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Many Lessons to be Learned: The Importance of Better Education for Better Democracies

As we prepare to celebrate the International Day of Education we reflect on the EU and Council of Europe’s history of education cooperation, the new developments and challenges in the field, as well as the common ground for deepening our cooperation.

Today, we celebrate the International Day of Education. Education is both a human right and a public good. The right to a quality education is not only an individual right. As affirmed by the 2019 Council Conclusions on Democracy, access to quality education is the best investment for the future, an indispensable medium for equal opportunities, growth and stability. It enhances interpersonal and intercultural understanding, drives social integration and represents one of the core instruments in the fight against hate speech, discrimination and intolerance. Education is a vital component in ensuring more resilient democracies as well as active civic participation in and beyond the electoral process. The right to a quality education is listed as one of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals(link is external), a codified set of objectives to which both the EU and Council of Europe subscribe. Both organisations firmly believe that better education builds better democracies, and we are proud to work alongside the Council of Europe to further this common endeavour.

Education plays a crucial role in preparing the next generations as custodians of democracy, but 2020 has proven to be a challenging year, due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Students all over the world have suffered the most from confinement and this has been a setback on the way to strengthen the right to a good education. All the old weaknesses have been exposed and new ones have emerged, with the most vulnerable children paying the price of inequality.

The EU is actively cooperating with its multilateral partners on this issue. With UNICEF, the European Union launched, back in September, the “SOS education” campaign to call world leaders to act and bring back students safely to school.

The Council of Europe is also, of course, is an essential partner. Education for digital citizenship is at the top of the EU’s agenda when it comes to education cooperation with the Council of Europe, to prepare democracies to face the new challenges of the digital age.

Our common objective is the responsible use of information technologies, especially with regard to civic engagement online. The EU Priorities for Cooperation with the Council of Europe 2020-2022 recognise the importance of digital citizenship with respect to the risks arising from artificial intelligence and digital technologies, including their impact on human rights, the rule of law and democracy. Going forward, the EU hopes to implement the Digital Education Action Plan 2021-2027 as well as European Democracy Action Plan in close cooperation with the Council of Europe and in line with their standards in the field.

The EU strives to support the work of the Council of Europe when it comes to education. On 12 November 2020, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe decided to establish the Observatory on History Teaching in Europe. The Observatory will collect and make available factual information on the state of history teaching in participating countries. There are currently seventeen participating countries, nine of which are EU member states.

2020 was a positive year for active EU engagement inside the Council of Europe bodies on other fronts too. Ms Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth attended the informal meeting of Ministers of Education of Member States to the European Cultural Convention in October 2020, where she actively participated in the drafting of a political declaration which dealt with strengthening democracy through education.

In 2021, the EU will continue this collaboration and work with the Council of Europe on other areas in the field of education, including the 'Democratic and Inclusive School Culture in Operation' programme, which promotes democratic citizenship in human rights education. It also intends to find synergies with the Council of Europe whilst implementing the Council conclusions on moving towards a vision of a European Education Area.

It is clear that there are great changes to how we approach education in the modern age, yet there are still many possibilities to further our collective work. To quote the words of Commissioner Gabriel herself: “We should learn from this experience and seize the opportunity to continue to modernize our education systems and strengthen their resilience”.

Author: Delegation of the European Union to the Council of Europe