Learning to speak "European", the forgotten key competence for living together in the EU

There is an axiomatic universality of language teaching theories and methodologies. A surprisingly broad range of transferable truths is revealed once language teaching principles are applied when attempting to understand the root causes of an increasing alienation from the European integration project. Euroscepticism, identitarian closure, social exclusion, rise of the far-right, radicalisation or the shameless contestation of EU burden sharing and solidarity principles can, at least partly, be explained by analogy with the language acquisition process.

The extent to which we perceive ourselves as Europeans and act out our European identity is decisive when it comes to living together in the European Union. As is the case for real languages, teaching "European" as a first, second or foreign language requires significantly differentiated "teaching" approaches and implies inevitably different outcomes. Beyond this language metaphor, which is not a sophistry, education plays of course a catalytic role in the forging of a European identity.

Being able to effectively communicate amongst Europeans in an ever changing but highly interconnected European Union - and this is not about the mechanics of using a language as a lingua franca - requires one key competence: the ability to fully grasp the rights and obligations deriving from the European citizenship and to fully share the common European values. This is what speaking "European" is about.

This "forgotten" language should come to reinforce social and civic competences, one of the eight key competences identified in the existing Reference Framework for lifelong learning, alongside literacy in one's mother tongue, numeracy, communication in foreign languages, digital competence, learning to learn, sense of entrepreneurship, and cultural awareness. Fostering this "European" language acquisition would in this case serve the purpose of lifelong living together in the EU. This happens with varying degrees of conviction across the EU, which ultimately determines the degree to which one feels European.

"European" as a mother to​​ngue

According to the Reference Framework of key competences, communication in the mother tongue, which is the 1st key competence, "is the ability to express and interpret concepts, thoughts, feelings, facts and opinions […], and to interact linguistically in an appropriate and creative way in a full range of societal and cultural contexts".

It is a fact that the mother tongue defines to a large extent our sense of belonging to a particular culture and nationality. To continue with the language metaphor, there are hardly any cases of 'native European speakers', in other words, of people for whom their European identity takes precedence over their national one.

According to a European Parliament Eurobarometer survey carried out in October 2013, ahead of the 2014 European elections, the overwhelming majority of citizens feel more attached to their country than to the EU (91%), while 88% of Europeans are also attached to their city/town/village.

Concerning the sense of belonging to the EU, according to the Spring 2015 Standard Eurobarometer on 'European Citizenship', over two-thirds of Europeans feel that they are citizens of the European Union (67%), with those considering that they are “definitely” citizens of the EU now reaching 27%, while 40% see themselves as EU citizens “to some extent”.

This is explained by the fact that, while the EU is an economic and monetary union, it is only to a limited extent a political union, which brings together 28 distinct and sovereign Member States. The EU is not a federal super-state and we have not witnessed the fusion of nationalities, cultures and ethnicities, as has been the case in the United States of America. The predominance of the American identity over the identities of different immigrant populations was the result of a melting pot policy, which favoured all too often assimilation to the detriment of multiculturalism. This has never been the objective – neither explicit nor implicit – of the EU. Therefore, it is not surprising that EU citizens do not perceive the European identity as their 'native' identity and as a result, there can be misunderstandings in relation to the expression and interpretation of concepts or thoughts and to societal or cultural interaction.

The question is, as is the case for any spoken language, to what extent such misunderstandings impede communication.

"European" as a second language​​

Language teaching methodology differentiates between a "second language" and a "foreign language". With this in mind and taking English as an example, 'teaching English as a second language refers to teaching English to students whose first language is not English, usually offered in a region where English is the dominant language and natural English language immersion situations are apt to be plentiful'.

Given the level of interconnection amongst EU Member States as a result of European integration, the teaching reality described above is transferable to what the European identity should represent for the average European. Indeed, the EU with its numerous policy areas where there is community competence (from cohesion policy and agriculture to environment, the single market or the monetary union) gives plenty of opportunities to all Europeans for a natural immersion into the "European language". After all, as over 70% of European legislation is implemented at local and regional level, people at grassroots level should be familiar with what Europe's added value is in their everyday lives.

