The European Union is today facing a host of challenges. Existing trends of polarization are accelerated by geopolitical changes and social inequalities. Far left and far right political parties as well as anti-establishment movements are gaining ground, often rejecting the values which the EU stands for. This year, Article 50 was triggered for the first time and the United Kingdom has started the process of leaving the EU. One of the underlying issues is a general detachment of citizens with both national and EU politics. The European Movement International believes that citizenship education and a better understanding of the EU are essential to promote an informed and critical debate about Europe without resorting to populist messages which are often grounded in misinformation or so-called ’alternative facts’.
Fostering active citizenship
One important way to foster trust and democratic legitimacy is by fostering the social, civic and intercultural skills which will allow citizens to actively participate in an open and inclusive society and democracy. The European Movement International proposes promoting active citizenship and the common values of freedom, tolerance and non-discrimination through education.
On the EU level, there is a strong commitment to civic education, reflected in the Education and Training 2020 strategic framework, the 2015 Paris Declaration, the 2016 European Parliament report and the revision of the European Key Competence framework. The overall objective is to assist young people to become active, responsible and critically thinking citizens.
Civil society organisations play an important role in the implementation of such objective: They create space for students and teachers to engage in social and civil life and can bridge the gap between formal and non-formal education methods by carrying out different projects and school-based activities. Non-formal learning methods can create space for the personal development of students, awakening interest in national and international political processes, which in turn can form the foundation for developing a sense of identity with the European Union.
Several initiatives implemented by organisations who are part of the network of the European Movement International have proven successful and deserve the continued political and financial support of European and national policy makers. It is not only in times of crisis that civic education is important. Funding and support must be guaranteed in a long term and sustainable way.
Overcoming barriers to non-formal education methods
Citizenship education programmes often employ non-formal methodologies which face a lack of funding, recognition and acknowledgement of their educational potential within schools and formal education. Youth organisations providing educational work on citizenship education are especially confronted with such barriers.
The European Movement International believes that knowledge, skills and competences acquired through non-formal learning methods, including volunteering experiences, are crucial for the development of civic skills. Therefore, increased funding and better integration in school curricula of non-formal education methods employed by civil society organisations is desirable. Taking into consideration the digitalisation in our societies and the diminishing voter turn-outs, European Movement International believes that projects which encourage e-tools for democratic participation and civic education are particularly well suited to address the challenges outlined above.
The European Movement International advocates a budget increase in the next Multiannual Financial Framework, in particular for highly successful non-formal education programmes such as Erasmus+, Europe for Citizens and Creative Europe post 2020. Continued financial support and participation of all European partners including EEA countries and candidate countries in student mobility programmes is desirable. To bring educational efforts in line with the transformation of the current work force, greater support needs to be provided for informal education programmes tackling basic and advanced digital skills.
Fostering education on the EU in schools
Efforts to include a European dimension in the education systems of the EU´s Member States date back to 1988 when the Council passed a resolution holding that Member States should make every effort to incorporate the European dimension in their school curricula explicitly.
While since then, most Member States have implemented education on the EU into their curricula, the information therein is often fragmented, not progressive, too general and in lack of both consistency and complementarity with other subjects taught. EU topics generally constitute at most a small part of the curriculum and all too often the focus lies on geography and the history of EU integration and less on how the institutions function and on how they relate to national institutions.(1) This makes it difficult for learners to build a comprehensive picture of the EU and the individual citizen’s role therein, which does not lead to the development of a sense of European identity.
The voter turnout in the last European Union elections was 42.6 percent. In addition, according to the latest Eurobarometer report, 42 per cent of Europeans state that they do not know how the European Union works. The 2016 European Parliament report on Learning EU at school thus calls for an increased European dimension in education across the different disciplines, levels and forms of education in the Member States.
In support of the Parliament´s report, the European Movement International firmly believes that education on the EU needs to have more space in the school curricula. While the European Union is a project with many imperfections, much of the criticism circulating in the media is based on and preys upon insufficient knowledge of the EU and lack of information on its added value for the individual citizen. All political actors must therefore act to foster a comparable political, cultural and digital education for all generations across Europe.
Again, non-formal methods can step in to help bridge the gap between the EU and its citizens. Therefore, existing educational activities such as the Jean Monnet Learning Europe at School action, e-twinning and EU learning networks at the national level should be strengthened. University education should also pay more attention to education on the EU. One opportunity to do that is by integrating classes on the EU for all participants of the Erasmus study exchange programme.
More integration in education policy
When it comes to education policy, the European Union has a supporting role, while the Member States retain national sovereignty. EU education policy thus serves to coordinate the sharing of good policy practice and mutual learning, to encourage mobility of teaching staff and students as well as to harmonise the recognition of diplomas between the Member States.
The European Movement International would like to see more integration in education policy. As a start, the development of a common framework with guidelines for learning about the EU would be desirable to assist Member States´ contribution to fostering a sense of objective and critical thinking about the benefits of the EU for its citizens.
Such framework should be complementary to the EU´s revised Key Competences for Lifelong Learning Framework reflecting current political, social, economic, ecological and technological developments. In view of the growing importance of online tools in democratic processes against the backdrop of a continuing digital divide, it is also crucial to foster digital competencies and media literacy in schools to encourage active e-citizenship participation early on.
Fostering citizenship education and promoting education on the EU in schools by means of both formal and non-formal methodologies helps improving democratic culture and political literacy on both the EU and national levels. It is thus an area of common concern for all Member States, deserving of common guidelines and increased financial support.
(1) ICF GHK, Learning Europe at School, Final Report of 11 April 2013
Published in September 2017