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12.12.2018 | Von:
Tony Venables

The Importance of Citizenship Education for the Future of Europe

Tony VenablesTony Venables (© private)
The work of NECE is so important for the future of Europe, which needs future generations of citizens to engage far more massively than has been the case so far. Throughout a career working for Europe I have always felt there should be more citizen participation and democracy. After starting as a European civil servant with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg and then for the EU, most of my career has been focused on working for European NGOs in the areas of consumers and citizens. From founding ECAS (European citizen action service) in 1990, I have been involved in setting up European ventures such as the European Public Health Alliance and Culture Action Europe. November of this year saw the 25th anniversary of the Maastricht Treaty which added these new policy areas to the EU as well as youth and education. This was a real incentive to these and several other civil society developments at the European level. Lobbying the EU from the outside I can claim to have helped get more pieces of legislation and programmes adopted than if I had remained in the European administration. However, the greatest handicap to European campaigning, except on the rare occasions when you hit the headlines, has been an insufficient critical mass of aware and motivated people providing the necessary backing to European initiatives. There are always shortterm priorities and none of us in the camp of reformers of the EU has given enough attention to information and education, which tend to be everyone’s and no-one’s responsibility. In pushing for more citizens’ participation in building Europe we need the backing of a European public sphere representative of the whole of European society rather than one which largely represents a broad, relatively privileged 30%.

A more recent initiative has been to set up ECIT in 2015, a public foundation devoted exclusively to European citizenship. At ECAS we launched hotlines on European rights and ran an advice service for the European Commission called Your Europe Advice consisting of a team of legal experts answering questions from about 10,000 citizens a year moving round Europe. From this experience of seeing how things work – or don’t - across Europe, the next step was to become interested in EU citizenship as such. In writing a book which was published by NOMOS under the title “piecing together Europe’s citizenship” it became quickly apparent that previous experience of the European rights regime was insufficient, simply because it is not relevant to the majority. If according to Eurobarometer opinion polls some 70% of people recognise that they are in some way European citizens, there is still a sense that EU citizenship is something of an elitist concept for the well-educated and linguistically competent young people from relatively well -off families. How to give European citizenship a more universal appeal appeared therefore to be an issue for educational policy.

From reading the academic literature about European citizenship education, the Council of Europe declaration on education for citizenship and human rights, and studies by Eurydice of the way it has been applied across Europe, a number of headline points emerged which were some cause for optimism:
  • Since the collapse of the Berlin wall, the way citizenship education is articulated appears less nationalistic and gives more scope to universal values and critical thinking and to therefore adding on a European and international dimension. This trend is not irreversible in countries where nationalistic politicians are in power, but nevertheless the subject is beginning to break free of its national parameters.
  • It seemed to me as an outsider that there had been, as a result of the soft power of the Council of Europe, something of a silent revolution with every country paying at least lip service to citizenship education and teaching it in very different ways and to a very different extent. Could a more critical mass of well-educated, engaged citizens emerge in future and correct the failures of the current generation in power? Superficially the subject is spreading but it appears notoriously difficult to evaluate the impact and potential.
  • Teaching European citizenship appeared particularly challenging when researchers raised the question, since no two educators can agree on what it is or might become. In setting up ECIT, this led us to try to explain this first transnational citizenship of the modern era with a set of guidelines on rights, participation and the wider aspects of European identity. Our annual summer university brings together civil society activists, researchers and policy makers and does provide a pool of publications and knowledge about the “state of the art” which we hope can be useful for those looking for sources and links for educational purposes. The report of the summer university in 2018 is on our website http://ecit-foundation.eu. From the report one can follow links to overviews of research projects, the rights attached to Union citizenship as well as educational material. We would very much like to see our work put to use to create new European citizens.
  • There is a sense that Europe is fine for those who have been educated, supported and developed their cross-border networks but that this can produce a sense of exclusion on the part of those who have not had such advantages. Opinion polls and votes in elections or referenda across Europe do reveal similar socio-economic, geographical and generational cleavages about the EU which are deeply disturbing. The difference between movers and stayers has become a new challenge for European citizenship. The good news is that evidence suggests – perhaps not unsurprisingly – that giving young people who would not otherwise have been able to do so, the opportunity to study or train in another European country can be a much more transformative experience than for those who could have such opportunities in any case. To some extent, EU exchange programmes miss their target.
Against this background ECIT has partnered with two research networks – BEUCITZEN and CATCHyoU – which have presented results on education for European citizenship at the last three annual summer universities. The report of our last summer university on 6 and 7 September held in Brussels at the same time as the NECE conference in Marseilles also featured a presentation on the latest Eurydice report, which covered 42 education systems and found renewed interest in the subject of citizenship education with recent policy initiatives in some countries. The presentation also confirmed, however, that it is very difficult to make comparisons given the differences in systems and to be able to extract from the mass of information how much emphasis is placed on European citizenship. For that the two research projects mentioned above do show that on the whole education for Europe makes the mistake of portraying the EU in text books as something apart, a set of distant Institutions unrelated to the daily life of young people, a top down approach. On the other hand, both projects have shown that by starting from the bottom-up and the daily experience of young people it is perfectly possible for them to educate themselves given the opportunity and come up with good ideas for the future of Europe.

