Brexit and it implications for Citizenship Education across Europe

This blog will address how, through education, European countries (including the UK) and European institutions can address the issues of the rise of anti EU sentiment and support for anti-immigration policies that became prominent in the recent UK vote for Brexit. It will begin by looking at what we already know, how the current state of play has been challenged by the economic and migrant crisis and finally it will end with implications for policy and practice.

A significant amount of research has already been undertaken to define the competences (knowledge, skills, attitudes and values) needed for Active Citizenship focusing beyond the level of the nation state either on European Citizenship or Global Citizenship (on Active Citizenship Hoskins and Mascherini 2009 and youth civic competence Hoskins et al. 2011; Hoskins et al. 2014 on Global Citizenship Hoskins forthcoming). These competences include understanding the rights and responsibilities to undertake action based on the values of global human rights and the need to create social justice within and between countries at the local, national, regional and global level. The key to European and Global Citizenship as opposed to national concepts of citizenship is understanding the interdependencies and interconnections between our own actions and decision making at the individual, local and national level and their effect on other people in our neighbourhood in Europe and around the world.

However, across Europe the public discourse and national policy agenda has moved far away from this discourse and has reduced support for the learning of global and Europe Citizenship knowledge, skills, attitudes and values. Even Citizenship education in many member states of the EU has been retreating to focus on the nation state. Our recent research project on the effects of the economic crisis on Citizenship in Europe funded by the EU Europe for Citizens programme demonstrated that active or participatory citizenship (aimed at getting people involved in decision making in all aspects that affected their lives) was no longer a priority for national governments across Europe after the 2008 financial crisis (Hoskins et al. 2012a, 2012b; Hoskins and Kerr 2012). The first trend was for Citizenship Education to move towards an employability and entrepreneurship agenda, and then in many countries in Europe Citizenship Education also became part of a security agenda, focusing on the teaching of values to migrant/Muslim communities as opposed to critical and political engagement. These general trends in education and youth policies were as applicable to education policies in England as other European Union countries.

As our research project showed the financial crisis has influenced the debate on Europe and the retreat to the nation state. The EU took a strong leadership role during the economic crisis and the decisions on financial austerity (whether necessary or not) were seen to be imposed against the will of the people in Southern Europe. The economic competitiveness of the EU member states was also put under question. We found that citizens’ trust reduced across almost all European countries in the EU and according to Sani and Magistro 2016 this trust declined at an even greater level for the least wealthy individuals. The financial crisis also triggered large scale migration from Southern and Eastern Europe to Western Europe. The migration flows from worn torn countries, including Syria and Iraq, across the Mediterranean added further stresses to the sense of solidarity across Europe.

The EU referendum in the UK

In the recent Referendum in the UK on membership of the European Union, the key issue that was developed by the Leave campaign and their supporters was the issue of migration and how being a part of the EU enabled freedom of movement of European citizens. There were four arguments that were developed against migration and freedom of movement.

  1. EU migrants took jobs and reduced pay for low skilled occupations.
  2. EU migrants put pressure on public services, in particular the health service and places in local schools.
  3. The migration crisis and Syrian refugees heading towards western Europe from Turkey and Libya posed a security threat and they could get to the UK
  4. Migration had changed the cultural identity of the UK

In summary, the migrant was constructed as a scape-goat for many of the social problems in the UK, reintroducing racism and xenophobia to popular public discourse. Nevertheless, for the low skilled in the UK, there is significant difficulty in finding decent jobs with some genuine feeling of security over the amount of money that they will be paid and the length of time that they will have a job. The EU has tried to protect workers’ rights and what protection there is has come from the EU, but the UK has led the way in Europe on reducing workers’ rights. In addition, public services have been insufficiently invested in by successive governments in the UK and they are now at full stretch but this is not the fault of the EU or the migrant worker – who is often working in these services. These arguments were made by the Remain campaign but they were more complex and did not fit into simple slogans. The Remain campaign focused on the issue of economic wealth, stability and security but it appears that the greatest concern of the majority of voters was to reduce migration.

