To ensure the future of the European Union, a widespread, active European citizenship is needed. The Europamobil project, run by the Genshagen Foundation and the Robert Bosch Stiftung, attempts to take up this challenge. During the project, I was part of an international team that visited 10 different schools in Germany and Denmark. We organized interactive workshops, encouraging students to think critically about the European Union. Based on the results of these workshops I have come to believe that, if young people are taught how to reflect on the European Union critically and how to discuss it openly among their peers, the European project would no longer seem so distant. Introducing lessons on EU institutions and policies in the classrooms could even ramp up the voter turnout numbers among young people, which have traditionally been very low.
Among German students, the EU also means home
In Germany, the students had, in general, impressive knowledge of the EU, especially in comparison to students from other countries. Surprisingly, students who were better educated were more likely to be Euro-sceptic. The reason for this might be that their ability to think critically is more developed and at their age, it is also natural for them to mimic their parents’ opinions. But despite this scepticism, our general impression was that German students have a natural “pro-European feeling” that does not seem to be taught at school or to be transmitted via the media.
When we asked the students to talk about what the EU means to them, they all mentioned positive things like the common currency, the EU as their home or the advantages from trade and no border controls. When we were talking about how would our life look like without the EU, none of the students said that his or her life would be better. In spite of the financial and political crises and the rise of Euro-scepticism, young people in Germany and Denmark are aware of the importance and value of the Union.
Denmark: European Union? Yes, but… let´s go back to the roots
The Danish students we visited with our workshops described themselves as strong proponents of a social union but not as being in favour of further European integration.
Although they recognized the many advantages of the Schengen area, the fear of immigration as a result of open borders was deep-rooted. As the major cause of immigration within the EU, the Danish students pointed to the big differences in salaries between EU countries. Although a lot of students relied on the typical arguments of immigrants abusing the social system in Denmark, some suggested that the EU should engage itself in balancing wages and salaries in Europe.
Differences in the attitudes of German and Danish students towards the EU
The biggest difference of opinion between the German and Danish students was that while the students in Denmark refused to link the solidarity principle of Europe to further integration, German students did not directly oppose it. They recognized the clear economic advantages and realized that Germany profits from its EU membership and leading position within the EU. The Danish students on the other hand were more afraid of losing certain levels of economic development and social standards as a consequence of further integration.
Who are our MPs in the European Parliament?
For many of the students who participated in our workshops, the European Parliament was still a far-off institution. Even naming a few MPs from Germany or Denmark was problematic. They felt that were not being adequately represented by their MPs and many had no idea of what their MPs were up to or what their political views were.
Why is the perspective of young people so important?
During our workshops, we discovered a curiosity about and an interest in the European Union among the students. This initial interest should be further supported and nurtured, by making lessons on the European Union a compulsorily part of the curriculum at every secondary school. To make a success out of the European project, we need to have active citizens who are aware of the importance of the European Union. The Europamobil workshops dealt with this issue, in my opinion, very successfully, since the workshops motivated the majority of the students to go out and vote in the EP elections in May.