What is more, the multitude of rights deriving from the European citizenship - including the freedom to travel, study, live, establish a family, do business or work anywhere in the EU - together with the progressive lifting of relevant administrative barriers, are a tangible manifestation of the advantages of being European.

Local, regional and national politicians are the natural communicators about the merits of the EU and constitute the obvious interface between Europeans and Europe. However, Brussels and the European institutions are all too often blamed by national governments for failures of national policies and lately, for all the austerity measures taken in the wake of the financial and economic crisis. Moreover, it is rarely explained in plain terms to EU citizens that the outcome of European Councils, which in essence determines Europe's direction, is an overwhelmingly inter-governmental exercise, affected by the political majorities formed at the level of national governments. Therefore, national politics impact upon European decisions far more than national politicians are willing to admit to their electorates.

Interestingly enough, the degree of feeling European, in other words the intensity of the sense of European citizenship, very much depends upon an individual's socio-economic and educational background. The Spring 2015 Standard Eurobarometer revealed that the most privileged classes of the population are more likely to see themselves as European citizens, with 84% of Europeans who see themselves as upper middle class doing so. On the other hand, this feeling is shared by only 44% of those who describe themselves as working class, with 54% of people in this category defining themselves by nationality only.

Unsurprisingly, the level of education affects the sense of European citizenship, which is very widespread among those having studied up to the age of 20 and beyond (72%), while only 42% of those who left school at the age of 15 or earlier define themselves as European.

Misinformation or simply lack of information about Europe, make people feel less, or even not at all European. This is also the case of all those who are not empowered to make the most of their European citizenship: people with no opportunities to grow, at risk of poverty and social exclusion, people who are victims of growing inequalities or of persistent unemployment, also due to lack of qualifications and inability to adapt to change.

Yet, this can be addressed to a large extent through education, including European citizenship education. Effectively addressing educational poverty and early school leaving is part and parcel of any successful European empowerment process.

Yet, the "Education and Training Monitor 2015" published by the European Commission in November 2015, notes that education in Europe is one of the victims of the economic crisis and budget cuts, with possible consequences in the long term. "Europe is not moving in the right direction fast enough. Educational poverty remains stubbornly embedded, with far too many disadvantaged students, and government investment - crucial to quality education - reveals worrying signs of spending cuts," it says. Clearly, underinvestment in education has serious repercussions on growth, exacerbate poverty and social exclusion. 

At the same time, there are some 5.5 million early school leavers (11.9%) across Europe and the average unemployment rate amongst them is about 40%. Even more alarming is the fact that across the EU, early school leaving rates amongst the foreign-born population are more than twice as high as the early school leaving rates for the native-born population, which is symptomatic of non-inclusive education systems and of significant socioeconomic discrepancies between the two groups.

Last but not least, European citizenship education is a big question mark. Although general citizenship education is part of national curricula in all countries - as a stand-alone subject, as part of another subject or learning area, or as a cross-curricular dimension – the content, level and length vary considerably. Meanwhile, we have no clear picture of how, and if, European citizenship education is taught and to what extent it keeps abreast of contemporary societal issues such as cultural diversity, social inclusion and the respect of the fundamental principles that underpin modern democratic societies. This is vital in an EU where extremism and radicalisation are leaving their footprint. However, education being a subsidiarity issue par excellence, setting European standards for teaching European citizenship is regrettably not possible.

As for any ordinary language acquisition, learning "European" as one's second language - that is, having the sense of naturally belonging to Europe and the knowledge of what this implies in terms of rights and obligations - is a skill that can be acquired through formal, informal or non-formal education processes. But acknowledging that the European identity is a dominant and naturally unifying component of the European Union and the European integration project requires clear political vision and firm commitment to the European values.

"European" as a foreign l​anguage?

The difference between teaching a language as a second or as a foreign language lies primarily in the degree of exposure to that other language. Teaching English as a foreign language for instance refers to 'teaching English to students whose first language is not English, usually in a region where English is not the dominant language and natural English language immersion situations are apt to be few'.

