Citizenship Education FAQ

A NEW EUROPEAN CITIZENS' INITIATIVE:
“I'm going European: An ECI for making European citizens”

1. What is “I'm going European” about?

The idea for this citizens’ initiative comes from the realisation of many shortcomings in the teaching of EU Citizenship. This new form of citizenship should become more widely accessible and not just reserved for those with the knowledge, language skills and resources to take advantage of what Europe has to offer. Our research shows that there are many resolutions and recommendations by EU Institutions in favour of European Citizenship education, lifelong learning and encouragement to be an active European citizen. But these are not being followed up in any systematic way by those Institutions and the 27 Member States. There is therefore a gap between the aims and actual practice.

2. Is it about making Europe more equal?

Yes — at least striking a blow for a Europe of equal opportunities and recognising the importance of the European dimension to civic education.

The need for more European Citizenship education has been stressed by the citizens in the Conference on the Future of Europe which concluded with demands to introduce a European civic dimension in several areas of policy.

Europe faces challenges to its values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, which are under attack with war in Europe and the rise of authoritarian regimes. There is growing awareness that the vast majority of citizens lack the knowledge even of the basic functioning of the EU and that in exceptional cases where they have that knowledge, it is invariably about a distant set of Institutions, not about acquiring the civic competence to engage as active and critical European citizens. Lack of proper European citizenship education is the Achilles heel of the EU.

3. How would your proposals meet this objective?

To implement the objectives, there should be binding legal obligations on Member States to add a European dimension to civic education with a law requiring that every child in the EU should be guaranteed access to age-appropriate basic knowledge about the EU and their European rights. This will be though too theoretical unless backed by a guarantee that at some time in their life everyone should be able to benefit from an Erasmus for all and explore what Europe has to offer.

Next, placing obligations on Member States to bring in a new European Citizenship right will only work if there is support by the EU which should set the example. A European Citizenship dimension should be added as a requirement to existing legislation on free movement, migration and the transition to a green and digital economy. We also recommend backing this up with a Statute on European Citizenship, a Centre of excellence and teacher training.

There should be no question of imposing a single model on very different educational systems and approaches to citizenship. This does though make it essential to back up this plan with regular evaluation of the results across all Member States. You can find here a handout agreed by our Citizens’ Committee. This is the visting card for the ECI — we encourage you to share with others.

4. What is an ECI? How does it work?

An ECI — or European Citizens’ Initiative — is a mechanism the EU introduced in the Lisbon Treaty in 2007. Where more than one million signatures are collected, it grants European citizens the right to call on the Commission to propose a European law.

The ECIT Foundation has experimented with the use of this instrument with “Voters Without Borders” (VWB) to demand full political rights for mobile EU citizens and has set up a taskforce of Erasmus students and young volunteers for this purpose.

Campaigning for an ECI is an advanced form of on-the-job training to become an active European citizen: multi-tasking, networking across borders, talking to politicians and the press. Wide knowledge of Europe and a range of research, communication and advocacy skills are required. Our intention is to adopt a similar approach so that European teams of young people use this advanced training course to become active European citizens, in support of a proposal that in future such opportunities should be open to all. We intend to take time with fundraising so that the taskforce has the support of a full-time project manager and a sufficient budget.

The first step has been the submission of the initiative by a Citizens’ Committee of seven to the Commission, which then had 2 months to accept or reject registration of the ECI as within its legal competence which it did in November 2023. This in itself is a victory. A launch date for signature collection has to be settled within 6 months. In this case the launch date is 9 May 2024. There are then 12 months to collect over one million signatures from a minimum of 7 EU Member States for which thresholds are set.

Through the guarantee for every child in the EU to be taught about European values, we aim to make European citizenship education a right and a priority for EU citizens. As we come out of the pandemic and return to a new normal, quality citizenship education is part of the answer to young people’s doubts and questions as to what the future may hold. The paradox is that when most needed, citizenship education tends to be neglected. Yet the challenges are evident.

