As the level of government closest to citizens, EU local and regional authorities play a crucial role in promoting European values and encouraging citizens' participation in democratic processes. Local and regional leaders agree on the urgency to promote European democracy within education, in line with calls by citizens within the Conference on the Future of Europe. This was the main message during the debate on the promotion of European values through education to foster EU citizenship at the plenary session of the European Committee of the Regions (CoR) on 28 April. CoR members also adopted an opinion on reinforcing democracy and integrity of elections which underlines the need for an open, fair and pluralistic and democratic participation at local and regional level.
The promotion of European democratic values is of particular importance in countering threats to democracy and should form a crucial element in education for all EU citizens. With the final conclusions of the Conference on the Future of Europe (COFE) within reach, further follow-up can be expected of the citizens' recommendations to introduce a minimum level of education about the EU and especially its democratic processes.
During the CoR plenary session debate on "The Promotion of European Democratic Values through Education to foster EU Citizenship" local and regional leaders confirmed they stand ready to build on their existing good practices and build up common tools - on a bottom-up, voluntary basis and in full respect of subsidiarity - to promote civic education to deepen citizens' understanding of democracy and European values, and to encourage debate on the European Union. They also pointed out that innovative teaching materials and resources would benefit schools and other educational institutions in this task. To this end, the CoR launched a call for best practice examples, and with its members has collected hundreds of such initiatives in regions across Europe.
CoR President Apostolos Tzitzikostas, Governor of the Central Macedonia Region in Greece and Head of the delegation of local and regional authorities at the COFE plenary, stated: "With the war in Ukraine we are witnessing that peace and democracy are not a given in Europe. We, as local and regional leaders, need to inform and empower young people to discuss the European Union. Our aim is to foster citizenship and reinforce citizens' ownership. We cannot support Europe if we do not care about it and if we do not learn how to do it on a daily basis. Therefore, the bottom-up development of a European curriculum for civic education is needed to promote European democratic values, critical thinking and media literacy. This will increase awareness of the European project as well as participation of citizens, especially by younger generations, in the democratic processes in the EU."
Dubravka Šuica, Vice-President of European Commission for Democracy and Demography, said: "As a former mayor and teacher, I welcome the call of the European Committee of the regions to promote European values, identities and citizenship through education and culture, at the regional and local level. From the very early stages and throughout our whole lives, informed discussions need informed citizens. On the 9 May, the final report of the Conference on the Future of Europe will be presented to the Presidents of the European Parliament, the Council of the EU and the Commission in Strasbourg. This Conference is a celebration of our values, a space for free debate and deliberation with citizen at the centre, in contrast to the brutal events in Ukraine. It is vital that the European Commission and the European Committee of the Regions, regional and local authorities, continue working closely together on making our democracy, and the democratic institutions that underpin it, fit for the future."
Domènec Ruiz Devesa, Member of the European Parliament (EP) and Rapporteur of recent EP Resolution on the implementation of civic education, also member of the working group on EU Democracy of COFE, stated: "How can citizens engage at EU level, if they don´t understand it? We need to make sure our children acquire the knowledge to act from early on. They asked for it in the Conference of the Future of Europe, and we must deliver. When we see the threat of democratic backsliding in Europe and abroad, we can´t afford band aids. We need impactful and systemic solutions, such as putting forward a European curriculum for citizenship education, explaining the history of the Union, its values, institutions and how they work."
Electoral participation and education on European democracy and citizenship are inextricably linked. CoR members made clear by adopting the opinion "Reinforcing democracy and integrity of elections" that it is necessary to introduce different remote voting solutions in order to make electoral processes at regional, national and European level more inclusive and more environmentally friendly. They called for the inclusion of the local and regional level in a "joint mechanism for electoral resilience" to protect the integrity of elections from potential threats.
Vincenzo Bianco (IT/PES), member of the Catania Municipal Council and rapporteur of this opinion, highlighted that "there are serious risks that we are witnessing and that can undermine the fairness of election campaigns and the very conduct of elections. We are thinking of the huge spread of fake news, racist and discriminatory messages, and the possible falsification of remote voting. We need clear and effective answers and a serious and rigorous attitude from the European institutions."
He further stressed that citizen's participation in local institutions as well as the involvement of municipalities and regions in the promotion of innovative forms and tools for voting, also by promoting green and sustainable ways of holding elections, needs to be strengthened.
CoR members emphasised the need for targeted initiatives to counter the spread of disinformation at all levels, an effort in which local and regional authorities should be recognised as key partners.
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