Connecting Europe’s schools and pupils - a flagship initiative for European Political Community

Florent Marciacq
Deputy Secretary General of the Austro-French Centre for Rapprochement in Europe; Director of Observatoire des Balkans at the Fondation Jean Jaurès and Senior Fellow at the Centre international de formation européenne.

The invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation last year has imposed new geopolitical realities on the European continent. It has put European nations to a massive test, and it is fair to say that unity has prevailed at the most critical moment. Yet, the war has not extinguished key divergences on strategic issues. These continue to run deep behind the front of European unity. To make sure that countries in Europe embark on the same boat in their crossing of bourgeoning geopolitical storms, a European political community (EPC) has been established in Prague on 6 October 2022. The 40+ participating states gathered on this occasion identified 7 priorities, among which… youth cooperation. An ambitious flagship initiative focusing on school connectivity and pupils’ mobility would give the EPC substance, identity and the strategic depth required to address the European challenges that boil under still waters.

Europe’s unity is no ground for complacency

The Russian war against Ukraine has brought European nations closer to one another. These have voiced unequivocal support for Kyiv and sanctioned Moscow. But dividing lines continue to grow behind the front of unity. In Southern Europe, migration remains a topic creating tensions. In Western Europe, the green-tech transition remains high on the agenda. In Central and Eastern Europe, territorial defence has understandingly taken precedence over other priorities. Clearly, national interests have not been dissolved in Europe’s display of unity. They remain vibrant.

Russia’s aggression has also exacerbated hard feelings in the East, especially against France and Germany, Europe’s misguiding “tree of life”. In the EU’s closest neighbourhood, national perspectives on enlargement continue to dominate the process. On the international level, the overhaul of European security architecture, in relation to the United States, NATO and Russia, already stir up tensions. The EU is far from having a consolidated stance on issues as strategic as the Global South, the Indo-Pacific, China and strategic supply.

Ambitious ideas such as bolstering European strategic autonomy and European sovereignty are more contested than ever, national populism remains endemic and socio-economic inequalities have reached a new peak. The EU’s political deepening, the consolidation, or constitutionalisation of European democracy and further federalisation of the EU’s polity constitute major points of contention that are bound to resurface.

The European Political Community as policy innovation lab

The EPC should be used to address these issues and forge European unity on a deeper level than sheer opposition to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Because it brings together countries in Europe irrespective of their EU membership status, the EPC offers an original platform that does not reproduce and reinforce existing dividing lines (most notably between EU members and non-members). This inclusiveness, based on equal footing, creates room for discussing the European project and European interests as something else that the EU’s prerogative. Moreover, the EPC’s intergovernmental nature and light institutional design guarantee a certain flexibility for cooperation to emerge on a mini-lateral level and mature more dynamically. Being a non-specialised format, the EPC, finally, offers a fertile ground for exploring cooperation avenues that might elsewhere be neglected.

These characteristics could allow the EPC to become an interesting policy innovation lab. They create favourable conditions for participating states to join forces in pioneering projects that do not fit the EU’s more rigid and technocratic frame; for vanguard groups of countries to emerge within the platform; and for them to bolster European integration, even on the mini-lateral level, and innovate.

An EPC flagship initiative on school connectivity and pupils’ mobility

The EPC could be used by a small group of policy entrepreneurs (both EU and non-EU members) to address the challenge at hand, unify new generations of Europeans and cementing their sense of European belonging. This necessarily goes through education and mobility. Existing programmes in higher education, like Erasmus+, CIVICA alliance, campus Europae, UNICA network, European Solidarity Corps and European Universities initiative already make an important contribution: 89% of Erasmus+ beneficiaries feel more aware of European values after their exchange and 73% are more interested in European affairs. These initiatives should be expanded to all EPC participating states. They are a fantastic catalyst for the unification of Europe. But an elitist one. It is estimated that less than 4% of university students in the EU join Erasmus+ mobility activities every year. These initiatives, moreover, can only contribute to a limited extent to the actual formation of European citizens. The reason is that identity formation takes place in an earlier age, when personality, values and opinions are still malleable. Yet very little is done in Europe to promote mobility in secondary education.

The European University Initiative offers a good template for the launch of an EPC “European Schools flagship Initiative” (ESfI). The ESfI could be launched by a small group of EPC participating states, just as the Erasmus programme was launched in 1987 by 11 countries only. The goal of the ESfI would be to create bottom-up, long-term, transnational alliances between schools in ESfI participating states; to bolster pupils’ mobility and European civic education; to promote European values and identity as vector of unity; and revolutionising the quality and competitiveness of European secondary education.

The ESfI would create, to that end, a network of “European school alliances” connecting schools across the continent. It is within these European school alliances that pupils’ mobility would be encouraged, and cooperation projects developed. The European school alliances would constitute new nodes in the grid of the European Education Area, and they would be key in applying for both Erasmus+ funding and national grants.

The ESfI mission would start with integrating mobility in pupils’ regular curriculum as part of European civic education. This implies efforts at preparing pupils for their exchange through a renewed emphasis on foreign language education and European culture, history and geography. The curriculum of the existing elitist European schools could be used as source of inspiration for the implementation of the ESfI, in particular concerning their teaching approach of European history. Synergies could also be built with the Council of Europe’s Observatory on History Teaching in Europe.

The ESfI would then need to create objective conditions in schools that allow for yearly, regular exchanges for all to take place. The easiest way would be to establish a “European civic education month” across all ESfI participating states, during which mobility projects are implemented simultaneously. Local authorities would be associated for the occasion with implications that go beyond the confines of schooling. The length of exchanges would depend on pupils’ age – from one week (lower secondary) to one month (upper secondary). Pupils’ families would be asked, whenever possible, to host and support youngsters during their exchange. During that time, schools would be supported by volunteers enrolled in the European Solidarity Corps. To support schools throughout the year, the ESfI could also propose the creation of an “European civic education service”, which youngsters would complete in ESfI participating states’ schools, before finishing university.

Such an ambitious flagship initiative pioneering school connectivity and pupils’ mobility on the mini-lateral level would give the EPC substance, identity and the strategic depth required to address the generational challenge of structuring politically the continent. It would root European sense of unity in children’s identity.