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It’s about us! Reflections on Education for Active Citizenship within the European Union

Authors: Marcella Milana Published:

This article was originally published in Elm's predecessor media, LLinE. What exactly is an EU citizen? The authors argue that EU citizenship education is a strategy for legitimising the Union rather than for fostering democratic processes.

“It’s about Europe
It’s about YOU
Join the debate”

(European Year of Citizenship 2013)


2013 has been declared the European Year of Citizens (EP and CEU, 2012). So, all institutions of the European Union (EU), Members States, and the civil society more broadly, from grass-roots organizations to citizens all across Europe, have been involved in the organization of events that promote debates, dialogues and knowledge about citizens’ right. At the time of writing (April 2013) the event calendar enlists, on average, four to five forthcoming events for each Member State, with few exceptions such as Austria (over twenty events planned), or Portugal and Bulgaria (only one forthcoming event).

The better the people of Europe understand their rights as EU citizens, the more informed their decisions will be. Informed citizens understand that they have a stake in the European project. They therefore want to engage in the democratic life at all levels. This is the vision for the European Year of Citizens 2013.”

Before the 2008 financial crisis hit Europe, participation in the EU elections had been already constantly decreasing (Malkopoulou, 2009), and the share of ’No’ votes to national referendums had firmly opposed the ratification on the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe (Aarts & van der Kolk, 2006; Hooghe & Marks, 2006; Stefanova, 2006). Yet, the European Year of Citizenship arrives at a time of harsh socio-economic conditions that have badly affected a great part of European citizenry.

Such conditions, on one hand, have exacerbated citizens’ adherence to non-democratic forms of political activism via the formation of neo-Nazism parties like Alba Dorata (Greece), and other similar parties across Europe, like the Dutch Freedom Party, the anti-Islam Danish Popular Party, or the True Finns, in with a subsequent growing of xenophobic and extremist positions towards immigrants or other socially excluded sections of the population. On the other hand, through new forms of political activism, a great part of European citizenry has shown its dissent towards neoliberal policies and austerity measures undertaken by EU Member States, in compliance with European institutions. Examples include but are not limited to the Spanish ‘indignados’, also known as the 15-M Movement, which in 2011 initiated a peaceful but steady opposition to the national political agenda, in favor of a more participative democracy; or, on a different plan, the Italian Five Star Movement, a citizens’ organization born three years ago through internet networking that become an opposition party in 2013, when it gained 25% of votes in national political elections.

Under these circumstances we feel compelled to question the adequacy of European policies to form a kind of active citizenship that promotes citizens’ participation within a social justice framework. For ‘social justice’ we intend in particular an educational goal, aiming at creating more equitable, respectful and just society for everybody (Zajda, Majhanovich, Rust & Martín Sabina, 2006).

The article is structured in three main parts. Grounded in the scientific literature, we unpack the notion of citizenship as key educational concept based on multiple and diverse identities. Then, we outline the major steps undertaken at EU level to formalise and expand citizenship rights and to endorse citizenship education across the Union’s nationals, by showing that citizenship education is promoted more as a strategy for legitimising the Union rather than a participatory practice aimed at fostering democratic processes within Europe. Finally, we discuss the implications of these policy advancements from a social justice perspective, by advancing a critique of their political assumptions and, to some extent, the pedagogical approach they suggest.

A critical look at the very conception of citizenship

A careful examination of the extensive body of literature on ‘citizenship’ in either political science or education highlights that this notion is complex and vague, as both culturally and historically grounded. The citizenship concept shifts meaning in the course of history, depending on the latitude and disciplinary perspectives adopted. Accordingly, a univocal definition is an arduous if not impossible enterprise. As a point of departure here we refer to the modern socio-political definition of citizenship introduced by the sociologist Thomas H. Marshall from the London School of Economics, who defines it as: “a status bestowed upon those who are full members of a community” (Marshall, 1992, 18).

In the early nineteen-fifties T.H. Marshall located citizenship in the point of convergence between different types of obligations as well as rights – civil, political, and social –, which found in such notion of citizenship their space for political enforcement (Marshall, 1992). Marshall’s idea of citizenship as the entitlement of civil, political, and social obligations and rights, once it has been transformed into a political project, has de facto given rise to the modern conception of the welfare state (Dwyer, 2004), supported by progressive and labourist parties in post-world-war II’s Europe.

