“Research and education are the sinews of economic war”: trying to build a European spirit

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Jacques Delors. Image licensed under Creative Commons.

In January 1989, Jacque Delors (President of the European Commission) gave a lengthy speech to the European Parliament. His topic was the implementation of the Single European Act – signed off, among others, by Margaret Thatcher – which created a single market across the ten twelve member states. Creating the single market, he said, required more than moving to free trade within the EU. It also meant giving the European Community ‘a little more soul’.

Liberalising capital movements, harmonising standards and mutual recognition of diplomas were all essential steps. But, he said, the trouble is that people ‘cannot fall in love’ with a single market. In order to win their consent, Delors proposed that the Commission had to think broadly about how to build a ‘European consciousness’.  And it was in this context that he proposed to expand the Commission’s role in education and research.

Delors’ rationale for a European education policy was couched in strictly economic terms, as a matter of competitiveness. Hence the vivid metaphor:

At a time of profound change, research and education are the sinews of economic war

He was also clearly pondering cultural battles, worrying over Japanese domination of audio-visual communications technologies and American domination of content, as well as environmental regulation, international aid, workers’ rights, monetary policy and a variety of other themes. But it is striking that he started with education and research as a means of engaging young Europeans and providing ‘tangible proof that the Community is not a technocratic machine but a human venture’.

This speech also marks the start of Delors’ attempt to broaden ideas of education beyond schooling, and to embrace what he would subsequently call ‘lifelong learning’. He acknowledged that the Commission’s powers over education were limited, but suggested that this could be changed, not least because the challenges facing education itself were changing: “Ten years after we leave school or university, our skills can be obsolescent’.

I stumbled across this speech online, thanks to the European Parliament’s digitisation programme. I missed it twenty years ago, when I was researching for a book on European Union policies for education and training. It therefore helps fill in a gap in the history of European policies for education, and shows that the idea of lifelong learning was there from the start.

Delors’ speech also gives us an indication of what the EU has been missing in recent years. I’m not arguing for or against his political strategy, but rather noting that he had one which involved trying to engage citizens in the process of European construction. Jean-Claude Juncker presumably has strengths, though the only one I know of is designing business-friendly tax regimes, but thinking strategically about how you get people to ‘fall in love’ with a free trade area is not among them.

The fall-out after Brexit rather illustrated this point. Here in Germany, a large number of commentators have lamented the inability of Europe’s currently leaders to win hearts and minds. Meanwhile, in the UK, it turns out that there is a cultural chasm between those who turn out to have developed some kind of European identity and those who identify strongly with their nation.The first group felt bereft after the vote, the second group were jubilant.

I’m not so concerned about the rights and wrongs of this as the extent of the division, and the way in which the referendum has laid it bare. How do we deal with it? And does Europe need a new Delors in Brussels – a Delor for our own times? Or is it once more a project for technocrats, and a playground for globalisation’s winners?

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