All illustrations: © SALTO South East Europe

All illustrations: © SALTO South East Europe

Is European citizenship still relevant in youth work and non-formal education in today’s Europe?

by Maija Lehto



European citizenship, once considered one of the central concepts in the European youth field, has somewhat been forgotten in recent years. The forum “Raise your voice for tomorrow’s Europe”, hosted by SALTO South East Europe Resource Centre in co-operation with the Slovenian, Austrian, German and Polish national agencies of the Erasmus+ programme in the field of youth and the EU-CoE Youth Partnership, opened the question of whether European citizenship is still relevant in the field of youth and non-formal education in contemporary Europe.

A good 10 years ago, when I began to work in the frame of the European Union’s programmes in the field of youth, a strong emphasis was put on young people’s sense of citizenship and the development of civic and social competences in changing societies. The beginning of the new millennium had witnessed important milestones in the integration and enlargement of the European Union, and in 2007 “European citizenship” became a permanent priority of the new Youth in Action Programme (2007-13). Despite the European dimension having been inherent in the programmes before then, the notion of European citizenship suggested an even stronger political perspective towards the projects and activities to be implemented in this framework. Young people should be encouraged to take an active role in shaping – what the Youth in Action Programme Guide in 2007 pronounced as – “the emerging European society”.

© SALTO South East EuropeLooking back, it is obvious that today there is a lot more controversy over the entire “European project” than a decade ago. Soon after I had started to work in this context, the global economic downturn shifted the emphasis of the European Union’s and its member states’ policies associated to citizenship and active participation towards countering the negative implications of the recession, namely the growing unemployment and skills gaps.[1] In the youth field this resulted in the proliferation of projects aimed at empowering young people to gain competences relevant in the job market, or in other words, help them become more employable. Building a sense of European citizenship and civil society was not a priority for some time, until the worrisome news about crumbling social cohesion, Euroscepticism and increasing intolerance in Europe demanded a response.

The Paris Declaration[2] in 2015 brought the concept of citizenship back in the focus of the European Union’s education policy. In particular, young people’s acquisition of civic, social and intercultural competences through formal and non-formal education was stated as one of the primary objectives in overcoming the current challenges. The Erasmus+ programme (2014-20), having integrated the individual programmes in the fields of education, training and youth, was identified as the key instrument of the European Union to achieve the related policy objectives at the European level.

What do we mean by European citizenship nowadays and (how) can we address it with young people?

Is European citizenship still an appropriate concept to address young people’s civic aspirations in contemporary Europe? The concept has been contested throughout the years, not only because of the recent economic, political and social developments in Europe, but also because of its multiple definitions. The concept was first introduced in the Maastricht Treaty on European Union[3] in 1992, in which it referred to the complementary status of citizenship within the European Union member states. On the other hand, however, European citizenship is often understood more broadly as the practice of active democratic citizenship in European civil society, which is not bound to any specific geographical entity or legal rights regime. The duality makes the concept difficult to grasp sometimes, and even more so, convey as a pedagogical approach in citizenship education.

© SALTO South East Europe

The latter approach to European citizenship was given a priority in the forum. However, the fact that European citizenship has a historical reference to European Union citizenship was acknowledged as well. The forum also served as an opportunity to launch the revised Training Kit on European Citizenship in Youth Work[3] by the EU-CoE Youth Partnership, which elaborates the understanding and use of the concept of European citizenship in the context of youth work.

Additionally, the activity gave an opportunity for various stakeholders in the field of education for democratic citizenship to reflect on the potential of European citizenship in youth work and education today, explore the opportunities and challenges connected to integrating the European dimension in their practice and build new partnerships for further co-operation. The forum built on long-term co-operation by the involved partners on this topic.

