by Petra Grüne
In recent times, issues such as terrorism, the fleeing of war and poverty, economic crises, the polarisation of our society and the rising power of populist movements have restrengthened interest in political education at an EU level. Following the attacks on the offices of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, European Union education ministers met in France and passed the ‘Paris Declaration’, which highlighted the special significance of civic education and aimed to strengthen this at a regional, national and European level. “The primary purpose of education is not only to develop knowledge, skills competences and attitudes and to embed fundamental values but also to help young people -in close cooperation with parents and families -to become active, responsible, open - minded members of society.”
But how can civic education do justice to the aforementioned challenges and provide an adequate reaction to problems whose causes, effects and potential courses of action can no longer exclusively be attributed to their respective national context?
At the very least, the developments seen in recent years have clearly demonstrated the necessity to take a look at issues more and more from a European or international perspective, instead of solely using the nation state as a frame of reference. The ability to think, evaluate and act from a transnational point of view is a vital skill for today’s citizens in an interdependent world.
Concepts of European, global or cosmopolitan citizenship must therefore be more strongly reflected and more frequently used in educational practice. One way to drive this process forward is to create an international community of civic education experts and help create a network between the community’s stakeholders.
Ten years ago, the Federal Agency for Civic Education established a platform for a Europe-wide network of civic education in cooperation with European partners – NECE – Networking European Citizenship Education. NECE is not an institutionalised network, but a process that is open to all interested parties. A range of different forums, e.g. annual conferences and focus groups, bring together people and institutions to discuss challenges for society and civic education and to investigate possible courses of action. These meetings thus result in connections, more long-term networking and specific projects. Borders are crossed in more ways than one; not only because stakeholders come together from different countries, but also because stakeholders from civic initiatives, state and non-state educational institutions, academia and governmental organisations as well as people with different political positions all meet one another in one place. European networks that are already involved in civic education such as D:A:R:E (Democracy and Human Rights Education in Europe), Euroclio (an umbrella association of more than seventy European organisations for historic education), EAEA (European Association for the Education of Adults) or European Alternatives (a ‘transnational civil society organisation and citizen movement’) also take part in the activities of NECE. At the core of all this is the annual conference, which has incorporated participation from the southern Mediterranean basin since 2012 and from the EU’s Eastern Partnership since 2015 and which is today attended by guests from over 40 countries.
Key projects: a network and exchange for cooperation partners
In 2015, a EUROCLIO project entitled ‘Sharing History – Cultural Dialogues’ was presented as part of the NECE annual conference. History educators from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine have collaborated to produce a multi-lingual textbook about the chequered history of the Black Sea region. ‘Crossroad of Cultures – Countries of the Black Sea Region and Social and Political Changes in the 19th and 20th Century’ was completed in December 2015. The idea behind this mammoth project was to present teachers with a history book that encourages a critical examination of the past and offers different perspectives of these events, whilst still highlighting the commonalities between the project’s countries, which continue to exist as independent states even after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
‘Vote Match Europe’ is a cooperation that was created as a result of a NECE focus group. Here, stakeholders from 14 countries joined forces in the run-up to the last European Parliament elections in order to create a common platform with access to the voter’s respective voting advice application – a digital tool that allows voters to compare their own position with those of the candidates and parties. This cooperation also offered insights into the respective key campaign issues. In addition to this, a selection of common statements used in all voting advice applications allowed voters to see not just which party in their own country most strongly matched their opinion, but also what the results might look like if one were to vote in another country. Alongside an interesting discussion regarding the content and technical details of these voting advice applications and the possibility of jointly acquiring European funding, another effect of this group has been the development of a network of academics conducting research into effect and participation with this instrument.
Developing common themes and strategies
How can I design inclusive civic education and reach out to groups that are commonly perceived as ‘hard to reach’ in terms of civic education? An issue that is equally important in every European country. The NECE focus group ‘Hard-to-reach learners’ brings together practitioners and researchers from countries as diverse as the UK, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Greece, Portugal, Romania and Germany with the aim of evaluating the current situation and developing innovative practices that facilitate access to civic education for all sectors of society. The group poses the question of whether institutions such as schools and universities themselves are ‘hard to reach’ and whether they – at least in part – actually reinforce exclusion through their curricula. A key aspect in this context is to scrutinise and raise awareness of our own ideas and points of view. However, this concept plays a role in not only this work group – whose results are due to be published in the autumn – instead, it is of fundamental importance in all educational contexts, as it represents a vital requirement for the expansion of perspectives beyond the boundaries of personal, cultural and national affiliation. What do freedom, dignity and participation mean? The focus group ‘Concept Learning for Empowerment through Analysis and Reflection’ (CLEAR)  has developed methods to deal with this topic and to use the discussion of concepts to facilitate cooperation with others – in the face of perceived or real differences. ‘I value the fact that I started questioning the concepts I use every day. It was empowering to realise how concepts are used to mobilise people, even in education. On the other hand, the use of the concepts makes us, in a way, a part of ever changing society as well, empowering us to influence it,’ concluded one participant.
