EU Propaganda in Education

29 October 2018

EU Propaganda in Education

Kirsten Derksen's student thesis turned out to lead to a radio interview, an article in a major Dutch newspaper, and questions in Parliament. Derksen's study had taken a close look at the influence of EU propaganda on her own education, and what she found was that the European Commission is involved in determining the content of her course and comparable programmes of study.

Kirsten Derksen wrote her thesis for a course in European Studies at a college of higher education, the NHL Stenden Hogeschool in Leeuwaarden. This course leads to a qualification as a Young European Professional, which the college describes as as a person “who will be able to move easily in international circles and do a job with responsibility.” Derksen says that when she gave her lecturers “before I began my thesis, a brief account of my plans, they said that the European Commission had no influence on higher education, and absolutely nothing to do with European Studies.”

EU Marketing Vehicle

The reality, however, turned out to be somewhat different. A powerful instrument for conveying such influence, for example, is the European Commission's Jean Monnet Programme, named after one of the most important architects of European unification. This programme finances education and research in universities and similar institutions. In order to be considered for this financial contribution, courses must fulfil certain criteria, such as promoting 'active European citizenship'. Lecturers in the programme are expected to participate in the social debate around the EU. Adriaan Schout, a researcher linked to the Clingendael Institute, a leading independent foreign policy thinktank, has called the Jean Monnet Programme, which costs €380 million, “the EU's marketing vehicle”.

As long ago as 2009 the SP's own research bureau published a report on the European Commission's costly promotional campaigns, whose task is to win hearts and minds for the Europe which the Commission wants to see. The Commission's Communication service runs a website, europa.eu, which now boasts a special 'Teacher's Corner', on which educators can find free materials, from colouring books for the very tiniest EU citizens to brochures for older children. These materials concern the “undeniable advantages” of the eurozone and the European internal market, which will provide “tangible benefits for people and is an engine for building a stronger and fairer EU economy.”

Whoever pays the piper calls the tune

Derksen concluded in her enquiry that the Jean Monnet Programme is contributing to the 'Europeanisation' of courses of study. But how does this Europeanisation actually work? “The European Commission uses the term often in its documentation but nowhere does it explain what it means,” Derksen responds. “What we principally did during my study was to map out what's happening at present in the EU. There's always a search for a European solution to problems. If for example it concerned migration issues, the question was 'what can Europe do?' And not 'is this something Europe should be dealing with?'”

Derksen also points to the fact that the Commission has contributed to what's known as the TUNING process, which publishes brochures and guidelines for education and training in specific disciplines, trades and professions. “So there's a TUNING document that serves as a frame of reference for the knowledge and competences which students must eventually have at their disposal. The Commission supported the realisation of this document, including financially.” And, as is well-known, whoever pays the piper calls the tune.

Criticism of the EU is sensitive

During the preparation of her thesis Derksen also tested for the impact of these attempts at Europeanisation among 160 third and fourth years students of European Studies. Three-quarters of these students found their owns studies to be pro-European, and half stated that their course had made them more pro-European. “Having said that, I spoke to some of my fellow students who also felt the need for more criticism of the EU,” she says.

Such criticism is, however, somewhat sensitive, she notes. “I spoke to a researcher before I began my thesis who felt that the chances were slight that the European Commission would subsidise studies with an EU-critical line. But he wanted this to be off the record.” Derksen also recalls a conversation with a lecturer from the University of Maastricht. “When she heard that I was doing this research for the SP, she stressed that she didn't want me showing the Commission in a bad light. I found this remarkable, because I had not as yet drawn any conclusion. Some of the lecturers to whom I spoke seemed even to become rather aggressive.”

Her period of training in the Dutch Parliament in The Hague and the writing of the thesis changed her view of the EU. “I hadn't always agreed with the SP on the subject of Europe,” she says. “Before I was in The Hague I often found the SP too negative, while I now understand that the party starts in principle from an understanding that the Netherlands can tackle a lot of its problems for itself, or can look at ways itself of cooperating with other member states, without giving up its sovereignty in the process.”

SP Member of Parliament and spokeswoman on EU affairs Renske Leijten wants to see European Commission financing of education and research made much more transparent. “If the recipient of Jean Monnet funding participates in the public debate on the EU,” she insists, “it should be made clear that this person is paid by the Commission.” She agrees also that the Commission continually advocates European solutions to problems. “Everything is suddenly cross-border, even questions like how we organise our home help service or pensions are, according to the Commission, a European affair. They want to see a single European insurance scheme for pensions, despite the fact that we have an excellent pensions system in the Netherlands already. So what has that to do with Europe?”

The state's Research Council for Government Policy has long advocated more flexibility in cooperation among member states, without there always being per se a single Brussels solution imposed. Leijten agrees. “This is what we've been saying for years: cooperation is great, but surely not always via giving up our control? The Commission lives inside its own bubble, and proceeds from a belief that there's a European answer to every problem It's extremely dangerous if educational institutions and researchers, who should be operating independently, also find themselves in this bubble because they are bound by all sorts of conditions.”

The text of this article, which first appeared in the original Dutch in the SP monthly Tribune in October, was prepared by Lesley Arp.

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