This blog post is the sixth in a series of posts that come from students of our Politics of the European Union undergraduate course. As part of the course, students were asked to write about an issue pertaining to European integration. The best blog posts have been selected to provide an opportunity to exceptional young scholars at UCD to contribute to the debate on the future of Europe, and to promote the insightful scholarship being undertaken at UCD to a wider public audience.
The past decade has seen exceptional progress in the harmonization of educational policies across the European Union (EU). This is rather surprising due to the disappointing lack of social integration thus far in the Union. Furthermore, historically the educational policy space has always been an area of national competence, as all educational systems are intimately linked to national and sub-national identities (Olsen, 2002). An examination of the integration process in this highly sensitive policy area may shed light on how integration in other social areas can be pushed forward.
Some degree of convergence and harmonization in the education sector across Europe has been pursued for decades by various actors, including non-state actors, national governments, as well as the Commission. One example is the Erasmus exchange programme for student mobility, which allows college students to study abroad at a partner university in Europe for 3 – 9 months. The Bologna process initiated in 1998 by various ministers of education to harmonize university accreditation is another initiative aimed toward creating a common European educational space (Lawn, 2009). Even in lower levels of education, policy convergence can be seen through the teaching of second and third languages in all member states, as well as textbook revisions to portray a European identity based on certain ‘European’ values such as democracy, human rights, and social justice (Fligstein, 2010: 180). However, most of this process has taken place outside of the official channels of the EU, except for the Erasmus programme which was piloted by the Commission. Even today, according to the Article 6 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, education remains an area of supporting competences between the Union and the member states (European Union, 2010).
Even without official transfer of sovereignty, however, the Commission has gained unprecedented influence in the educational policy space ever since the Lisbon summit in 2000 (Warleigh-Lack & Drachenberg, 2011). First of all, this summit turned education from a social welfare issue into one that is closely linked to economic growth. The new strategic goal of the Union was “to become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world” (European Council, 2000). As such, policy convergence in education was argued to be essential to the continuing economic growth and international competitiveness of the entire Union (Soete, 2006; Lawn, 2009). The connection between education and economic interests is not new, as both the Erasmus programme and the Bologna process were explicitly designed to foster a generation of highly-skilled, highly-mobile graduates who can be employed anywhere within the EU (Fligstein, 2010). However, it was not until the Lisbon summit that education became so interwoven with many key areas of EU activity, allowing the Union to enter this particular area of high national sensitivity (Corbett, 2013).
Secondly, the new Open Method of Coordination (OMC) has been a great tool in allowing the European Union and its member states to operate in this historically national policy area. Because the OMC is a voluntary and informal process, member states can enter into discussion about the harmonization of educational standards and policies without losing their national sovereignty in this policy area (Warleigh-Lack & Drachenberg, 2011). Although the OMC process can be seen as quite intergovernmental in this sense, in actuality, the Commission has adopted the role of an ‘ideational entrepreneur’ that sets the agenda and actively persuades member states to participate in this process. As Warleigh-Lack and Drachenberg argues, “Behind the formal retention of national sovereignty, there is significant activity and de facto influence at the EU-level” (2011: 1006).
What are the social implications for this recent deepening of educational integration in the EU? Rothacher (2005: 11) attributes the lack of European identity and weak integration thus far to the lack of a “community of dialogue and communication” in the EU. Many of the new educational initiatives promoted by the Commission and accepted by the member states would address this problem by increasing the mobility of European citizens. Indeed, although currently only about 1% of college students take advantage of the Erasmus programme, evidence shows that in the long run, study abroad does create a stronger European identity even in more Eurosceptic countries such as the UK (Fligstein, 2010: 186). This development of a European identity is argued to be fundamental to becoming and acting as a citizen of the EU (Convery & Kerr, 2005).
Further integration in education may also have a positive impact on the current democratic deficit in the EU by addressing the weak connection between voter preferences and decision-making in the European Parliament (Hobolt, 2012). First of all, it would address the information deficit that has allowed citizens’ attitudes to be overwhelmingly cued by national actors such as political elites, interest groups, and mass media (Hix & Hoyland, 2011). Additionally, there is evidence that the more knowledgeable the public become about the EU, the more demanding they are of the quality of democratic institutions at the EU level (Hobolt, 2012: 102). The increase in interaction and dialogue with the wider European Union as facilitated by more integrated educational policy can also build the “reservoir of favorable attitudes” that Easton (1975: 444) has argued to be the basis of long-term diffuse support for political systems such as the EU.
The recent increase in educational policy integration is consistent with the neofunctionalist concept of ‘spill-over’ as it is necessitated by economic integration and neo-liberal interests (Warleigh-Lack & Drachenberg, 2011). Due to the sensitive nature of education, however, integration in this area is accomplished through a new, informal mode of governance instead of the official transfer of sovereignty. Perhaps this is also the method through which integration in other social areas can be promoted. Even if this does not come to pass and education remains the sole exception to the lack of social integration in the EU, its positive impacts on civic engagement would bode well for the legitimacy of the European Union.
Hang Le is a student at Swarthmore College, USA, majoring in Honors Educational Studies and Political Science. This blog post is part of her coursework during her semester abroad at University College Dublin in spring 2014.