Safeguard European values through citizenship education

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.

Our European values are under attack. Several member states are systematically violating values such as rule of law, freedom and equality.

Corona, Brexit and fake news are doing their share to sow doubt about the European idea. To safeguard our common values and stop disinformation campaigns the answer can only be investing in citizenship competences through education.

European values are under attack

Whether it is the controversial abortion law in Poland or the restrictions of freedom of speech and the blockage of the European rule of law clause in Hungary – our fundamental European values are being undermined by a populism that is also gaining dangerous strength in other member states. Many people are falling for the crude theories of populists.

Thereby, the EU is often seen as a faceless bureaucracy in Brussels that determines the life of all EU citizens from afar. The European Union certainly is not perfect, but the benefits of a common union and the principles of the rule of law, equality and freedom are unsurpassed. Unfortunately, they are too often ignored. Because they are not understood. That is why citizenship education is more important than ever. But access to citizenship education in Europe is not a given and the differences among the member states are huge.

Citizenship education in the EU lacks equal funding and resources

Citizenship education enables people to stand up for common values and also strengthens their opinion-forming process, so that they are able to comprehend political processes and to participate in them. However, the EU lacks a common body that neutrally promotes citizenship education based on European values.

Today, member states and national educational institutions are responsible for teaching of democratic skills. This creates an imbalance because the funding and resources provided to citizenship education varies greatly across the EU.

In Germany a Federal Agency for Civic Education with 300 staff members provides funding, learning materials and support to formal and non-formal citizenship education providers. In other member states, nothing similar exists and civil society organisations organise citizenship education with little public support.

Why the EU should fill the gap

The EU relies on its citizens understanding and engagement with its decision-makers for its democratic legitimacy. Hence, it should matter to the EU whether citizens are equipped with the skills and knowledge needed to actively take part in political life in the Union.

Poland’s education minister Przemysław Czarnek recently declared that Polish schools will be teaching pupils at school that the European Union is an “unlawful entity”. However, there are many local citizenship educators in Poland ready to challenge such teachings about the EU and provide a comprehensive knowledge about the EU. They need European support to do so though, because they are under pressure.

How a European digital platform for democratic competence could help

When I launched Values Unite, the goal of the initiative was to establish a European digital platform for citizenship education, the “European Centre for Democratic Competences”. Our common values have to be learned in order to be lived. For this purpose, supportive Members of the European Parliament have submitted a proposal for a corresponding pilot project at the EU Parliament. The idea was also entered at the Conference on the Future of Europe.                    

The ECDC would be an independent digital platform for educational materials, methods and tools, available everywhere and applicable as well as adaptable for national educational contexts. This would ensure access to citizenship education for all Europeans, improve the quality of citizenship education, and promote innovative and digital learning formats in citizenship education.

Contrary to the previous focus in the EU education policy, which considers citizens primarily as employees, the ECDC is to invest in political participation and democratic competences. Education initiatives on EU level should equally ensure access to political and social life as well as to the labor market.

A digital platform for citizenship education in Europe

An independent digital platform can operate across borders and connect as well as scale existing citizenship education initiatives. This is not about building an “EU PR agency” or even imposing an “EU school subject”. What I have in mind is an institution that strengthens existing local educational establishments as well as initiatives and that enables them to reach even more people through digital and innovative methods and tools. In this way, it could contribute to the political opinion-making and participation of all people in Europe.

For example, the internet-based election recommendation application “Wahl-O-Mat” from the German Federal Agency for Civic Education, which is widely used in Germany, originally came from the Netherlands. Spreading this type of tool to other countries and making it available to all citizens for national and European elections should be the task of the ECDC.

Because in order to make these tool effective you need long-term investment and resources rather than project-based funding. The platform can help proven formats to become more visible as well as promote the exchange of knowledge and best practices among citizenship educators and education policy-makers in the EU.

Why the European Centre for Democratic Competences should be established

If the establishment of a European platform for citizenship education succeeds, it should be possible to impart the necessary knowledge so that citizens in all member states can equally represent their interests and European values in politics.

Through educational offerings, students, but also adults, should engage in depth with democracy, the rule of law and human rights. In addition, critical thinking and media competence are to be promoted in order to be able to effectively counter disinformation.

For years we have invested in the economic infrastructure, now we need investments in the democratic infrastructure of the EU member states.

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