What can be deduced from early analysis of the data on voting is that the regions and individuals in the UK most affected by the economic crisis and austerity policies (those with lower qualifications, unemployed and in insecure and low paid jobs) were the most likely to vote to leave (YouGov 2016). The pain of those suffering most from austerity measures and poor working conditions across the UK has been harnessed against the EU, against main stream politicians that supported remaining in the EU and against migrants (both from EU countries and those fleeing from conflicts in Syria and surrounding countries). It is hard to give credence to the argument in the UK that the EU is responsible for austerity policies but the EU was associated with migration which was blamed for pressures on services and jobs rather than identifying austerity as the cause. The message portrayed by the Leave camp was a vision that outside the EU people in the UK could take back control of their country and their lives.  This adopted position is similar to one identified by Van de Velde (2016) in her analysis of youth protests across the neoliberal world that present a discourse of a sense of separation of the people from the political system and the establishment (politicians, bankers, big business), a general feeling of anger towards them (even if not exactly sure who they are) and a desire for greater autonomy and control. The difference in the UK and the positive element from this story is that young people did not vote this way and overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU (71% voting remain for the age group 18-25) (YouGov 2016).

The UK vote to leave the EU has presented the European Institutions, UK politicians and political parties, and remaining member states some fundamental questions on the European project and how to keep it stable and alive. Business as Usual will probably not be sufficient to maintain the European Union in the medium to long term and the current state of play is ripe for the popular will and nationalist leanings in other countries equally to seek to leave. There are three policy actions that need immediately to be addressed by all these policy makers.

First, there need to be measures introduced to tackle the pressures on those who have suffered from long term austerity, and to improve the life chances, working and living conditions of the unemployed, low qualified and low paid.

Second, the European Participatory and Active Citizenship agenda needs to be back at the top of the policy agenda, so bringing the ordinary citizens back into the decision making processes at all levels of governance. All people need to be offered the chance to learn the skills to engage in the political processes and decision making. Global and European citizenship needs to be provided within adult education and citizenship education should become a part of vocational education and training and apprenticeships.

Third, Global and European Citizenship education needs to be re-thought so as to focus on what kind of Citizens are needed in Europe and the world.

Do we want;

Market liberal citizens who are competitive, efficient & productive; citizens who travel the world consuming the diverse experiences and cultures to enhance their individual wealth and careers?

Liberal democratic citizens who kindly volunteer to look after the poor but who do not question the status quo and ask how these other citizens/ non-citizens became poor?

Critical active citizens who can see the inequalities within & between countries and who want to perform actions to create social change and greater equality?

It is my view that we need to revive the agenda on Global and European Citizenship that focuses on teaching the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values for critical active citizenship. In addition, we need to work on opening spaces at school, college, university, work and in local communities for all people to be involved in decision making that affects their lives, and on using these spaces to promote a sense of belonging and shared ownership beyond national borders.

Bryony Hoskins

Professor of Comparative Social Science

Department of Sociology

University of Roehampton, London


Hoskins, M. Saisana & C.M.H. Villalba (2014) Civic Competence of Youth in Europe: Measuring Cross National Variation through the Creation of a Composite Indicator. Social Indicator Research. P1-17.

Hoskins, B., Barber, C., Van Nijlen, D., and Villalba, E. (2011) Comparing civic competence among European youth: composite and domain-specific indicators using IEA civic education study data. Comparative Education Review, 55, (1), 82-110. (doi:10.1086/656620). 13, 0.76

Hoskins, B. and Mascherini, M. (2009) Measuring Active Citizenship through the development of a Composite Indicator. Social Indicator Research, Vol. 90, 459-488.

Hoskins, Bryony, Kerr, David, Abs, Herman J., Janmaat, Jan Germen, Morrison, Jo, Ridley, Rebecca and Sizmurq, Juliet (2012) Analytic report: participatory citizenship in the European Union Institute of Education. , University of Southampton Education School, 103pp. Hoskins, Bryony and Kerr, David (2012) Final study summary and policy recommendations: participatory citizenship in the European Union. Southampton, UK, University of Southampton Education School Krek, Janez, Losito, Bruno, Ridley, Rebecca and Hoskins, Bryony (2012) Good practices report: participatory citizenship in the European Union. Southampton, UK, University of Southampton Education School Hoskins, Bryony, Abbs, Herman, Han, Christine, Kerr, David and Veugelers, Wiel (2012) Contextual analysis report: participatory citizenship in the European Union Institute of Education. Southampton, UK, University of Southampton Education School.