The view of citizenship emerging from Citizenship and Social Class (Marshall, 1950/1992) was intended to be a notion aimed at promoting policies able to actively prevent social exclusion of weak individuals and groups from participating to the public sphere such as younger generations, the unemployed, workers at home, lower-classes, and nowadays immigrants and other cultural minorities that are usually left behind in majority-based societies. Not only were these citizens entitled to multiple rights, but modern democracies based on the above conception of citizenship, constitutes the socio-political and economic context granting all citizens inclusion, by creating the conditions for the effective exertion of civil, political, and social rights.

Nowadays, the neoliberal spirit has led to a reduction if not a dismantlement of national welfare systems. Although Marshall’s paradigmatic conception of citizenship as a legal status encompassing civic, political and social dimensions has not been rejected, different emphases on the extremes of the relation between rights and obligations coexist within the EU, marking the boundary between those who have citizenship status (and therefore rights) and those who have not.

Traditional perspectives on citizenship and their pitfalls

With the crisis of the welfare state model, new and contrasting ideas of citizenship are emerging across Europe. These ideas, inspired by different philosophical-political traditions (Janoski, 1998), pose diverse emphases on rights, obligations, identities and equality issues (Held, 1989; Torres, 1998).

Liberalism, for instance, stresses citizens’ rights, thus results in individuals being loosely committed to the State (Janoski, 1998). Citizenship is mostly based on the entitlement of rights, and it is not necessarily related to membership of a nation state. In the modern era citizens (citoyen) are the opposite of the pre-modern subjects (bourgeois), defined not so much by their link to a territory inasmuch as by the entitlement of civil and political rights. In a neoliberal era such tradition promotes individualism, with a weak social link and a feeble relationship to the State. This in turn sustains an indifferent approach toward cultural diversity as criticized, among others, by Charles Taylor (1989; 1991) or gender diversity (Young, 1990; Nussbaum, 2002). Accordingly, rather than a historically defined status, within this perspective citizenship has a rather normative function.

(Civic) Republicanism, on its part, emphasises citizens’ duties to secure a symbiotic relation between the individual and the State. Here citizenship has to do with the possible ways by which this status articulates the tie that binds the individual to an organized society (Janoski, 1998). In the Western world it establishes and qualifies the type of relationship that regulates the position of individuals or groups within a society, and specifically within nations. It is essentially grounded on the duties and responsibilities of sharing a common sense of belonging, tied to a specific territory, a heritage and a common history. Yet, by connecting to a community that corresponds to the nation state, the (national) citizen is opposed to the foreigner; hence Republican citizenship demarcates a sharp boundary between those who are inside and those that are outside a given nation.

Finally, communitarianism (Etzioni, 1995) draws attention to citizens’ and communities’ responsibilities, with a focus on re-establishing a balance between rights and obligations. This perspective is close to that of (Civic) Republicanism, yet it is based on a rather vague definition of the relation between the individual and the State. Similarly to Republicanism, Communitarianism emphasises a conception of citizenship based on individuals’ belonging to a social community, however such community is more restricted than the nation state. Accordingly, it emphasizes and ratifies a collective political or civil identity, somewhat deeply rooted on a shared history, traditions, or common ethos and, when compared with Republicanism, it demarcates a sharper boundary between insiders and outsiders of a given community (Janoski, 1998).

While some suggests that in modern time Marshall’s classical conception of citizenship might be “obsolete” (Vitale, 2004; Soysal, 1994), because it does not take into account the transnational dimension of today’s citizenship, the above mentioned perspectives on citizenship do not seem to better face the challenges required by a redefinition of membership within diverse and globalized societies. This is particularly so for at least two reasons.

Firstly, not only Civic Republicanism but also Liberalism recognises human rights only if bestowed by a nation state. Communitarianism, embedded in local communities, risks to create social ruptures and ethical and cultural relativisms, which would lose sight of the important political and educative aims related to supra-national or global citizenship, with their universal purposes. In short, nor Liberalism, Civic Republicanism or Communitarianism are able to take into account the multiple and supra-national dimensions of citizenship such as transnational, world, global and ecological citizenship, which in turn constitute key dimensions when educating citizens in contemporary Europe.

