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European Commission

[Check Against Delivery]


Member of the European Commission for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth

Europe 2014: Regeneration

European Conference

Harvard Kennedy School - Boston, 1 March 2014

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good evening. I am delighted to be here with you today at this second European Conference at Harvard.

I would like to thank the graduate students from the Harvard Kennedy School for so kindly inviting me. It is a real privilege to speak in these hallowed halls of learning and in particular within this school, which bears the name of one of Harvard's most distinguished graduates.

I was told that the European club here at the Kennedy School has been following closely the European Union's reflections on what we call "the new narrative for Europe"; and that you also have a particular interest in youth issues. I am flattered that your curiosity brings together two parts of my portfolio as European Commissioner which are often seen as separate – culture and youth.

And this brings me to the question running through our discussion today: what can culture and youth tell us about the future of Europe?

Let me begin with the idea of a new narrative – the ambition to communicate a new vision of the European project that can enthuse and mobilise citizens, and win back their trust.

Last spring at the European Commission, when President Barroso, Vice President Reding and I launched a re-think on Europe's future, we stressed that the European Union was about much more than markets, jobs and growth. We felt that Europe was about cultural unity, about shared values, and about taking up a certain place in a globalising world.

Now, is this truly a new narrative we are seeking? Or are we looking to return to our source?

Let us be clear about a couple of points. European construction was never meant to be either purely economic or purely political. The ambitions to create a single market or a political union were always part of some bigger project, which was ultimately about creating a shared European space. In other words, our long-term goal was always the "ever closer union among peoples" that the Treaty of Rome spoke about.

This means that, over the years, Europeans have been encouraged – gradually, gently, often implicitly rather than explicitly – to seek out and explore their common past. Exploring that past means facing up to the tragic and horrific stories of war, division and upheaval that have marked Europe so deeply; a story that returns to the forefront of our minds in this, the centenary of the outbreak of World War One.

But it also means celebrating how Europe, over centuries, transcended its divisions and came to embody the values of civilisation and progress; how it became the global leader in ideas, the arts, science and commerce until the middle of the 20th century.

In the European Union today, we locate the core of our founding story in the spectacular recovery that Western Europe fashioned for itself after the "year zero" of 1945.

Please don't get me wrong. If I pay tribute to the European Union's founding fathers, it is without in any way belittling the great and generous contribution of the United States to that recovery. The historical significance of the Marshall Plan resonates still today; it has entered our political lexicon and is synonymous with solidarity and recovery.

But the way in which France and Germany let go of their deadly rivalry; and how the formerly divisive sectors of coal, steel, food and agriculture became shared resources; and how new rights of free movement and free establishment ultimately led to a new citizenship – all of these are heroic achievements of which we Europeans can be proud.

None of this was ever intended to undermine the wonderful patchwork of national and regional identities, or the array of 24 official and more than 60 regional languages, which Europeans hold dear.

Nor does it challenge the fact that the responsibility for many important policies – from tax and social insurance to education and culture – remains firmly in the hands of our national governments. For Europe was never destined to become the primary allegiance for any of its citizens but to form instead a shared space of common values – a wider community of people to which we can belong with pride, and where new loyalties can sit alongside older attachments to cities, regions and nations.

So why do we speak today of a new narrative?

I believe that, almost inevitably, Western Europe's founding story has lost much of its power as the two World Wars slowly faded from the memory of older generations and did not even enter the imagination of their grandchildren who thankfully did not witness these terrible human catastrophes.

At the same time, the sense of miraculous progress behind what the French call "les trentes glorieuses" – the thirty years of prosperity between 1945 and 1975 – has little meaning for those who lived on the other side of the Iron Curtain, or, in the case of my own country, whose lives were marked by invasion, displacement and partition.

Citizens' trust and faith in government at all levels, not only the European, has weakened over recent years. As the forces of globalisation continue to erode the powers of the nation-state, people begin to doubt whether their governments still have the tools to protect them or make their lives better. This is perhaps the most urgent challenge facing liberal democracy across the globe today.

