This week, the Irish Government – which holds the presidency of the EU – is launching the European Year of Citizens. According to the European Commission,
The better the men and women of Europe understand their rights as EU citizens, the more informed the decisions they can take in their personal lives, and the more vibrant democratic life in Europe can be at all levels.
Throughout the year, the EU and its member states will organise a series of events, nationally and locally as well as at European level, aimed at giving people information about their rights, and encouraging them to exercise them.
One justification for this focus is the finding from an opinion poll, commissioned by the EU, which found that under half of those surveyed felt they knew what these rights were. In the case of the UK, six out of ten feel they do not know what their rights are as European citizens. The figures are even higher in several countries, including France and Italy, though in Ireland the proportion who thought they were familiar with their citizenship rights was slightly above the EU average.
Six out of every ten people across Europe said that they wanted to know more about their rights as EU citizens. So there is plenty of demand for greater information and understanding. The Commission has set aside a budget of a million Euros to fund Europe-wide activities and resources. Its main concern is with the right to free movement, under which people can live and work in any EU member state. This is potentially controversial across Europe, with resentment against immigrants on the rise everywhere.
On the other hand, while complaining about others who move to their own country, most people are very pleased to be able to work or retire in other people’s countries. By 2010, the Commission estimates that over 12 million Europeans were living in another member state – not counting tourists and other short-stay movers, like ERASMUS students.
In response to the Commission’s designation of 2013, some 50 non-governmental bodies formed a European Year of Citizens Alliance. These are mostly European-level federations such as the European Woman’s Lobby, the European Disability Forum, the European Federation of Older People and the European Anti-Poverty Network. They also include the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides. Few of the Alliance come from the world of education, though they do include a society for former ERASMUS students. None – rather to my surprise – comes from adult education.
As well as promoting the Year of Citizens and supporting activities, the Alliance has also campaigned for a wider and more generous understanding of citizenship. It is difficult to disagree with their view that the gap between citizens and EU institutions is vast; more arguable is their belief that it is possible to bridge the gap without a major overhaul of what the EU is and how it decides its business. And this, of course, would require exactly what no-one much wants – such significant constitutional reform that it amounts to a new Treaty.
I find myself slightly torn about all this. There’s more than a whiff of self-interest about the European Commission’s role. After all, if citizens decide that the EU is a bunch of shysters who are up to no good, then what business has a transnational state in persuading them otherwise? And I dream of seeing Ireland’s President attacking the hypocrisy of Europe’s governments in promoting a Year of Citizens, after decades of increasing surveillance, obsessive secrecy, declining political trust, and diminishing voting levels – not forgetting recurrent corruption scandals.
At the same time, the Year opens up a space for debate over what it means to be a citizen of the EU in our times. And this is of enormous interest to anyone in higher education and lifelong learning. Our universities are full of innovative programmes for active learning in the community, where students learn new capacities and develop their understanding of citizenship by working with voluntary groups. In adult education, the Workers Educational Association continues to lead the field in democratic practice.
The irony, as Mark Ravenhall pointed out in Adults Learning recently, is that elsewhere in the system there is barely any connection between the efforts of those who run and work in public education institutions, and the range of democratic processes that produce the policy-makers who fund them. I don’t think that a European Year of Citizens on its own will do much to change that, but at least it creates opportunities for debate, and prompts connections between different actors. Genuinely educated citizens – now, there’s a goal worth striving for!
The official website of the European Year of Citizens is at: http://europa.eu/citizens-2013/en/home