Second, participation rights, despite their growing entitlement, are exerted less and less. On the one hand, certain participation rights are grounded on national citizenship, thus difficult to be exerted in a time of growing migration flows. On the other hand, power is becoming increasingly far removed from citizens’ control. The decline of the nation state, with the increased separation between politics and power, has also weakened the possibilities for citizens’ participation in the political decision processes, which are now spread to a far off and indefinite supranational space (Sassen, 2002).

In contrast, we argue that the very concept of citizenship is not only a juridical status bestowed by a nation state, but it can be interpreted as a complex structure of relationships (Kymlicka & Norman, 1994), which requires turning attention towards the relationship between the individual and other citizens or society at large, including yet not limited to the state.

Acknowledging a global perspective on citizenship

Understanding citizenship as a multiple identity entails that the significance of the concept by necessity fluctuates with the changes in the types of relationships individuals hold. Acknowledging its relational nature requires an adaptation of the very notion of citizenship to fit the needs and conditions of the contemporary world, where the power of nation states is in decline and residence and nationality do not necessarily overlap (Sassen, 2002; Cohen, 1999; Benhabib, 2006).

In particular, globalization processes as well as the universalization of human rights urge more than ever to reformulate the very idea of citizenship. As a cosmopolitan aspiration, citizenship has always been ideally present in the European modern notion of citizenship, since the French Revolution, however today political belonging and identity are clearly multiple, occur at different levels and extend well beyond national borders.

Undoubtedly, beyond the local community, the nation state remains a space of social belonging and identity recognition for citizens. However, as suggested by Morin (1999), a further space of belonging and identity recognition is found in inter-state groups, such as the EU. Although the debate over the political meaning of such citizenship is still open and controversial, the EU assigns to itself a political identity that is increasingly emerging as a republican extension of the nation state approach, which aims at protecting citizens’ economic rights and privileges.

Finally, citizenship also entitles an ‘earth identity’ (Morin, 1999), or awareness of belonging to a worldwide ‘community of destiny’. We are world citizens, not only because we belong to the human race, but also as we are living in a reduced and interlocked world and therefore share a condition that until a few years ago it was a prerogative of a nation-state. Nowadays, a shared belonging to a common destiny at global level is emerging, generated by events and threats that affect humanity in its entirety, such as economic and market interconnections, the sharing of environmental risks, the global consequences of local conflicts, and the dangers of nuclear war. Not to mention the discourses surrounding and globally constructing such events enhanced and expanded by international agencies like OECD, UNESCO, World Bank etc.

From a different perspective, also Kymlicka and Norman (1995, 131) point out that “citizenship is not just a certain status, defined by a set of rights and responsibilities. It is also an identity, an expression of one’s membership in a political community”. Though expanding the citizenship concept to include a social element, they still refer primarily to the political dimension of citizenship as an identity. Korsgaard et al. (2001) on the contrary argue for multiple identities, or socio-culturally constructed mental representations; a conception that better helps to overcome both geographical and legal borders, while preserving the complexity embedded in the traditional relation between civic, social and political dimensions.

In sum, grounded in the literature, we consider citizenship not only as a juridical status, a socio-political form given by a nation state, but as a ‘lived experience’ that involves multiple identities (including cultural, gender and linguistic) as well as individual and social practices. Furthermore citizenship as lived experience is a typically educational issue and education becomes a key perspective to understanding and impacting such an issue. Educating such citizens means to favour the shift from entitlement of rights, granted ex parte principi, to empowerment of people through educational practices that enhance the exertion of rights (ex parte populi). The challenge to be accepted in today’s interlocked world is to make the idea of multiple citizenship socially and politically effective and enabling people to live as multiple citizens not only in a supra-national Community, but also in a globalized world.

In the European Year of Citizens the question is whether or not European policies support effectively a model of citizenship education which enable young and adult people to become informed citizens and to engage themselves in the democratic life at all levels. In other words, following our argument, whether or not European policies on citizenship and education can help in facing the challenge of educating active, multiple and global citizens.