As for the European Union, we came to depend increasingly on economic integration as the means to achieve our long-term goals – the euro is the culmination of this process – and of course this becomes an existential problem when the economy enters a crisis. If our Union seeks legitimacy through economic performance, it will always remain exposed to the fluctuating fortunes of global markets, and this is not sustainable.

Since the financial implosion that hit Europe in 2008 arrived via finance and banking – sectors which many people associated with our political elites including the European Union – it is a crisis that has put even greater strain on our relationship with citizens. And as the financial crisis rapidly became a deep economic recession, many Europeans began to reject some of the Union's most basic institutions, such as the freedom to live and work in another Member State.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Europe has never received such a wake-up call as this.

Never again can progress towards ever-closer union be taken for granted. Many Europeans hold the Union responsible for their woes, unable to see anymore the shared benefits of such a project. This is why a new narrative is so urgent and necessary, if European citizens are once again to celebrate and find inspiration in the achievements of European culture and civilisation.

And so the search for a new legitimacy is what the ‘new narrative for Europe’ is all about. The ambition is to forge an inspiring sense in our citizens' minds of a Europe that is inclusive – an economic project to deliver future prosperity, yes; but also a political and cultural project which embodies their values.

The new narrative that President Barroso launched in April 2013 seeks to involve artists, intellectuals and scientists, inviting them to come up with new ways of projecting Europe. A committee of leading cultural and public personalities has been working on a declaration, a new 'roadmap' for Europe, which President Barroso and Chancellor Merkel unveiled just yesterday in Berlin.

For the new narrative to serve its true purpose, it must be far more than a top-down exercise. This is why we organised a series of open dialogues between Commissioners and citizens in their own Member States and not only. You might call these 'town-hall meetings' – a place where people voice their concerns and disappointments, and where I and my colleagues can listen, explain and try to understand.

It will come as no surprise that probably the most urgent concern expressed at these dialogues is about the crisis facing many of Europe's young people. This is the link between the two points you have asked me to cover. And let me be clear about what is at stake here: a new narrative for Europe cannot succeed unless it convinces people that today's young generation has a brighter future.

What, then, can Europe do about the almost six million Europeans under 25 who are unemployed? The situation of many of our young people – marginalised, alienated from the democratic process, faced with rates of youth unemployment reaching more than 50% in some Mediterranean countries – certainly looks bleak.

And what about all the young people who are relatively lucky to have a job, but half of whom are on temporary contracts? How can they buy into the European story? I believe these questions go to the heart of our new narrative.

Looking for sources of hope, I arrive, of course, at the great potential of education.

Education can give us the power to determine the life we lead as individuals; and the power to contribute to the shaping of the society we want to live in. Education can give us the confidence to believe that a world based on values and fairness will be the best for us as individuals.

To offer this hope, we have made education and youth employment a priority of the European Union; it is at the centre of our Europe 2020 strategy for growth and jobs. I am working closely with our Member States to make the right reforms so that our schools can equip young people with the skills they need to live a decent life and find sustainable employment, and which will encourage their active participation in the civic life of their community, their country and Europe.

Let me now explain briefly what we are trying to achieve.

My work with EU Ministers for Education involves identifying priorities for educational reform, then supporting, urging and occasionally seeking to push or even name and shame them into delivering those reforms.

We stress a holistic approach that encourages life-long learning, throughout the phases of education and in all situations, formal and informal; in schools and colleges and in work or through voluntary activity.

This holistic agenda includes a number of very specific targets and benchmarks. We have a way of working that seeks to exchange good practices and expose bad practices that are found right across the systems of Europe.

As any of you who have studied education theory will know, participation in early childhood education can be shown to be the most cost effective building block for both excellence and equal opportunities, a means to help potentially disadvantaged children to reach their potential.