The forum showed there is a great deal of ambiguity in the understanding of the European dimension and its role in the education of democratic citizenship, and especially around the concept of European citizenship as a whole. Many associate it closely with the European Union citizenship, as described before, and some with the civic and social action based on common European values. It also seems there is a growing disparity between the two perspectives, reflecting the dissolution of the unified value basis and political perspectives within the European Union in the past years. Nevertheless, at the same it was acknowledged that young people today are evermore under a global influence. Increasing international mobility and migration, global economic and political interdependency, as well as the claims for the recognition of universal human rights next to the nationally specific civic, political, social, economic and cultural rights have inevitably questioned the system of conventional citizenships and identities associated with them.

The inputs, discussions and reflections during the forum revealed many open questions around the concept of European citizenship, also when it is understood solely as the practice of citizenship(s) in Europe beyond the European Union. Could it have the potential to enable young people to adopt democratic dispositions, from which they can better respond to the changes and challenges in globalised societies? Could it function as “a hub for global citizenship” as suggested by the keynote speaker, Professor Bryony Hoskins from the University of Roehampton, in her input “European citizenship: a regional hub for global citizenship? or a ‘super’nationality for market liberal elite?”. Could it be a good practice in a broader framework of global citizenship, which takes into account the interconnectedness of economies, politics and cultures and ensures inclusive and participatory mechanisms of the people in decision making? What would be the role of, or relation to, European Union citizenship in such development? What would be the pedagogical approaches to facilitate the acquisition of young people’s civic competences to be able to relate to such citizenship? Finally, is there adequate consensus in Europe at all of what kind of citizenship is desirable and worth advancing?

Therefore, it seems that today European citizenship is still equally “under construction” as it was when I entered this field of work 10 years ago (“Under construction: citizenship, youth and Europe” was the name of the training kit (T-kit) on European citizenship in youth work published by the partnership between the European Commission and Council of Europe in the field of youth in 2003). Nevertheless, it has not become redundant or disappeared, although the preconditions to work with it have changed along the way.

In addition to questioning and (re)conceptualising the concept of European citizenship today, the forum showed that there is a need to provide further support for practitioners to understand how the European dimension can be integrated into their activities and projects at local and European level. To respond to that, the organising partners plan to create a compilation of inspirational practices with the analytical approach showcasing a variety of ways in which the European dimension can be present in education for democratic citizenship with young people in different educational settings. Some of the practices introduced in the forum will be included in the compilation.

It is also evident that there is a need to find commonalities and synergies, as well as to compare challenges in approaching the topic among different stakeholders at the European level. For this purpose, the partners are looking into possibilities to organise a consultative meeting representing expertise from different fields.

© SALTO South East Europe

The outcomes and conclusions of the forum “Raise your voice for tomorrow’s Europe” will be published in total in a report at the beginning of 2018, which will also guide the organising partners to conclude the possible follow-up activities. The report will not provide answers to all open questions around the topic, but it will map out some of the trends and developments connected to it, reflect on and analyse them and set the ground for the following pathways. It is evident, no matter what, that as long as we have not given up Europe as a relevant context for youth work and non-formal education, we cannot ignore the question of European citizenship either.

More information about the forum is available here:


[1] Hoskins B., Kerr D. and Liu L. (2016), “Citizenship and the economic crisis in Europe: an introduction”, Citizenship Teaching & Learning 11(3), pp. 249-65.

[2] Declaration on promoting citizenship and the common values of freedom, tolerance and non-discrimination through education – Informal meeting of European Union Education Ministers, Paris, 17 March 2015.

[3] A treaty on European economic and monetary union, agreed by the heads of government of the 12 member states of the European Community at a summit meeting in Maastricht in December 1991.

[4] Bortini P. and Garcia López M. A. (2017), European citizenship in youth work (revd edn), Georgescu M. et al. (eds), Council of Europe Publishing, Strasbourg.

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Partnership between the European Commission and the Council of Europe in the field of youth
c/o Council of Europe / Directorate of Democratic Citizenship and Participation Youth Department / F-67075 Strasbourg Cedex, France
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