by a mask, it gives a face to Europe.
In interviews you have said that your enemy is Euroscepticism. What is your weapon against it?
A lot of Euroscepticism is based on misconceptions and half-truths. So I try and get out there to correct the misconceptions, give people facts about Europe and talk about what the EU has done for citizens. I try to make it more real and less remote to them.
Do you have the impression that people know enough about Europe?
There is an enormous lack of information. In a sense, there is a disinformation about Europe. Perhaps the institutions are as guilty of that as anybody else. Sometimes the Commission and the Parliament paint a picture that is too rosy, and on the other hand you get a very negative picture from the Eurosceptics. There is not quite enough of an in-between, of people getting objective information that helps them to make up their own minds.
Personally, are you an unconditional pro-European or are there areas where you see room for improvement in the EU?
Oh, there are plenty of areas for improvement. I sometimes joke that I embody the European Union as it should be – strong, yet flexible and lean, without too much baggage. There is always room for improvement, and I think the pro-Europeans are working hardest to bring that about.
Recently European elections were held. What conclusions do you draw from the results?
I think they were a bit of a wake-up call to mainstream politicians, to be less aloof and remote, but also to stop complaining so much about the EU. If you go around like people as David Cameron or Mark Rutte (Note: Dutch prime minister), telling how awful the EU is, eventually they will start to believe you, but not necessarily win you any votes.
From your accent I can assume that you are British. Currently there was a big debate going on about Britain potentially leaving the EU. What are Captain Europe’s thoughts on this issue?
I think that the UK would make a big mistake by leaving the EU. The EU is its closest neighbor and its biggest trading partner. The UK suffered perhaps not as much, but certainly along with everybody else (Note: refers to the crisis). It wouldn’t be in the interest of the UK to leave. This is something that British people increasingly seem to recognize, because if you look at the opinion polls, they say now that there is a relative majority that wants to stay in the EU.
Do you need to make appearances in the UK to make a pro-European case?
I have done that. The reactions have been remarkably positive, not just in London, but also in Manchester. I ended up one evening talking to somebody who I thought would be more interested in the uniform than in anything else, but who was in fact keen on 1 am on a Friday evening to start a real discussion about European public affairs. So you meet interesting people in the most surprising places.
For how long are you going to continue as Captain Europe? Is there for you a point when you say that you are no longer needed, because Europe has got rid of its problems and that your work is done?
I certainly hope that such a time will come, though I don’t see it coming in the immediate future. What I do see in the near future is me being told to wear this suit credibly. So I intend to retire at the end of 2016.
Interview realised by David Donnerer