Ursula von der Leyen of the piercing blue eyes, the tireless Nicolas Schmidt, Margaritis Schinas (or is it Humphrey Bogart?), Margrethe Vestager’s tea and… sofagate.

The most influential European in Brussels, the face behind the DG Meme account with its 115,000 plus followers on the “X” platform, Fabio Mauri talks to TO VIMA about the key figures in the outgoing European leadership, the far right, but mainly about what he had in mind when he created “DG Meme and Satire” (“DG” being Eurospeak for “Directorate General”). The aim, he says, was to satirize problems with the institutions, and also to describe another reality within the Brussels bubble in language people could understand. And always from a clearly pro-European perspective.

Who could forget ‘sofagate’, with the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, took the seat next to Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara and left the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, literally speechless, staring at them in shock. Fabio thinks the meme about the incident was one of the funniest of all.

“There were lots of tasty moments, but ‘sofagate’ was the funniest of them all; it was really quite something. My meme about the ‘sofa’, for which I just used an Ikea chair and called it ‘Erdogan’, was retweeted in Kurdistan. I gained lots of young followers from Turkey. It was a highly memorable moment.”

Recently, he met both the EPP candidate seeking a second term as Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, and the Socialist candidate Nicolas Schmidt.

“Before anything else, we need to grasp that the holders of senior political positions like these cannot be like the typical leaders we have back home. These candidates always represent a compromise. So they need to be able to navigate the complexity of the European Union”, Fabio replied when asked about his meeting with Ursula von der Leyen. At the same time, he said, this is a woman “who has a lot of problems on her plate” due to her position. Her dedication and energy are some of the key elements he focuses on: “She has these very intense, blue eyes. She listened to what I had to say and laughed a lot at what I got across in the memes. So I view her positively. Of course, it’s complicated and you can criticize many of the choices she’s made in the past, but then again her leadership has been strong and committed. She conveys a real sense of energy that belies her age”.

The socialist Nicholas Schmidt is tireless, too: “It was very funny to meet him. He was also highly energetic, which is impressive considering he’s 70 and has been touring Europe for the last three months. That’s so impressive. In fact, his assistant told me “I’m 34, and I’m exhausted”. It was nice to talk to him. And he was very easy to talk to. You see, as a member of the Socialist Party, he has a lot of experience talking to everyday folk. So, yes, I responded positively to him, too. They’re definitely smart leaders, the pair of them.”

The Commissioner for Competitiveness, Margrethe Vestager, was the first of the Commissioners he interviewed. He describes her as the “artistic nature” of the Commission.

“She was completely open in the interview. When I wrote to her on Twitter, “Hi, you know what I’m doing with DG Meme. I’m trying to explain Europe in a funny way. Would you have time for an interview?”, she answered within two hours. It was Saturday night and she wrote “Yes, I love your page. Please get in touch with my associate. Then we set up the meeting and the atmosphere was so lovely. I took my friend Martina with me. She baked biscuits and Vestager made the tea, so we had tea and biscuits in Berlaymont (the headquarters of the Commission). It was an almost sunny day,” he says, and talks about the “artistic commissioner. Very open, very friendly.”

Next, it was the turn of the “rationalist” commissioner, Valdis Dombrovskis. “Then I told myself I had to go the opposite way. When I suggested the interview, his office was also happy to oblige. They said “The commissioner had seen some of your work and it made him laugh. So we’ll do the interview.” And I was able to meet him. He’s a really funny guy. Of course, he places his trust in numbers and is very rational, very smart.” But then there was the office of the Slovenian crisis management commissioner, Janez Lenarčič. When I called, they said “Of course. We saw you interviewing Dombrovskis, so how could we refuse? Because what matters in the end is that you do funny things, but they’re serious, too. They have a purpose.”

Fabio has known the Vice-President of the Commission, Margaritis Schinas, for a long time, from back when he did his internship at the Commission.

For Fabio, “He is the bullfighter of the midday briefing. Margaritis was like the big guy from the General Communication Directorate when I was an intern. I think he looks a bit like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. He comes in and he’s sort of shaved all over. He enters and comes out with something like, you know, “We’ll always have Europe”, and his voice is so reassuring. He wasn’t a commissioner then, he was the chief spokesperson and answered the journalists’ questions. Actually, he’d try to answer, or not to answer the journalists, which is another one of those things politicians are so skilled at. And he’s very funny with it. We’ve been corresponding on Twitter for many years. It’s not that I wanted to avoid him. I just know he’s too good at what he does to give me anything juicy if I interviewed him. Because he’s so used to defusing journalists’ bombs, and journalism is just a hobby for me.”

Of course, satire can sometimes get a rise out of people: “There were certainly a lot of negative reactions, especially at the start. I was at the receiving end of a lot of harsh criticism. I actually kept my name out of it for a few years before I revealed my identity. Because, you know, everybody likes freedom of speech until something actually exercises that freedom. But the situation has improved over the years, and the page has gone from strength to strength. So the time comes when you have to accept that it’s part of the European way of life, as Schinas would say. So there still is criticism, but it’s welcome. What I mean is, you write something and people are free to critique it. Still, nothing really scary has ever happened, when I was put under pressure to take something down.”

In two weeks the…General Directorate of Memes and Satire will be celebrating its sixth birthday. Fabio explains how he was inspired to start the page: “DG Meme originally set out to criticize a particular approach to EU communication. You see, I find the way in which the EU institutions communicate deeply disappointing. They’ve somehow managed to make the vast majority of what we do here deathly dull. Their communication conceals all the passion, all the hard work and conflict here in Brussels. As I was starting out as a trainee at the Commission, I tried offering constructive criticism during meetings and propose different ideas. I’d say, “You know, maybe this isn’t the best possible approach. We have to try another way”. But no one ever listened. Finally, one day, after a long and super boring meeting in which I had to listen to a whole bunch of rotten ideas, I thought, “I’ve had enough. I have to do something”. And that is how I started. I was feeling really down after that meeting, so I called up a friend and we went out. I started complaining about their communication strategies over a beer, and he said, “You’re so good. Why don’t you suggest something yourself?” Which got be thinking. What could I do? What can I suggest? I don’t have a budget, so how can I impact on communication? Then it came to me: memes are the easiest thing in the world to create!”

With the European elections coming up in a few days’ time, Fabio is using his memes to try and show what the far right is really all about.

“Their ideology is so old-fashioned, so outdated and old—as an approach to things, it’s just so stale. They haven’t cottoned on to the fact the world isn’t like it was a century ago. They want to drag us back there. Well, not in my name! I’m going to fight them all the way. But we will end up having to waste so much valuable time on them. Which isn’t to say that some of the points they make, or try to make, are entirely absurd—that immigration is a problem, for instance, which you’d never hear from parties further to the left. It is important to say that, yes, immigration is a problem, because there are many problems associated with it. But we can solve them together, by working with the immigrants themselves and finding ways to communicate and highlight all the positives of diversity. But when that diversity goes on the offensive and we’re the target, we have to intervene and find a way to block it. Generally speaking, though, I get the feeling they’re just scaring people with promises. And that’s counter-productive again, because they could end up setting us back a hundred years, fifty years. And that really isn’t something we need right now.”

On election day, Fabio will be in the European Parliament awaiting the results; of course, he’ll also be on the lookout for inspiration and ideas for the next… round of memes and satire.