Unified citizenship education is a must to stop democratic backsliding in the European Union.
From the Pythagoras theorem to the trivia of national history, the average high-school student in the European Union is overburdened with knowledge. Yet there is one thing they are unlikely to learn in school but with a great impact on adult life—how to be an active European citizen. And the best antidote to the threats facing European democracies, such as the rise of the far right, apathy and low trust in institutions, is to empower young people through citizenship education, based on a common European curriculum.
Education is inevitably normative as well as factual: since the inception of mass schooling, it has been used to foster loyalty to the nation-state and promote purported national identities. The EU has always struggled with the perception among its citizens as being too complicated and remote, so it has a lot to gain from a common citizenship-education framework, founded on universal norms.
European citizens have themselves recognised the role education can play in strengthening allegiance and consensus on values. In the recently published summary of the European Youth Event, the EU’s biggest youth conference, one of the top ideas was ‘Teach more about the EU in schools’, promoting ‘better understanding of how the EU works and the benefits of EU citizenship’, especially through lessons on democracy and European values. Moreover, in the final report of the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE)—the EU’s latest innovation to overcome the democratic crisis—citizens’ recommendations included shared competences in citizenship education ‘to prevent member states from exercising their own’.
A common European citizenship-education curriculum should be built around three elements: knowledge, skills and disposition. Young people should be furnished with knowledge of European integration and the functioning of European institutions, so they can make informed decisions when voting and better understand the advantages (and shortcomings) of the EU. Skills in critical thinking, (digital) media literacy and debate are vital to exercising citizenship in the 21st century. And the disposition to become an active citizen—proactive and problem-solving—can be fostered in schools.
Students must also be given the opportunity to put theory into practice: among forms of student-led engagement, they might be involved in decision-making on the school budget or manage debate clubs. If implemented properly, such measures can strengthen their democratic commitment and resilience against hate campaigns and the disinformation spread by populists.
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Already a wide range of initiatives are available to young people: the European Youth Portal run by the European Commission brings together funding and volunteering opportunities. The European Parliament’s Youth Hub includes the European Youth Event and skill training via ‘together.eu’. The youth partnership between the EU and the Council of Europe complements these with research and workshops for youth workers.
While all these programmes can boost young people’s skills, their outreach is limited. Bringing the EU into national school systems would ensure that not only the ‘usual suspects’—already-involved Europhiles—benefit from European youth opportunities. We must however avoid merging youth and education policies: the two are closely related but blurring the lines risks marginalising the importance of education for citizenship and of non-formal education projects for young people to try things out.
A significant step towards a unified EU curriculum on citizenship education was taken in March, when a non-legislative resolution on citizenship education was adopted by the European Parliament. This echoed most of the ideas put forward here and emphasised the need for a common definition and framework for European citizenship education, as well as closing the gap between the goals set in EU documents and implementation by member states.
In response, the commission promised a comprehensive EU strategy on citizenship education, inclusion of a citizenship-education benchmark in the European Education Area by 2025, investment of €60 billion in education through the Recovery and Resilience Facility and follow-up on the CoFoE recommendations. Faced with the political will of the parliament, the commission in other words sheltered behind existing initiatives and the limits of its competences. We must keep pushing the EU until these procedural promises become a reality: citizenship education should not be a top-down process and we should aim higher than voluntary adoption by member states.
Sceptics will say that a European citizenship curriculum is not feasible since the EU only has supporting competence in education—not to mention that Eurosceptic governments tend to promote their own ethnonationalist conceptions of collectivised ‘peoples’. A unified EU curriculum could not only counter the far right but pave the way for a European citizenship safeguarding the most important universal values: democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
Making education an EU competence requires treaty change—as has been proposed by the European Parliament. Yet let us not forget that the European Community started with purely economic co-operation and has moved well beyond that with each crisis it has had to overcome. Amid war, economic shocks, the rise of the far right and the coming European elections, it is once again high time for democratic innovation—which must start in schools, with a unified European citizenship curriculum.
Réka Heszterényi is a student at the European University Institute, a consultant to the Council of Europe’s 'Youth Revitalising Democracy' campaign and a former trainee at the European Parliament. She promotes youth engagement via JEF Hungary and as a 'together.eu' volunteer.