Equating the "European" language with a foreign language basically means admitting to the remoteness and sparsity of the European context in European citizens' lives. This would certainly make any convinced European cringe with embarrassment. Yet, building a European identity is neither automatic nor does it happen overnight. What is more, taking for granted that it already exists can prove dangerously misleading.

To enact one's European identity and European citizenship, it is necessary to believe that Europe is a place of integration, inclusion, solidarity and protection of social rights, a place where shared values are respected by all. The democratic legitimacy of the European project as a whole is at stake when there is political hiatus over the EU common values, namely democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights including non-discrimination, inclusion, tolerance and respect for diversity. It is not enough to list these values in the treaties or even to explicate them in long political speeches. What is needed is to show to the average European that they take precedence over national egoisms, populist electoral dialectics and the instrumentalisation of the European project in inter-governmental claims.

Interestingly enough, we had to wait for the public consultation launched by the European Commission in September 2015 in preparation of the 2016 Citizenship Report to read questions about European identity and the EU's common values. These notions were completely absent from the 2010 and 2013 EU citizenship reports, where EU citizenship was evaluated in terms of what it implied administratively in different situations. For instance, the word "identity" was only found within the context of an "identity document"…

Of course the most convincing confirmation of the existence of EU common values is their respect. By everyone. But sadly, this is not the case, and the EU has not had the political courage to sanction governments that are consistently in breach of the common values of the EU by triggering Article 7 TEU, which aims at ensuring their respect by all EU Member States. Its preventive mechanism allows the Council to give the EU country concerned a warning before a ’serious breach’ has actually materialised and, if the breach has persisted for some time, the article's sanctioning mechanism gives the Council the possibility to suspend certain rights deriving from the application of the treaties to the EU country in question, including the voting rights of that country in the Council.

Meanwhile, Victor Orban's conservative government authorises the army to fire on refugees, deliberately undermines media freedom or threatens to reinstate the death penalty. In other Member States, the EU values of tolerance and inclusion are insidiously undermined through regressive referenda reinstating obscurantism when it comes to LGBT rights. EU solidarity is also put into question through the use of European legal instruments, which may not be legally challengeable but certainly poses serious moral questions.

The EU's limited political will to properly defend its values and an ever weaker social union, unable to effectively protect the millions of Europeans from a continuous race to the bottom in terms of social standards, tarnish the image of a European Union that offers hope and a real alternative to its citizens.

Disillusionment with the European project translates easily into alienation from Europe, isolationism and victimisation of the "other", with the different waves of refugees being the perfect scapegoats for the multiple frustrations of EU nationals. This is what easily makes "European" a perfectly foreign language and becomes a fertile ground for different forms of extremism, such as the rise of the far-right, and for radicalisation.

Grievances born from lack of acceptance, feelings of discrimination or outright social exclusion, can be at the heart of extremist or radicalised ideological narratives, where the European identity is in the best case totally effaced and in the worst, considered the enemy's identity.


Some claim that the pursuit of "more Europe" has become a euro-bubble mantra that fails to take root at grassroots level, across the EU. On the contrary, a political discourse of estrangement from the European project is no longer a taboo, with UK Premier David Cameron openly admitting at the Tory party conference back in October 2015 that he has "no romantic attachment to the European Union and its institutions". He out rightly declared on the same occasion: 'When we joined the European Union we were told that it was about going into a common market, rather than the goal that some had for “ever closer union”. Let me put this very clearly: Britain is not interested in “ever closer union” – and I will put that right'. It goes without saying that the Brexit debate has put of course the European construction in a different context.

Which brings us back to the initial thoughts about language skills and the ability to communicate. Clearly, in Britain's case, speaking "European" means something different from what other European Member States may have understood. But Europe is our future and "European" must remain the lingua franca for the EU. What matters is not so much the starting point – speaking "European" as a mother tongue, as a second or as a foreign language – but the final outcome, that is, the acquisition of a level of proficiency in "European" that allows for living well together in the EU.

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