A glance at EU policy work on citizenship and education

Citizenship and citizenship education has been a matter of concern at European level since the establishment of the European Economic Community (Treaty of Rome, 1957), and the creation of the European Communities (Merger Treaty, 1967), when employees, self-employed or service (as well as their families members) were granted the right for free movement across European borders. Free movement rights, facilitated by the abolition of borders control and the introduction of a common visa policy among the signatories of the Schengen Convention (1990), have been extended by law to all citizens of the EU (Maastricht Treaty, 1992), covering on 1 January 2012 a total of 503.7 million nationals of twenty-seven countries, according to Eurostat estimates (2013).

It was as late as 1997 that citizens’ rights were coupled with educational goals, and the EU leverage on national education reforms. This leverage was reinforced by the Lisbon Summit (2000), when the Heads of EU Governments gave deliberate mandate to the EU to advance a ‘common interest approach’ that goes beyond current diversity in national education systems. As a result the Lisbon strategy represents a landmark in European policy work in education, as it implicitly by-passes the subsidiarity principle in education (Ertl, 2006; Nóvoa & deJong-Lambert, 2003).

Accordingly, the Barcelona Summit (2002) establishes strategic goals for national education systems consistent with the Lisbon strategy, which have become European reference points for improving quality, facilitating access and opening European systems to the wider world.

In an attempt to summarize the complex political agenda of the EU on citizenship education, few cornerstones can be found among the extensive policy work promoted that either implicitly or explicitly addresses the relation between citizenship and education.

First, in 1997 the Amsterdam Treaty establishes citizenship of the Union for all persons holding a nationality of a Member State, which does not replace but rather complements national citizenship, and embeds political rights, such as the right to write to institutions representing the Union to “enhance further the democratic and efficient functioning of the institutions” and “creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe, in which decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen” (EC, 1997, 2-3).

Meanwhile the Communication Towards a Europe of Knowledge (1997) by the European Commission (EC) calls for complementarity and consistency across policy fields that affects the EU citizenry. Of our concern here is the stress in the document on citizenship not as a subject matter (e.g., civic education) but rather as a ‘dimension’ of European education that

“…will facilitate an enhancement of citizenship through the sharing of common values, and the development of a sense of belonging to a common social and cultural area. It must encourage a broaden-based understanding of citizenship, founded on active solidarity and on mutual understanding of the cultural diversities that constitute Europe’s originality and richness.” (EC, 1997, 3)

Second, in 1998 the Directorate General XXII (now Directorate General Education and Culture) of the EC publishes a study on Education and active citizenship in the European Union, in which the European Commissioner, Edith Cresson, states

In a time of fundamental change, we need the solid foundation which those values [democratic values, nda] provide, for they underlie our recognition of the social reality of a globalised world in which the significance of active citizenship extends far beyond local communities and national frontiers.” (EC, 1998, Foreword, par. 3)

Third, in 2006 the Recommendation on key competences for lifelong learning by the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union enlists social and civic competences among the eight key competences that Member States shall secure to their citizens via national education systems. Particularly,

Civic competence is based on knowledge of the concepts of democracy, justice, equality, citizenship, and civil rights […] Skills for civic competence relate to the ability to engage effectively with others in the public domain, and to display solidarity and interest in solving problems affecting the local and wider community […] This means displaying both a sense of belonging to one’s locality, country, the EU and Europe in general and to the world, and a willingness to participate in democratic decision-making at all levels. It also includes demonstrating a sense of responsibility, as well as showing understanding of and respect for the shared values that are necessary to ensure community cohesion, such as respect for democratic principles.” (EP and CEU, 2006, par. 6, section B).

Fourth, in 2007 two major events are worth mentioning. First, the Treaty of Lisbon, which grants citizens of the Union the additional right to invite the EC to submit a proposal for policy intervention on matters of concern by the Treaty, if a petition is signed by at least 1 million citizens representing a ‘consistent’ number of Member States. Second, ‘active’ citizenship is explicitly addressed as the goal of purposeful educational interventions, as demonstrated also by the Study on Active Citizenship Education, commissioned to GHK, a private consultancy firm by DG Education and Culture. The study explores “how active citizenship education works” by analysing fifty-seven “good practice examples” and ten “case studies” (GHK, 2007, 4) from different European countries. Among the findings is that

