Why education is critical for the next European elections

With less than 100 days before the European elections, citizens will go to the polls against a backdrop of deep-rooted changes. Brexit, migration and “EU elites vs the people” debates have radically transformed the political landscape since the last European elections across the continent, weakening long-standing political parties as populism has spread  throughout the left-right political spectrum.

The 2014 European elections, along with the UK referendum in 2016, have shown a clear divide in voting choices between EU citizens with different levels of education. This new political cleavage has also revealed the lack of understanding about what the EU is, and the lack of political interest among young people: the 2014 EU elections saw the lowest voter turnout on record, with just 18 per cent of young Brits voting prior to the Brexit referendum, the lowest turnout for under-24s in Europe.

This lack of education on European politics and the Union also impacts students, teachers and educators, who have grappled to find adequate training and support from national authorities and formal education providers in certain Member States due to the low level of interest from governments in citizenship education.

Civic and citizenship education are crucial for the future of Europe, which needs young people and future generations to engage on a far greater scale than has been the case so far. Many in Europe have not had a politically conscious upbringing, and therefore do not have the knowledge which leads to understanding government positions and to foreseeing where their national parliament is heading. Instead, years of formal education for most citizens have been based on a curriculum often focused on relaying the ploys of kings and queens of centuries ago, leaving behind modern political and social movements.

This year’s EU elections illustrate the need to mobilise people, especially the young, to increase voter turnout, for instance through the European Parliament’s This Time I’m voting project, an online community of supporters of the importance of voting in EU elections.

The surge of right-wing populism across Europe over the last two decades has translated into a surge of disinformation, fake news and hate speech which have become for some the sole educational sources on European and world politics. To counter the effects of fake news and right-wing propaganda, SOLIDAR and SOLIDAR Foundation have presented their first handbook of counter-arguments which offers “ammunition” for the EU election campaign, and which helps to bust EU myths through facts and figures. 

Our last Citizenship and Lifelong Learning Monitor clearly shows that civil society is at the forefront in bringing civic and citizenship education to citizens, despite the challenge of finding sustainable funding that allows CSOs to continue developing and sharing their expertise with national authorities.

SOLIDAR Foundation considers that civic and citizenship education are fundamental to achieving the European vision, and therefore should be included in the political agenda at all levels to make sure citizens become active and involved in and beyond the May 2018 elections. Furthermore, more time and funding should be given to CSOs promoting participatory structures such as non-formal and informal education approaches and methods, along with increased support for mobility programmes such as Erasmus+, in particular to reach the most disadvantaged in Europe. 

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