Citizenship education is vital in tackling radicalisation in Europe. Offering young people a stake in society is the best way to ensure they share our democratic values, writes Allan Päll.
Allan Päll is the secretary general of the European Youth Forum.
Last week, EU ministers of education, youth, culture and sport met in Brussels to discuss “socio-economic development and inclusiveness in the EU through education”. “Radicalisation” among young people was also high on the agenda with ministers discussing how citizenship and fundamental values are promoted in education. This seems to hit all the keywords, but what is the real agenda here?
As part of this debate ministers agreed €400 million under the Erasmus+ programme for projects promoting “civic values” and €13 million to develop measures for fighting radicalisation and setting up a working group on it. Whilst it is gratifying to see some dedicated funding for education on citizenship, the way that this debate is approached often misses the real issues on ground. The question of extremism is not something with easy solutions, but is rooted much deeper in our societies and is the result of our failures to integrate people. Small and notional actions trying to plug gaps will inevitably fall short.
Yes, some young people are being attracted into violent extremist networks. But we also witness the rise of support for extremist ideologies that promote racism and xenophobia, often advocating violence, for example against refugees. But it would be wrong to lay this problem at the door of young people and to attack radical thinking.
The best cure is prevention and the only way to tackle violent extremism is by all sectors working together to address its root causes, one of which is the marginalisation of young people. But we have to also be careful not to stigmatise particular groups, which will only lead to their further alienation. Rising Islamophobia should be a serious concern, as its rise will probably only make more people ask themselves whether they really are welcome in European societies.
In the midst of what I would call a crisis of leadership on the issue of migration, rather than a migration or refugee crisis, we sorely need better coordination at European level to address interrelated problems. Establishing a working group is, therefore, a good step. But its recommendations on what education can do to support integration must lead to long-term action.
Migration has become a contentious issue, often mixed up with terrorism, and blatant populism playing on fear and anxiety is not finding any solutions: instead, it is shutting doors, erecting walls and closing minds.
Europe needs a strategy that looks at policies together, starting with education and non-formal education and the volunteering sector, including what social policies can do to integrate people and improve our economies. When it comes to young people in particular, taking a joint approach can reap rewards. Easily accessible “one-stop” services are one way to go: bringing services under one roof such as at a youth centre where anything from careers counselling to social services and cultural activities is available.
These services are especially effective in more vulnerable neighbourhoods. There are already good examples of this happening in some places; indeed in Belgium, Mechelen has taken a cross-sectoral approach for tackling exclusion and has been successful, as despite the high number of foreign fighters coming from Belgium, none are from this city.
But the broader focus on education needs to be on citizenship, bringing me on to the point on radical thinking. The very foundation of a democracy is based on building citizenship and empowering people to be capable of being critical towards authority. Government programmes which treat any young person who is critical of its foreign policy as a potential terrorist, or violate their privacy through mass surveillance, undermine this foundation. They will never create the same sense of security that responsible, vigilant, democratic citizenship would create.
Education systems are vital to embedding these kinds of attitudes, but it would be remiss to put the onus only on the formal education sector. Formal education is often just that: too formal. Ministers have recognised this, calling for new innovative teaching methods to be used. How can one learn citizenship through rote learning anyway? But the real opportunity is to create more space for young people to organise. And they are particularly good at organising together; through youth organisations, they reach out to huge numbers of their peers, helping to instil democratic values in a way that formal education can never do. The youth sector has huge potential, especially if ongoing support is given to those working with young people to further maximise its impact.
We call on our leaders to support young people in this role, and youth organisations to play a key role in shaping and implementing a joint strategy that supports critical thinking and social inclusion, helping to prevent extremism altogether.
So it was reassuring to hear that ministers underlined that the purpose of education should be broader than just employability. They talked of the importance of human rights and fostering respect for shared European fundamental values, such as the freedom of expression, democratic citizenship and equality. This is a good first step, but let’s make sure that we are also on the right path, and on it for the long term.
Only when people feel truly part of a society, with a stake and voice in that society, can we stop them from turning against it. This applies to everyone, young and old. This applies to all kinds of extremes. At the moment, young people are not being given that chance, but let’s put young people at the centre of this debate and find solutions together.