Firstly, after a period of restrictions on our freedoms during the Covid-19 pandemic, education about what we often take for granted must be high on the agenda. The basic values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law have to be rediscovered. Systemic changes in the past decades, in particular the increase of social inequalities, have fuelled the erosion of trust in democratic institutions, at national and European levels. The spaces and mechanisms of our societies to resolve conflicts and disagreements without violence are diminishing.

Secondly, the young generation faces a period of economic and social change which has been accelerated by the pandemic, the war on Ukraine and a cost of living crisis. Central themes of social transformation in the 21st century, such as globalisation and digitalisation, climate, energy or mobility, can only be successfully tackled with the initiative, creativity and participation of European citizens. A new generation has to be prepared for the transition to a green and digital economy. The ambitious agenda for Next Generation EU will not succeed without grounding in EU citizenship and quality education.

Thirdly, the European Union is confronted with new systemic competition from self-confident authoritarian regimes, which reject the model of liberal democracy and universal human rights. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is an attack on this model. China is, according to the European Commission, a ‘systemic rival’ and an economic competitor, as well as a negotiation and cooperation partner.

Citizenship education in Europe will need to address a world shaped by new geopolitical conflicts and the essential question of how to hold onto the values Europe is based upon.

6. Why now? Why do you think this is urgent?

Without citizenship education, the rule of law and democracy is under threat. After a period of suspension of our most basic freedoms and rights (freedom of movement, rights of association, protection of our privacy), understanding of fundamental rights, as well as responsibilities in more normal times, cannot be assumed. Across the world, the balance has shifted toward authoritarian regimes. Dissatisfaction with democracy has also been fuelled by fake news and conspiracy theories.

Children now have access to information on an unprecedented scale through the internet. But content can be harmful, false or threatening. New commercial pressures are being placed on children and exposure to scrutiny by both friends and strangers on social media can be a serious source of stress, even leading to depression and self-harm.

There are also more positive signs. Protests have grown across the world in favour of more democracy. The crisis is encouraging new thinking about methods of participatory democracy and ways to make voting easier to support representative democracy.

Without more priority given to citizenship education to equip the next generation with the knowledge to fight for such reforms, erosion of democracy and the rule of law, together with the rise of new populist and extremist forces, will be the result. This is already happening within the EU.

7. How can I help?

Preparing and launching an ECI is a huge enterprise, so we need all the help we can get.

  • Become a volunteer. You could become part of a network of volunteers we can call upon to help us with framing our demands and messages, setting up communication tools through a special website and social media. Ask your school or University what they think and how they can help. Write to your local politician or Member of the European Parliament.
  • Become a partner organisation. We also need partner organisations at least in the minimum number of 7 Member States we decide to target. Successful ECIs have huge coalitions of up to 200 organisations. We are thinking of organisations and networks already involved in European civic education and who would like to see it scaled up, both in school and in the wider community. These could be teachers’ unions, child rights and youth organisations or organisations campaigning for European life-long learning and democratic reforms.
  • Become an ambassador for the ECI. You are a person well-known for having written, campaigned or run initiatives for European civic education, or a politician or well-known public figure who feels passionately that change is needed.
8. If we get involved, are we free to campaign for signatures as best we think fit?

Absolutely, we want to leave freedom and initiative to partners to take over ownership of the ECI and promote it as they think best.

The only exception would be a commitment by all to send out a common message at the same time on rare occasions. The appeal to the public to sign should not be a distant European appeal but one linked to local concerns, what is happening in the country and the debate about education. Just as EU Citizenship is additional to national citizenship, EU Citizenship should be added to and not divorced from national civic education in and out of school. Approaches differ with civic education sometimes treated as a stand-alone subject, sometimes linked to others such as history, geography and languages. Investment in civic education in terms of time and resources differs substantially within and between countries and it should be fully born in mind that teachers and civil society educators are already under a lot of pressure. There is no question of the EU imposing a single model although it can offer the Statute as a shared resource.

