29 Oktober 2020

“Our aim is to develop a European dimension of citizenship education”: An interview with Susanne Zels and Sophie Pornschlegel

Susanne Zels is founder and manager of the initiative “Values Unite”.

Sophie Pornschlegel is founder of the initiative “Values Unite” and Senior Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre, where she leads the project Connecting Europe.

D(e)F: You have launched the initiative Values Unite, a campaign that advocates for the creation of a European Agency for Citizenship Education. What’s that about?

Susanne Zels: Our goal is to strengthen European values and thereby social and European cohesion. In the past years, we have seen multiple EU member states violating European values and most European societies suffer from increasing polarization. In order to combat these developments, investments in the quality of and access to citizenship education across Europe are necessary. We believe active and politically well-educated citizens are the best safety measure to preserving European values.

Sophie Pornschlegel: Only very few European member states invest substantially in citizenship education. Many of them have no specialised national agencies, and in some countries there is no non-formal and informal education. There is also a lack of information and research on the topic of citizenship education in the EU27. We don’t know what EU citizens learn in which countries. An Agency would be able to coordinate research and monitoring on citizenship education – and support member states to provide equal access to qualitative citizenship education.

What would be the exact function of this European Agency? Should it only coordinate and monitor national agencies, or should it also have an operative role itself?

Sophie Pornschlegel: We realised very quickly we would need a decentralised organisational structure with a strong funding and operative role. Some of the functions would be:

  • to create a research hub on citizenship education in the EU, to have a better understanding of what is taught in the different member states;
  • to establish a sustainable platform for exchange for educators from across Europe on their methods and their approach towards citizenship education;
  • to implement several capacity-building programmes for stakeholders, especially on the European dimension of citizenship education;
  • and to propose a grant-making mechanism for non-formal and informal citizenship education, also focusing on digital infrastructure and digital learning methods.

Susanne Zels: The EU has competences in the field of education policy to either coordinate and monitor in order to contribute to the development of quality education in the Member States or to take on an operative role itself to supplement national policy where needed. Certain initiatives to coordinate and monitor already exist at EU level, though they need to be further developed and should be pooled in the new agency. In addition, we believe there is much need for the EU to supplement lacking access to, especially non- and informal, citizenship education. Hence, both are essential functions.

A European Beutelsbach Consensus

Let us stick for a moment with the different approaches to citizenship education in the member states. In Germany, there is a strong institutionalised network of federal and regional agencies, the Bundeszentrale and Landeszentralen für politische Bildung. Moreover, as a consequence of both the experience of national socialism and the political polarisation of the 1970s, there has been a lot of expert debate about what citizenship education should and shouldn’t do, leading to the Beutelsbach Consensus of 1976 which has enormous influence in Germany until today.

In other countries, the role of citizenship education has been much more politicised and controversial. In Spain, for example, the introduction of Educación para la Ciudadanía as a school subject by the government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (PSOE/PES) in 2006 was fiercely opposed by the conservative opposition and denounced as “totalitarian” by representatives of the Catholic Church. After long judicial disputes, the government of Mariano Rajoy (PP/EPP) abolished the subject without replacement in 2016.

Finally, in Hungary citizenship education never played a significant role. Rather, the government of Viktor Orbán (Fidesz/EPP) drew attention last year by organising public information campaigns that the European Commission itself denounced as “fake news” and “conspiracy theories”. Is there really a way to reconcile such a wide range of citizenship education policies and cultures in Europe?

Susanne Zels: You are right, citizenship education has different meanings and connotations due to the unique history and political culture of each member state. In Poland, for example, it used to be the school subject where regime propaganda was taught and pupils learned to throw grenades to defend their country. Naturally, most Poles have a negative feeling about citizenship education and oppose government involvement in curriculum on values and politics. Hence, one of the essential first tasks of the agency should be to develop a common understanding of what the objectives and tasks of citizenship education are. A European Beutelsbach Consensus so to say.

However, we do not start from scratch. In 2015 the education ministers from all member states already signed the “Declaration on promoting citizenship and the common values of freedom, tolerance and non-discrimination through education” agreeing on the competence, which should be fostered through citizenship education. Also, the Council recommendation from 2018 on promoting common values, inclusive education, and the European dimension of teaching paves the way towards a common approach to citizenship education. It will be very important to stress the difference between what some countries have experienced under the term in the past and the sort of education we wish to foster.

A platform for exchange and dialogue

Sophie Pornschlegel: The idea is not to harmonise citizenship education top down and impose one view to all EU member states. Instead, the idea is to create the platform for exchange and dialogue to discuss those different approaches and views. Only by increasing exchange we can ensure mutual understanding and build trustful relations – that’s the core of the European idea.

