The European Parliament (EP) elections won’t take place until the end of May, but campaigning is already well underway. In Britain, much of the recent debate has focused on the impact of UKIP on the national political landscape, and its apparent ability to attract new voters and influence the electoral strategies of the more established political parties.
While UKIP makes for interesting headlines and analysis, this focus obscures the fact that turnout for these elections is likely to be low. Only 35% of people in England voted in the 2009 EP elections. Across the EU, turnout has remained ‘stubbornly low’ and by some measures is even declining. Participation rates among young Europeans were even more alarming; only 29 per cent of 18-24s voted in the 2009 EP elections, a figure that is 14 percentage points below the European average and 4 percentage points less than young people in this age group voted in 2004.
This downward trend in youth turnout has prompted EU policymakers to redouble their efforts to raise participation among young European citizens. At times such as these, it is not unusual to hear policymakers and commentators call for young people to be taught more about European integration while they are at school. Knowledge among the general public about European institutions, policies, and citizenship has consistently been low (regardless of age), and this lack of information is believed to be one of the key reasons that EU citizens do not vote in EP elections.
Providing information through schools would seem to be a natural and efficient solution. After all, schools are a key site of socialisation and citizenship learning, and nation-states have long used this forum to provide children and young people with the information, skills, values and norms of national citizenship. Likewise, the European institutions have for many decades encouraged their member states to provide a ‘European dimension’ to their school curricula and to teach young citizens about the history, culture, institutions, and languages of Europe. Over time, member states have gradually adapted to this proposal, and the latest Eurydice review of citizenship education found that all EU member states (and most candidate countries) now have a European dimension to their citizenship education, at least at lower secondary-level education, but often throughout formal schooling.
But does education about Europe ‘work’? We know that individuals with higher levels of education are more likely to vote and to support European integration, but in the past, few studies have examined whether introducing a European dimension to the school curriculum will have a similar effect. However, data from the 2009 International Civic and Citizenship Education Study (ICCS) allows us to consider this question, and it provides a somewhat mixed picture. On the one hand, this data suggests that students who have more opportunities to learn about Europe at school are more likely to report having a European identity and are more likely to report positive attitudes towards freedom of movement for EU citizens. Individuals with higher levels of European identity are, in turn, more likely to vote in EP elections and support European integration. Yet the data also suggests that in and of itself, education about European issues made little or no difference to students’ intentions to vote in EP elections in the future.
In short, if the goal is to create active European voters, simply including more information about European issues in the school curriculum is clearly not sufficient. Indeed, for a more immediate impact, policy activists may wish to concentrate their efforts on media and political campaigns, which have been shown to have a stronger relationship with voting preferences. This is not to say that education, and education about Europe, is not important. Rather, it simply underlines that education is not a panacea for Europe’s democratic deficit, and that simply tinkering with the education system, or proposing more education, will not bridge the gulf between the political actors and citizens of Europe.
Seeking to address this gap is particularly important at this critical juncture in the European political project. The financial crisis that started in late 2008 has damaged not only the European economy but also the relationship between governments, citizens and the European institutions. And it is worth noting that the decline in EU support has potential implications not just for European integration, but also for power and politics in the national arena. In particular, a rise in Euroscepticism is associated with an increased likelihood of voting for radical right-wing parties, who are skilled at exploiting dissatisfaction with European integration.
At this critical juncture, citizenship-projects are in an unusually high state of flux, and it is still too early to tell what the long or medium term implications may be for the relationship between political institutions and their citizens, be it in national or European arenas.
In this often tumultuous context, it is not clear that European citizenship will be viable or desirable project in the future. But regardless of its medium and long-term prospects, EU citizenship at least, is currently a reality and therefore its citizens deserve to be informed about their rights, how the institutions work, and how they can seek to influence these institutions. For this reason, then, we need to continue to seek to understand the role that education plays in this process – be it in schools, policy texts, or informational campaigns, and regardless of one’s beliefs about European integration and EU membership.
Avril Keating is an ESRC Future Research Leader and a Senior Lecturer in Comparative Social Science at the LLAKES Research Centre. She is the author of Education for citizenship in Europe: European policies, national adaptations and young people’s attitudes, which will be published by Palgrave Macmillan this month.