Active citizenship is not “just” about values concerned with human and civil rights, democracy and political participation. A high proportion of projects placed specific focus on a wider set of values that included socio-cultural and economic themes such as integration and multiculturalism.” (GHK, 2007, 82)

Fifth, in 2008 DG Education and Culture publishes a report on Indicators for Monitoring Active Citizenship and Citizenship Education, commissioned to Regionplan, a private consultancy firm. The report identifies a certain number of ‘indicators’ to measure citizenship education in terms of: 1) knowledge transfer (i.e., background, factual and functional knowledge), 2) attitudes (i.e., political efficacy, trust and interest), 3) values (i.e., tolerance, non-violence, acknowledging the rule of law and human rights), and 4) skills (i.e., critical reading and listening, writing, debating as well as empathic and social skills).

Each of these indicators is considered both an input and an output of educational interventions. For instance, critical reading might be an input if addressed by the teacher as the explicit goal of a class, and an output if demonstrated by the student. In addition, the report identifies additional input indicators in terms of: 5) education culture (i.e., classroom climate, teaching and assessment methods, opportunities to participate in and have an influence on school as well as to participate in the community through school) (Regionplan, 2007, III). Yet, the report concludes that

Due to the lack of knowledge about the causal relationship between active citizenship and citizenship education, it is difficult to judge the relevance of good input and output indicators.” (Regioplan, 2007, 158)

Sixth, in 2008 designated by the EU as the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue, the Council of Europe, Committee of Ministers has issued the White paper on Intercultural Dialogue “Living together as equals in dignity” (Council of Europe, 2008) which indicates “Democratic citizenship and participation” as one of the five policy approaches to the promotion of intercultural dialogue across Europe and democratic citizenship as one of the key competence areas for teaching and learning intercultural competences. In this document education policies and practices play a key role in promoting active citizenship and widening participation.

Facilitating access to citizenship is an educational as much as a regulatory and legal task. Citizenship enhances civic participation and so contributes to the added value newcomers bring, which in turn cements social cohesion. Active participation by all residents in the life of the local community contributes to its prosperity, and enhances integration. (Council of Europe, 2008, 29)

Seventh, in 2009 (and again in 2011), the EC incorporates in its reports on Progress towards the Lisbon objectives in Education and Training a working model for the development of composite indicators that could be used to measure the effect of education on people’s civic competences and active citizenship. A model was developed by the Centre for Research on Lifelong Learning (CRELL), based at the EC’s Joint Research Centre. Such model led to the development of two composite indicators, on adults’ active citizenship behavior (Hoskins & Mascherini, 2009), and pupils’ civic competences (EC, 2011), respectively. Although such indicators have not paved their way into the official monitoring of Education and Training 2020 (EC, 2012), the development of European benchmarks and indicators in education is a work in progress, despite the concerns on the effect benchmarking has on national education systems (see among others Bruno, Jacquot & Mandin, 2006; Lawn & Grek, 2012).

In short, since 1997 the European agenda on citizenship and education has been noticeably consistent and has moved in three directions: 1) the recognition of legal rights to all EU nationals; 2) the scaffolding of a European education model that has citizenship as a foundation, social and civic competences as a key competence, and democratic citizenship as a tool to facilitate intercultural learning; and 3) the collection of data and information to possibly measure countries’ progress in terms of civic competences and active citizenship.

Looking critically at this agenda, when we consider citizenship as a multiple identity, as we argue in this article, the pedagogical implications should be to form future European citizens that are able to understand the political public culture, to participate in its institutions, to be autonomous and to develop political virtues (Callan, 1997; Levinson, 1999). In line with this argument, policy work on citizenship and education could help all citizens (young and mature) not only to entail but also to exert their rights, while taking into account the plural and multiple identities that define contemporary citizens. Unfortunately, the current debate in education and in education policy circles is not very concerned about exploring the implications that citizenship as a multiple identity has and their consequences on educational practices. On the contrary, the debate often reproduces a ‘restricted conception’ (Held, 1989) of citizenship still rooted in Marshall’s definition, which denotes related rights and, implicitly, marks the boundary between those who have membership and those who have not. Therefore, it is a status that includes and excludes at the same time, depending on points of views (Figueroa, 2000, 50).

