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The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) is calling upon the EU and its Member States to develop strategic policy measures aimed at drawing citizens closer to the European project by strengthening their knowledge about the EU and its achievements, values and rights.
In its recent opinion on Education about the EU, drafted at the request of the Romanian Presidency, the EESC highlights the vital role that education and learning about the EU can have in fostering citizens' sense of EU identity, community and belonging, which could be crucial for the future of Europe.
The EESC puts forward a series of proposals and showcases good practices for promoting education and learning as fully-fledged levers in preparing people in Europe to become active EU citizens, aware of their rights and responsibilities in a rapidly changing social, political and economic environment.
How education can help to increase engagement in the European project
The EU's strength and legitimacy depend to a great extent on a strong European identity as well as on shared common values amongst citizens.
The 2014 European elections and the Brexit referendum showed that there was a wide gulf in voting attitudes between people with different levels of education, and a lack of understanding of what the EU is about.
Now, in the run-up to the next European elections, the figures show that many Europeans still do not have a strong sense of EU citizenship: according to the Standard Eurobarometer 89 (Spring 2018) on European Citizenship, only 56% of EU citizens say that they feel attached to the EU, whereas 93% feel attached to their country and 89% to their city, town or village.
Growing Euroscepticism and the lack of public support for the European project can be tackled by ensuring that all citizens understand how the European Union works and what it does for them, as well as how EU policies can have a positive impact on their daily lives.
The EESC recommends a mix of measures based on formal and informal education, educational projects and tools, and the use of media.
Learning about the EU, citizenship and democratic values should be a right for all, advocates the EESC. Education about the EU and EU literacy should be regarded as key skills and competences, with common objectives in terms of minimum knowledge about the European Union. Learning should be done transversally as an integral part of multiple subjects, such as history, geography and economics.
Education about the EU should take place in formal settings such as schools, but also in more informal contexts such as associations, youth movements and civil society organisations, through projects encouraging active citizen participation. The Scout Movement's initiative to promote youth participation in the upcoming European elections in May 2019 is one example of this.
Projects where young people can cut their teeth in participatory democracy, such the European clubs in Portugal and the Prague Student Summit in the Czech Republic, could be replicated elsewhere or provide inspiration.
Learning mobility, the EESC says, should be ensured for all, especially people from vulnerable socioeconomic backgrounds. The budget for Erasmus+ should be increased and extended to all education sectors.
Europe Day (9 May), or a separate European Education Day, should, the EESC suggests, be celebrated in EU countries and serve as a starting point for planning education activities about the EU in schools and communities.
Fighting fake news by communicating more effectively
Now that the media are an essential component of our contemporary societies, media education is becoming a major educational issue.
Lack of critical media literacy and the spread of mis/disinformation about the EU represent a threat to the trust placed by citizens in the European project and its institutions:
Growing populism, radicalism, disinformation and fake news - all of them are aimed at weakening the foundations of the EU. If we really want to see how to solve these problems, we need to go to the roots: to education, said Tatjana Babrauskienė, rapporteur for the opinion.
Indeed, according to the Flash Eurobarometer 464 (February 2018) on fake news and online disinformation, more than a third of respondents (37%) say they come across fake news every day or almost every day, and a further 31% say that this happens at least once a week.
In every Member State, at least half of respondents say they come across fake news at least once a week.
When asked about the consequences of mis/disinformation, 85% of respondents perceive fake news as a problem in their country and 83% perceive it as a problem for democracy in general.
Citizens should be able to have the necessary tools and critical thinking to recognise and avoid mis/disinformation, as well as access to resources and clear information about the EU.
Public service media and pro-European broadcasters such as Euronews have a key role to play in delivering accurate information about the EU, its progress and its achievements. They should give good examples of democracy, including the right to participate in civil society dialogue, freedom of speech and inclusiveness.
Good media literacy and proper knowledge about the EU and its processes constitute the best prevention against disinformation, concluded Pavel Trantina, co-rapporteur for the opinion.