1989 Generation Initiative

This article is part of a series of papers based on the preliminary results of the 1989 Generation Initiative’s policy cycle “Tackling Populism: Hope over Fear”. The following article is based on the results of the Roundtable “Education for Engagement” at its launching conference. Written by Greta Schmuelling, Content Officer.

Knowledge is power, and this is particularly true when talking about politics. Who can set the agenda? And who is being heard? European citizens who feel that it is not them who are being listened to turn towards populist parties to express their voices. The EU needs to counteract this trend. Only by encouraging knowledge about the EU and participation within it can EU decision-makers reconnect with citizens and add new dynamism to European integration.
The EU has a large impact on the lives of its citizens; yet, very few know much about the Union itself. A 2015 Eurobarometer poll suggests that people are familiar with EU’s language, but not necessarily so with its content. They know they are ‘citizens of Europe’, but not necessarily what that means and how to apply their voices on the European level. As Avril Keating argues, EU citizens need to be informed about their rights and how they can apply them. The knowledge gap needs to be closed: education and immersion within the EU network should be a part of every EU citizen’s life, allowing citizens to critically engage with the EU’s politics and policies. But how can the EU reconnect with its citizens?

Four ideas to reconnect Europe with its citizens

The answer is straightforward but it is not simple: the EU’s aim must be to improve its legitimacy — that is, the inclusion of its citizens in the decision-making processes and debates. This means that the Union not only has to rethink its communication strategies about current challenges, but also about its powers and most importantly the powers its citizens have: EU citizens must be better informed about what the EU is, what it does, and what it offers them. This means that the EU must find ways to be more tangible and visible for its citizen, and that its citizens need to be more audible to EU decision makers as well. This aim means that we need to find channels that go beyond passive knowledge and combine education, active participation and international debate open to all EU citizens at all ages and levels of education. Four ideas are central to this aim:
First, the EU needs to become more visible to all its citizens. While much of that can be achieved through direct media channels, the EU needs allies that speak directly to its younger citizens, such as vloggers and other producers of social media content. This provides an excellent opportunity to inform and reach out to young Europeans. Providing training and access to the EU and its politicians encourages outreach among young opinion leaders and brings EU issues on many young people’s screens.

More exchange between forums that already exist

Second, the EU needs to find new ways to listen to its citizens, and improve those that already exist. The EU’s Citizen’s Dialogues are an avenue for citizens to voice their concerns and provide input to the European Commissioners directly in town hall-style debates. Although these are broadcast and archived online, what is missing from the conversations is the exchange between them: the shared concerns the citizens of different Dialogues have remain obscure. Introducing a delegation that reports on each dialogue could remedy this: a single online forum that does not only archive, but also organise and highlight key European issues accessible to all European citizens could foster a much-needed EU-wide conversation between citizens of different member-states.

Education for Engagement roundtable

Third, the EU needs to become more tangible to those citizens it currently neglects. Students and young people have the chance to see what Europe and open borders mean through programmes such as Erasmus Plus. These programmes predominately benefit those who are still in education. By enlarging the target group to employees through workplace exchanges and town twinnings of working-age people, the EU can promote a sense of commonality and shared interests. This would ensure that its agenda of life-long learning does not only hold for those still in education, but for all its citizens.
Fourth, the EU needs to encourage active engagement of young people in what EU citizenship and European values mean. Modelled on the Duke of Edinburgh Award Programme, the creation of a Beethoven Programme would enable students to experience and promote their European citizenship and experience the values and rights connected to it as set out in Article 20 TFEU. Collaboration between students of different nationalities and guidance by a trained teacher would encourage cross-national exchange and active learning in areas such as journalism, volunteering and media. Through this collaboration, young Europeans would receive the chance to shape the European dimension of their citizenship and tangible experience civic values that transcend the national curricula.


A common vision through the power of knowledge


Educating today’s and tomorrow’s EU citizens is a challenging task. However, the aim of this is task – to enable responsible citizens to participate and engage in civic life and politics – is invaluable for a democratic, open and hopeful Europe. The EU’s aim must be to provide impactful channels of participation and learning to avoid ignorance, disinterest and blame-shifting: education and engagement enable citizens to understand and shape EU policies and processes. Knowledge is the power of Europe’s citizens to make their voices heard and to unite in a common vision.

Photo by Mihai Simionica

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