Citizenship education as a legitimating strategy of EU

The identification of citizenship as a foundational dimension for education within the Union acknowledges the need to create a ‘unity in diversity’, which means that it is possible to overcome diversity that exists across and within countries, in terms of socio-cultural values, religious creeds and linguistic habits, thanks to the sharing of a common ground. Such common ground is based on democratic values, and an ideal of solidarity and mutual knowledge and understanding among nations that, although permeating the region in the post-world war II period, has been reinforced only with the reunification of Germany (1990). Such common ground, as emerges from the policy documents, also addresses a dubious conception of a shared historical heritage at a time of European expansion and increased competition with other regions of the world. It shall not to be forgotten in fact that in 1997 the Union had just experienced its fourth enlargement to include a total of fifteen countries, and while covering also a great part of Western Europe, it needed to secure its stability. As a state-like institution it could not guarantee its subsistence without the active commitment in social and political life by its citizenry, not least as it was also preparing at the time for its larger expansion (2004, and 2007). Accordingly, as Milana (2008) notes:

Inclusion through active participation, which is at the core of European educational policy, represents, at present, a communitarian strategy for legitimising the Union rather than a participatory practice aimed at fostering democratic processes within Europe.” (Milana, 2008, 214)

Education for (social and) civic competences

In line with the above, the Union’s stress on civic knowledge, skills and competences is not surprising. Accordingly, as Milana (2008, 312) argues, the implicit EU curriculum for citizenship education that emerges from a cross-reading of European policy documents is reductible to equipping students / learners with: 1) Relevant knowledge of the political world, in terms of concepts such as democracy (i.e. what?), time-bound public events and actors (i.e. who?), and procedures for political actions (i.e. how?); 2) Attitudes that can influence both political decision-making and the trustworthiness of political institutions; 3) Values such as tolerance, peace and non-violence, coupled with the acknowledgment of rule of law and human rights. Basic and communication skills in mother tongue and foreign languages, together with debating and critical thinking skills, complete the picture at performativity level.

Subsequently, citizenship education is imposed on national contexts as a uniform standard curriculum applied to all groups and people (Olssen, 2004) on the basis of specific pre-conceptions such as that 1) Europe (as both a pooling sovereignty and civility) is a pluralist but unified society with robust civic and political foundations; 2) citizenship represents a ‘positive’ freedom with a perfect balance of equally distributed rights and obligations; and 3) participation in political life occurs primarily if not exclusively through active engagement in formal and structured political activity.

However, as mentioned in the Introduction, these preconceptions do not reflect the reality experienced by at least a great deal of EU citizens, nor that of non-governmental organizations involved in educational projects fostering active citizenship.

Active citizenship and its measurable inputs and outputs

Finally, the definition of composite indicators and benchmarks (as well as of a set of civic competences) by the EU is with no doubt a sign of political attention towards citizens’ formation via intentional education. However, reducing educational ideals, such as active citizenship, to measurable education input-outputs do not take into due account important features such as citizen’s needs and the overall societal conditions in which citizens live and act. In other words, composite indicators and benchmarks tend to reduce knowledge, skills, competences, teaching methods and learning experiences to measurable elements within a standardized assessment approach. Standardized testing, while suitable to accountability systems, thus used and abused today, is too of a simplistic approach to facilitate complex learning processes that occur within and outside the class, as these are reduced to input knowledge to be effectively transmitted so to produce output citizens. Accordingly, citizenship learning risks to replicate what has long been denounced by Paulo Freire (2000) as a ‘banking education’, where learning is equalized to a knowledge exchange transaction between teachers (cashers) and learners (costumers).

It should be clear now the reason why addressing the relation between citizenship and education in nowadays Europe require critically questioning in the first place the very notion of citizenship, which from an educational perspective cannot be taken for granted.


Diversity and multiple identities as well as the global dimension in the definition of citizenship are unavoidable matters in present-day Europe, which embrace also broader issues of enhancing active citizenship. Although Kymlicka (2010) seems to have slightly lost his trust in multicultural citizenship, he has stressed some of the reasons the contemporary situation calls for a reformulation of citizenship (Kymlicka & Norman, 2000). These not only relate to the rise of minorities’ rights, the burning debate over multiculturalism, and the difficulties for people to participate in political discussions as citizens, but also to other dramatic political trends in Western Countries such as an increased voter apathy, the erosion of the welfare state and the public sphere (Nussbaum, 2007), gender differences (Young, 2006), and the failure of environmental policies (Shiva, 2005), all of which call for a more effective citizens’ cooperation.