The Agency would not promote a single view of citizenship education, but try to strengthen citizenship education as such in the EU27, as well as try to foster a more European dimension of citizenship education, which is lacking at the moment in most EU member states – despite several other policy areas being already heavily integrated and having an impact on our daily lives. This exchange is the basis to develop a citizen-centred Union and give the citizens in the EU the tools in their hands to be able to be more active and engaged in politics, whatever the political colour. After all, we did agree on a set of European values in the Treaties, so breaking those values down for all EU citizens and fostering them in our societies seems to be the logical next step.

Last but not least, the example of Hungary is a false friend: public information campaigns of governments are not the same as citizenship education. The same is true for the European Agency for Citizenship Education: It won’t be the communications department of the European Commission.

Explanatory materials are not enough

Speaking of the Communications Department: Both the Commission and the European Parliament have been quite active in producing materials to explain the functioning and values of the European Union.

To give just an exemplary selection, these publications include books like Europe in 12 lessons or 50 ways forward – Europe’s best successes and leaflets like A short guide to the euro or 52 steps towards a greener city. A Learning Corner on the EU homepage is meant to “help you discover the EU in a fun way, in the classroom or at home”. And then there is, of course, the comic book Troubled Waters, which uses a crime story in order to explain the making of an environmental directive. How do you see these efforts?

Sophie Pornschlegel: These efforts are laudable – but they remain communications from an executive public institution. The publications are neither tailored to the pedagogical needs of teachers or those working in non-formal education, nor are they available in all languages and for all age groups, nor do they cover all aspects of citizenship education.

Most importantly, building an Agency for Citizenship Education goes far beyond producing explanatory materials. Our aim is to support both citizenship education in all EU27 and to develop a European dimension of citizenship education, which, for now, is almost non-existent. This requires long-term funding structures; capacity-building programmes; establishing a dialogue platform to exchange on what citizenship education with a European dimension should look like – so far more than producing teaching materials.

Independent publications are needed

Susanne Zels: I appreciate explanatory materials being produced by the EU. It is essential for decision makers to explain their politics and also for the EU institutions to support understanding of their role in the Union. National governments also produce such publications. They can, however, only support citizenship education.

In order to foster critical thinking and engagement with politics, we need materials that consider different political, social and scientific positions on a whole range of topics. Based on balanced information, citizens can then develop their own opinions and positions. Governing institutions naturally aren’t equipped to critically question their own role and policies, and it isn’t their task either. For this purpose, independent publications are needed.

European values

I would like to come back to the idea of a “European Beutelsbach Consensus”. The name of your campaign refers to the common values of the European Union, as defined in art. 2 TEU: “respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities […] in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail”.

During the last years, however, the meaning of these values has been challenged by some member governments. Viktor Orbán’s understanding of “democracy” and “freedom” or Mateusz Morawiecki’s notion of an “impartial, efficient and incorruptible justice” are almost Orwellian contortions of what most other Europeans understand by these words. How should a European Agency deal with these differences? Is there a chance to reach an operating consensus about the tasks of citizenship education when even the most fundamental constitutional values are contentious?

Susanne Zels: The Agency can help us overcome these differences by facilitating local, national and transnational dialogue on what our values are. Such a dialogue needs to be combined with education on why Europe and national governments have adopted these values in treaties and constitutions in the first place and what they mean in practice. For example, how does equality translate into non-discrimination and how does this political right impact citizens in the national and European context.

Our values cannot be defined by the EU in a top-down approach, but citizens need to jointly develop a common understanding of what values we wish to live by in the EU. Ideally, I would like to see the Agency launch a deliberative process across Europe to develop a common understanding of what should constitute liberty, equality etc. in our community.

Develop a common understanding of values

Sophie Pornschlegel: You mention one of the most difficult issues here, as European values have become extremely contentious and sensitive at EU level. Of course, populist and authoritarian governments like to instrumentalise values according to their political agenda. However, I don’t see it as an issue per se for the Agency we would like to establish – after all, there is a clear understanding about what we mean when we talk about European values, and this has been further legitimised by the European Court of Justice’s rulings in the past years.

Of course, there are national differences, for instance on how we prioritise values. But this shouldn’t keep us from continuing to agree on the values we together set out in the Treaties, and it should most definitely not keep us from exchanging about those differences at EU level. Lastly, the independence of the Agency from political interests is a crucial point, which would have to be ensured in its governance and funding structure.

A truly European proposal

Values Unite is still a rather small campaign that has been launched only this autumn. What are your next steps, and how can people support you?

Susanne Zels: We are in the process of writing a policy paper, which will outline our proposal in more detail. For this purpose, we are interviewing experts, practitioners and politicians from the field of citizenship education. We wish to make this a truly European proposal, which is why we are seeking out feedback and support from relevant stakeholders from across Europe.

Once the proposal is finalised and the paper published, it is our goal to establish a large coalition of civil society and science to jointly campaign for the idea of a European Agency for Citizenship Education with us. Stay tuned and please reach out to us if you wish to support the cause.

For the homepage of the initiative VALUES UNITE, please click here.

Images: VALUES UNITE [all rights reserved].

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