Even though the legal basis for the ECI has been accepted, it should not be forgotten that education is primarily a national area of policy. The more people own the ECI and are prepared to take the lead in their own city or country, the more likely it is that we will all find the right answer and trigger a response from the public! We would see different routes being taken provided the objective is shared and that there is regular monitoring and pressure to drive up the standards of Member States.

9. Where did the idea for this European Citizens’ Initiative come from?

It came from a meeting of minds between those believing in the potential of EU Citizenship as the first transnational citizenship of the modern era and educators in the schools, colleges or civil society. The ECIT Foundation has promoted the idea of a Statute for a European Citizenship of rights, participation and belonging, which is gaining support. According to an ECIT draft for such a statute, there should be European rights to be informed and educated. There are too few active European citizens with the language skills and other advantages to make use of their rights to freedom of movement. The Networking European Citizenship (NECE) network and other civil society initiatives have become increasingly conscious that the Council of Europe and the EU have promulgated charters and resolutions, but which are then unevenly and insufficiently implemented. These ideas were discussed at an online campus and conferences held in 2020 by both NECE in cooperation with ECIT and a great number of partners across Europe. A ‘NECE declaration’ has been signed off by renowned European scholars and citizens. However, no declaration is enough on its own and must be highlighted and followed by action. The ECI is one way to achieve this.

10. What are the pros and cons of an ECI?

The pros and cons have to be carefully assessed. An ECI faces many obstacles. Only 10% of just over 100 attempted ECIs reached the target of one million signatures. Public awareness about ECIs is low. Much depends therefore on setting up strong national coalitions and fundraising. Some experts have calculated the real cost at about 1 euro per signature.

Another challenge is that education remains an area of responsibility for national or regional governments, so the role of the EU is to encourage cooperation rather than propose top-down European action. It is difficult therefore to formulate demands which are both within the competence of the Commission and which interest the public and motivate them to sign, as previous organisers of ECIs in the educational field have found. We have gone through a lengthy process of exploring the Treaty articles and legislation which can be used as a basis for the ECI and changed our approach several times.

To become part of the 10% is still no guarantee of success. If 1 million signatures are reached, the organisers engage with the Commission, which then responds and there is a hearing and debate in the European Parliament. The Commission is not, however, obliged to act on an ECI which is an instrument of participatory rather than direct democracy. For example in response to a successful ECI “End the cage age the Commission first promised to legislate and then went back on its word, creating a crisis of confidence in the instrument.

11. This sounds like a lot of ”cons,” are there really any “pros”?

There are some, provided you can find them! 

A new regulation came into force on 1 January 2020 making it easier to sign an ECI since the amount of personal data to do so has been reduced for some countries. The Commission provides technical support and the free use of a server for the online collection of signatures and has set up a forum to help organisers. We have consulted the forum on the legal basis of our proposal, networking and fundraising. The run-up to the European elections on 6-9 June 2024 is a relatively favorable time to launch an ECI and the date chosen of Europe Day on 9 May has symbolic and practical value since civil society organisations across Europe will be marking this anniversary.

Even if the target is not reached, an ECI can have other forms of success. For example, Voters Without Borders can claim that its first demand — reform of the rights for mobile EU citizens to vote and stand in their country of residence in municipal and European elections — is being met since the EU has begun the process of revision of the legislation. All the demands were taken up in an important report on “Parliamentarism, European Citizenship and Democracy “ adopted by the European Parliament in September 2023. The VWB taskforce has participated in hearings organised by the European Parliament and the ECI has been reported on in the press and been presented frequently at different events. There is a strong case for full political rights for EU citizens. Similarly, there is a strong case for more action to ensure that every child in the EU has access to good quality European citizenship education.