Strengthening international political education as an ongoing task
As a general rule, the development of civic education can be traced back to the social and political context of the country in question. The prioritisation and high valuation of said discipline are subject to certain economic conditions, which can again be attributed to the respective political developments. Standing in contrast, however, is the conviction that independent civic education is an ongoing task in maintaining and strengthening democracy, which requires structures that are continually being secured. Building networks of different stakeholders that extend beyond national borders offers new opportunities for advocating this issue. On the one hand, voices can join forces and demands can be discussed with decision-makers or key advocates. On the other, the exchange of experiences and ideas, cooperation, the opportunity to establish new contacts and the support of a strong cross-border community can also be enough to help strengthen civic education stakeholders.
The focus group ‘Exchange between Europe North Africa’ also builds on these effects. ‘NACE – Networking Arab Civic Education’, a project aimed at the appraisal and networking of civic education on the south side of the Mediterranean, is the result of discussing ideas about shared issues, such as the possibilities offered by cooperation between art and civic education. The first publication on the history and current situation of civic education in Egypt was presented in May 2016 at the second Civic Education Conference in Tunisia, which also originated in the focus group. An exchange of ideas with the European Union’s eastern neighbours has been stimulated by another newly established focus group.
‘Us’ and ‘Them’? Perception and changing perspectives
The development of networks on the southern side of the Mediterranean is not the sole aim of this special activity. Instead, it is a matter of solidifying cooperation across the Mediterranean. When a German civic educator engages with a colleague from Tunisia and discusses participation or reasons for the radicalisation of young people and methods for preventing this, this helps to break down the idea of ‘them and us’ on both sides – an effect that can have long-lasting effects on civic education in both countries. In a situation whereby terrorists aim to create polarisation within European societies and between Europe and its neighbours, this change in the perspectives of civic education stakeholders is of great importance; after all, to a certain extent, it is their job to communicate views of the world.
However, the ability to understand other political positions and to engage in discussion about different issues is a vital task within the European Union and one which civic education should offer a platform for. In an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev and historian Oliver Jens Schmitt analyse the increasing division between Eastern and Western European states, including a discussion of the negative regard for politics and attitudes surrounding the reception of refugees held by large sections of Western society, which can also be seen as a stance of ‘virtuous arrogance’. They claim that many people were unable to understand why, for example, Germany clung so stubbornly to austerity policies for Greece whilst at the same time showing solidarity with refugees from Syria or Afghanistan. According to Krastev and Schmitt, historical aspects of a nation’s development, such as forced internationalism and secularism during the Communist period, have been instrumental in shaping the attitudes of large parts of Eastern European societies. On the ‘sidelines’ of Europe, they had hoped for support from the centre of Europe that is now, due in part to the flows of migration seen in the last year, perceived to be in a state of erosion. Demarcating themselves from Russia, they apparently think of themselves as European; however, they no longer share the ideas and values that are more commonly regarded as ‘European’, particularly by the cosmopolitan, liberal elite of western and northern Europe. However, Schmitt also sees a form of emancipation within this development; where previously alignment of values would have equated to an imitation of the West, the countries of Eastern Europe are now adopting their own values and definitions of what they consider to be ‘European’. For Schmitt, this represents a provocation and an opportunity for public debate. However, what is decisive for the future of Europe is how people react to this provocation. ‘Is it not a positive intellectual and political provocation if, as a result, we can learn how to re-integrate such opinions into political discourse, which will then of course become much more fiercely debated than the soft, mainstream discourse which we currently have?’
The date for this year’s NECE annual conference has not yet been announced, check www.nece.eu for updates.
Petra Grüne is Head of Events and Conferences at the Federal Agency for Civic Education and is responsible for the NECE project.
 In a declaration in response to the Post-Paris Process, D.A.R.E. refers to the role of different stakeholders in formal and non-formal education. http://www.dare-network.eu/downloads/DARE_Position_Post-Paris-Process.pdf