We see Member States which effectively have universal access to good early childhood education and care, and our benchmark encourages other Member States to reach participation rates of 95%.

Similarly, we see Member States where completion of secondary school is close to universal, and then others where as many as one-quarter of teenagers abandon school early. Here again, we want the less good to learn from the best and for the rate to fall below 10% by 2020.

We define rates of poor performance among teenagers in reading, science and mathematics, and then set ourselves targets to improve them; the same applies to participation in adult learning activities. And we pursue the target that more than 40% of the young adult population should have tertiary-level qualifications.

We have some other objectives which stem directly from the shared reflection on issues which we have undertaken, such as the need to train, support and value the teaching profession.

And we pursue goals that might be less obvious if the reflection was being undertaken at a purely national level, for example, our ambition to increase the share of young people who can benefit from a potentially life-changing learning mobility abroad; and to expand the knowledge of languages as a means to enjoying the benefits of Europe and globalisation to the full.

For each of the issues highlighted in this rapid survey of educational challenges – and the list of challenges for the US would most probably be very similar – we see a range of national performance from poor to excellent.

If we can learn from and emulate the best, and then support national authorities to deliver the investment necessary to deliver modernised systems, then excellent education for all can become a shared European value, one to stand alongside democracy, human rights and freedom of movement. Now that is a narrative to which citizens will respond.

If I perhaps begin to sound more optimistic, even as the effects of the crisis unfold, it is because we are now starting, I believe, to see the first benefits of a shared European space for education.

We all know, for example, how Finland has persistently performed with the best in the world in successive OECD PISA surveys of reading, maths and science among 15 year olds. But what is probably less well known is that it was a decision by Finland, adopted in the aftermath of their economic crisis in the early 1990s, which led them to focus on two areas that finally revived their economy: education and then research and innovation.

Also less well known is that the Netherlands matched Finland in the most recent survey; and that Poland and Estonia have shown remarkable and sustained progress. In short, we see ample evidence that learning from each other and encouraging reform can work.

The real impact of such educational progress takes time to arrive. Nevertheless, the very fact of regularly bringing together our national experts as well as national Ministers, who meet several times a year in the Union's Council, is fuelling new learning and innovation. Now we need to go further.

For all the progress we have made, my colleagues, the Ministers for Education, are frustrated by their inability to commit new resources to education while the need to cut government deficits remains such an urgent priority. We in the European Commission have tried to promote smart educational spending even as we seek to rein in public debt.

It is simply not possible to negotiate change with teachers, universities and others when we are squeezing their funding.

So, in the light of all we are doing, can education solve all the problems of our alienated young people? Certainly not. But good-quality education can address many of them.

Let me mention one initially puzzling and frustrating set of figures: side by side with the six million unemployed under the age of 25, Europe today has around two million unfilled job vacancies, of which about 700,000 are for skilled IT practitioners. A high rate of vacancies is normally an indicator of robust economic health, not recession. How should we interpret this paradox?

If Europe's young people were better-skilled, their unemployment rate, even in this recession, would be lower. And if, in the future, we can offer them a better mix of job-relevant skills, particularly at a time when the baby-boomers are retiring in large numbers, then we will tackle both unemployment and skill shortages at the same time.

This, I believe, would go a long way towards restoring faith in a shared, prosperous European future. A Europe that is based on values, and open to the world.

Dear colleagues and students,

Let me acknowledge once again the profound nature of Europe's crisis. We have lost many people's trust, and we have not yet set out a vision that can win it back.

And yet I am reminded that the European project remains worth fighting for when I see Ukrainians massing in Independence Square under the European flag or when the Serbian and Albanian governments begin their negotiations for membership.

John F. Kennedy, whose name surrounds us here today, said: Peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures. And however undramatic the pursuit of peace, the pursuit must go on.”

A narrative for Europe based on peace, prosperity, a sharing of values, openness to the world and, yes, good education for all – that is a European story that I want to be able to tell!

Thank you for your attention.

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