12. Can you explain your demand of a child guarantee to make citizenship education a European right?

We are demanding a child guarantee which would be equivalent to a right to European Citizenship education under Article 25 TFEU and an additional right to those created when Union Citizenship was created by the Maastricht Treaty. This right should of course be extended to all children including those whose parents are not EU citizens. The more recent Treaty revision with the Lisbon Treaty placed emphasis on the rights of the child, so by putting together these two Treaty reforms we consider that there is a sufficiently sound basis for this initiative. Indeed, European Citizenship, the first transnational citizenship of the modern age, is a Citizenship in the making and for the long term so children should be central to its focus. Every child should receive an education in European Citizenship and values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

13. Why do you advocate for a Statute on European Citizenship?

Such a statute is needed to create a common understanding of what European Citizenship is and therefore how it could be taught. We are basing that demand on a report by the European Parliament in January 2019 on the implementation of the legal provisions for EU Citizenship (A8-00041/2019) calling for “concrete initiatives towards the consolidation of citizen specific rights and freedoms under an EU Statute of Citizenship, similar to the European Pillar of Social Rights”. 

The European Parliament repeated this demand in March 2022 when it gave an opinion on the Commission’s Citizenship Report. The Conference on the Future of Europe through citizens’ panels and a series of dialogues and other events across EU 27 also approved the idea of such a statute in its conclusions in May 2022. After this, a statute was called for in two further reports of the European Parliament:

  • Parliamentarianism, European Citizenship and Democracy
  • Implementation of the Treaty provision on European Citizenship

For its part, the Commission took a step in the right direction by publishing a Handbook with its 2023 Citizenship Report.

Efforts to draw up such a statute would help create more consensus about what to teach and provide a basis for proposing a model approach which teachers and pupils can adapt to their own needs.

14. How do you propose to make citizenship education a priority in EU policies?

According to a study carried out by Eurydice, approaches to citizenship education differ, with some countries preferring to teach this as a stand-alone subject, others in relation to others as we have already pointed out. The EU should reflect both approaches by providing a model for EU citizenship education with a Statute. The EU can also introduce a clause on European citizenship education in legislation which governs European rights to freedom of movement, migration and to participate in the EU. A requirement to make citizenship education an objective of all relevant policies and programmes would make the EU approach more systematic and allow for the scaling up of its many projects. It can be introduced in the laws, governing programmes such as Next Generation EU, the Digital Education Action Plan, Horizon Europe and Erasmus +. Without being required by EU legislation, European citizenship education projects are bound to remain marginal, too small-scale and invisible to make an impact and become replicated.

We are also convinced that even with a commitment to include European Citizenship education in several policies and programmes, there is still a need for a focal point. Citizenship education represents challenges beyond the capacity of educational systems and civil society organisations to find all the answers in isolation from each other. There should be a place where teachers, trainers and facilitators can find the latest research on citizenship education, the techniques and examples of best practices from across different educational systems and cultures. The objective should be that all stakeholders can find examples of teacher training, didactic materials, curriculum guidelines, textbooks, projects and methods of evaluating European citizenship education.

We have an open mind about what form such a focal point should take and recommend starting with a pilot-project or preparatory action funded by a special line in the EU budget. After a period of experimentation and consultation, a decision should be taken on whether to set up within the European Education Area, a Centre of Excellence or eventually a more formal structure such as a European Agency.

15. You said earlier that registration of the ECI was something of a victory. Could you explain why?

Yes, we do see it as a breakthrough because for years the development of European citizenship education on a more ambitious scale has met with the objection that education is an area of national competence where the EU cannot legislate and its actions are limited to support to Member States and incentive measures. By choosing Article 25 TFEU which has never been tried and which relates to adding new rights to European Citizenship, the ECI has successfully got round this restriction and shown that more can often be done to make progress without necessarily revising the EU Treaties. Although we have investigated different options before choosing the legal basis and revised our approach several times, the Commission decision still came as a pleasant surprise for which we were not prepared. This is why we need your help more urgently than might be the case with most ECIs which do not represent such a legal challenge. Here is a brief note on our strategy focussing on the launch planned for 9 May 2024.