In this article we have first considered the different perspectives on citizenship underlining the need to reformulate the very idea of citizenship to better reflect the socio-economic reality in which European citizenry lives in as well as to raise in young and mature citizens the awareness to belong to a hearth community. We argue that citizenship education should permit merging the ambiguities of the socio-political notion of citizenship in a global world within a notion of citizenship as lived experience rooted in multiple identities. In particular, this means to reconcile the universalism of rights with the multiplicity of identities and cultural differences (Young, 1989; Fraser, 1997; Barry, 2001), and membership to a common heritage, where citizenship can be solidly grounded along with the universal rights, which every human being should enjoy as a global citizen. Accordingly, the challenge for education is to transform the contradiction between citizenship and plural identity into a pedagogical project.

We examined subsequently to what extent Europe has addressed such challenge. The discussion of the major steps undertaken by the EU on citizenship and education highlights that formal citizens’ rights have with no doubt been expanded by European integration processes, and that citizenship education has gained relevance in recent years within the European agenda. However, it is unclear whether this has mostly served the EU’s institutional need for securing its stability, or the concrete empowerment of EU citizenry in better dealing with diversity, multiple identity and inclusion at different levels. We therefore expressed concern for the effect that the benchmarking trend applied also to the sphere of education for active citizenship might have on national education systems, as it tends to reduce the complexity of learning processes to the linearity of the input-output model.

In line with this argument, we suggest there is a need to rethink the current models of citizenship or civic education by shifting the political and theoretical horizon in which it is located. We argue that citizenship can be an educational domain in which it is possible to find the hard mediation between the strict communitarian sense of belonging and an open-minded (theoretical and interpersonal) attitude toward other people and countries. However, this mediation needs a complex idea of citizenship – as a lived experience and as such as a typical educational domain – that can overcome the obsolete nation state related notion, but also one that cannot be defined from a precise political perspective.

We claim for a citizenship as a multiple identity, rooted in a complex structure of relationships between individuals and groups and not only with the state. It is an educational project, which makes sense within a social justice education framework. A project which elsewhere we defined “intercultural citizenship” (Tarozzi, 2005), aimed at promoting an open dialogue between diverse individuals and groups on the basis of a mutual understanding and respect as well as of a common political culture and a shared responsibility toward the community. An idea of social just citizenship aimed at filling the traditional liberal gap between cultural pluralism and democratic citizenship (Rawls, 1993).

To conclude, as we discussed elsewhere (Milana, 2008; Tarozzi, 2005b; 2010; Tarozzi, Rapanà & Ghirotto, 2013), we argue that a social just citizenship education aimed at forming citizens “engage(d) in the democratic life at all levels”, as stated in the Vision of The EU Year of Citizen 2013, is not (only) a specific subject, but it is essentially embedded into any educational project. Education is per se a political action, as it aims at forming integral but social beings, who critically learn to make sense to their political participation and socially responsible action. Such view openly contrasts with, thus rejects, all form of citizenship or civic education reducing educational ideals, such as active citizenship, to measurable elements or superficial competences.


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Marcella Milana Marcella Milana is Associate professor in Adult Education at Aarhus University in Copenhagen, Denmark, and a Marie Curie Fellows at the University of California-Los Angeles (USA). A joint Editor of the International Journal of Lifelong Education, Editorial board member of the Journal of Adult and Continuing Education (JACE), Vice-President of the Nordic Society for Comparative and International Education, and co-convenor of the ESREA Research Network on Policy Studies in Adult Education, among other commitments, Marcella Milana has been researching and writing about education for democratic citizenship, participation in adult education, the professionalization of adult educators, and adult education policy. Her current project (GLOBE-A) deals with global polity in adult education. Her most recent publications include Political globalization and the shift from adult education to lifelong learning (European Journal for Research in the Education and Learning of Adults, Vol. 3:2 103-117, 2012), and Globalisation, transnational policies and adult education (International Review of Education, Vol. 58:6, 777-797). Show all articles by Marcella Milana
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