As a result of contacts with NECE and the active participation at our summer university of Julie Ward M.E.P., a member of the European Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education, the following declaration was approved at the end of our event:

“In order to address the numerous challenges that the EU and its member states face, we must prepare a generation of young people with the motivation, commitments, transferable skills, including critical and creative thinking, entrepreneurship, leadership and capacity building, to be audacious problem-solvers and responsible citizens in a more fair and inclusive world. Citizenship education allows intercultural dialogue, personal and collective development and wellbeing and empowerment of individuals and communities. We therefore call for appropriate support in the next MFF to citizenship programmes and initiatives, including targeting citizenship education both in formal education and non-formal and informal learning settings. More particularly we support the proposal that the Culture and Education committee of the European Parliament is about to make that at least 1 EUR per citizens goes to supporting citizenship initiatives, being through the Values and Justice programme, Erasmus +, Leonardo, Creative Europe, the Regional Cohesion Funds or any other relevant EU instrument and tool.

Following the Charlie Hebdo and Danish attacks, Education Ministers signed the Paris Declaration calling for the use of education and active participation in order to promote fundamental values and counter radicalisation: we have now an historic opportunity, to make turn this recommendation into acts by providing citizenship initiatives proper funding. Promoting our fundamental values of tolerance, non-discrimination, social justice and rule of law through dialogue, diversity and education is a shared responsibility of societies, and all stakeholders must be included in that strategy. The next EU budget must therefore also properly recognised the key role of civil society and organisations working at grass roots level and provide them with appropriate support and resources.”

We hope that this approach will be taken up and actively supported by NECE so that it is put into effect. There is already success since an amendment by Julie Ward to include citizenship education in the report of the CULT Committee on the MFF was accepted shortly afterwards.

I also hope that NECE will be able to support broadly our manifesto for the European elections which was revised after our summer university in September and in particular our objective no, 9 where it is recognised that: “Whilst reforms are needed to make the EU more democratic, this is not enough unless they register with the majority and are actively taken up by more people. European citizenship must become a condition of civil equality and rest on a wider sense of shared identity in a European public sphere. As a first step, there should be an obligation on EU and national authorities to ensure that all Union citizens and residents should be informed about their European rights and the activities of the EU, but that will not be sufficient unless people have had, from an early age, the necessary education in and out of school about the EU and what it means to be a European citizen. In turn, more information and education about Europe can only work if it is seen as relevant and everyone is given the opportunity to experience Europe in practice. For example, the age at which it should be possible to sign a European citizens’ initiative should be lowered to 16.

European citizenship education can be taught as a stand-alone subject or linked to others such as languages. English has increased exponentially in use, particularly among the younger generation, and this should be recognised and encouraged by the EU. Use of a lingua franca should be counterbalanced by learning from an early age at least two other European languages apart from one’s mother tongue and being encouraged to recognise that the best option is always to speak the local language. As a counterpart to the new programme on fundamental rights and European values, there should be a special programme on European citizenship education. This should start from a young age. Citizenship education has spread across Europe, albeit unevenly, following a Council of Europe Charter. The EU, which does have competence for Union citizenship, should propose a model for the European addition to these efforts following the 2015 Paris Declaration by EU ministers for education. In the context of the negotiations for the next multi-annual financial framework, the European Commission has recommended doubling the budget for the Erasmus programme. This is a welcome investment in the younger generation, but the programme will still only be accessible to a minority. Erasmus should also include civic education as an EU policy objective supported by a specific share of the budget. Should not the possibility of participating at some time in one’s life in a European exchange programme be open to everyone? It should become a European right — a universal entitlement of a European citizenship of greater equality. Such an objective could only be achieved gradually and through the introduction of an increase in European revenue or a European tax to produce the necessary resources. The new European Parliament should support such an objective and introduce a feasibility project.“

We are planning a dialogue with representatives of European political parties on 31 January to pursue these recommendations and hopefully at least some of our proposals and those of other European civil society organisations will be taken up.

Finally, I would like to put forward four reasons for NECE to become more involved with Europe and actively lobby the EU Institutions:
  • There is a strong moral case at a time of populist appeals to myths and simple nationalistic solutions for NECE to become involved with the debate on European values and fundamental rights and bring to the EU evidence of how these can be underpinned by education in and out of school. Transformations in Central and Eastern Europe turning out to be less successful and stable than thought, the rise of extreme right wing parties in unexpected places, the growth of outright lies , propaganda and appeals to prejudice in political discourse: all this suggests that the roots of ore democracies are more fragile than assumed.
  • It is also in the self-interest of NECE members to become involved with the creation of a new programme on justice and values close to their concerns and the prospect of the budget for ERASMUS expanding and its objectives being defined more broadly. Citizenship has yet to be recognised as an official pillar of European educational policy. However, the focus is much broader than ten years ago in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis when the emphasis was on education for jobs and skills.
  • The EU decision-making process is in general is complex and often unpredictable so that most organisations have found that in order not to miss opportunities one has to be on the spot and stay involved in Brussels and Strasbourg at all stages, at the risk of having one’s views ignored. There is very loose forewarning of what is coming up or likely to be on the agenda of the next meeting of a parliamentary committee and it can change at the last minute. It would be reasonable to assume that one can easily follow EU affairs at a distance by simply monitoring the websites, but this is not true. By the time a website is changed it is generally too late. “Les absents ont toujours tort” does not really have an English equivalent, but that’s the message and general attitude of EU decision-makers! Some 30, 000 lobbyists are active at EU level for a reason.
  • Getting involved is even more important in the specific area of education. The lack of a strong legal basis has led the Commission to make progress though engineering a complex process of putting forward policy objectives which once approved can be put into effect by an expanding set of funding programmes and supported by networks of stakeholders. More has been achieved on education than on many of the other new areas of policy added to the EU by the Maastricht Treaty, so that becoming involved is both more of a challenge and more rewarding. More protagonists for citizenship education will be particularly welcomed by civil society networks already established at European level and by the vast majority of EU decision-makers.
So, the message is it’s high time to become involved now.

Tony Venables (November 2018)