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Document 51998AC0455

Opinion of the Economic and Social Committee on the 'Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament, the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions entitled "Towards a Europe of Knowledge"'

OJ C 157, 25.5.1998, p. 49 (ES, DA, DE, EL, EN, FR, IT, NL, PT, FI, SV)


Opinion of the Economic and Social Committee on the 'Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament, the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions entitled "Towards a Europe of Knowledge"'

Official Journal C 157 , 25/05/1998 P. 0049

Opinion of the Economic and Social Committee on the 'Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament, the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions entitled "Towards a Europe of Knowledge"` (98/C 157/13)

On 18 November 1997 the Commission decided to consult the Economic and Social Committee, under Article 198 of the Treaty establishing the European Community, on the above-mentioned communication.

The Section for Social, Family, Educational and Cultural Affairs, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 12 March 1998. The rapporteur was Mr Koryfidis.

At its 353rd plenary session held on 25 and 26 March 1998 (meeting of 25 March), the Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 65 votes in favour with no votes against and one abstention.

1. Introduction

1.1. The Commission Communication entitled 'Towards a Europe of Knowledge` is an important attempt to define the scope and content of the new generation of European Union activities in the fields of education, training and youth.

1.2. The issues and positions presented in the Commission document have their starting point and origin in the new treaty, related general positions of the Commission - as set out in its Agenda 2000 action programme - and previous communications on the subject, while the main thrust of the communication is defined by the following requirements:

- the need to maintain the EU's strong political and economic position in the world and to give fresh impetus to Community efforts in the fields of innovation, research, education and training;

- the need to combine job-creation policies - both macroeconomic and otherwise - with an education and training strategy that will result in the conscious release, cultivation and utilization of each individual's strengths to the greatest possible extent - for their own benefit, but also for the benefit of society as a whole;

- and finally, the need to develop and modernize the EU's internal policies - with more than purely economic objectives - to promote each European citizenship in the broad sense of the term.

1.3. As the communication notes, the crucial prerequisite for establishing a Europe of knowledge is 'the gradual construction of an open and dynamic European educational area`. This educational area comprises a multidimensional framework, incorporating the supremely important process of making 'lifelong learning` a reality.

2. General comments

2.1. It is important to point out from the start that this communication is a product of the White Paper on education and training () and of the subsequent communication reviewing reactions to the white paper (). In the above context, the ESC's responses to the communication refer back to its own opinions on those earlier documents ().

2.2. The Commission communication comes at a time when - with the exception of the summit on employment - key EU policies are focusing on the questions of enlargement and economic and monetary union; it thus shifts the focus of EU policy to something more visible and tangible for the average European citizen, which in practice encourages people to become more interested, and thereby bringing them closer to EU policy.

2.3. The ESC considers the substance of the communication to be constructive and, subject to certain provisos, relevant to the overall future of the EU. In particular, the ESC notes the following with regard to the Commission's views as stated in the communication:

2.3.1. The Commission's views on bringing to the forefront policies related to knowledge (innovation, research, education and training) are important and ground-breaking. They are also views that the ESC has already expressed, or endorsed, in earlier opinions.

2.3.2. The interrelation between these views and the outlook for Europe's economic competitiveness, employment and for the creation of a climate and environment conducive to the personal fulfilment of Europe's citizens is crucially important. This interrelation is the major factor behind adapting the EU and its citizens to the new environment that is being created by the advent of the learning society.

2.3.3. The development of a coordinated strategy and macroeconomic policy for employment calls for fresh educational, pedagogical and didactic approaches - approaches that involve cultivating new perceptions among young people, but not only among young people, and elsewhere establishing different attitudes to issues such as 'economics of solidarity` or to other activities that serve needs not yet met by the market (e.g. environmental needs). In addition, this same strategy and macroeconomic policy requires continuous monitoring and serious study of all sectors of production, especially those showing a marked (positive or negative) trend towards change. It is this trend which must define, in good time and with due care, medium and long-term policy on education and short-term action on training to produce immediate results.

2.3.4. The ESC considers that Europeans understand a Europe of knowledge to mean every citizen having access to knowledge, informed political and social action, and lifelong learning. But it also implies a 'cohesive and inclusive society based on solidarity, as well as a high quality of life, sound environment, freedom, security and justice` (). In short, this means greater political and social democracy.

2.3.5. In principle, the ESC fully endorses the Commission's concrete proposal for the gradual construction of a European educational area. This is consistent with the view it has repeatedly expressed that there are already areas not covered by national education systems that fall to the responsibility of EU bodies, and there is also a need - while respecting subsidiarity - to coordinate national education systems so that they become more effective.

2.3.6. Another problem linked to the construction of a Europe of knowledge and the European educational area is exclusion. Exclusion from the opportunity to participate in the building of a Europe of knowledge and from the benefits that this will offer to European society and European citizens is not just a problem that affects individuals, but one that affects whole social groups and possibly whole regions of the EU. This fact makes it imperative to develop without delay policies to prevent such an eventuality.

2.3.7. The ESC feels that any new Community action aimed at young people (within or outside the education system) must be part of a more general policy grounded in the origins and historical course of European civilization and in the process and prospects of building a Europe of knowledge. We must not forget that our efforts are primarily for today's young people, whose age prevents them from being involved in our planning. It is therefore incumbent on us to at least impart to them our historical recollections and the timeless values that have led us to our current position. We must also ensure that they understand and share our analysis, at least at the stage when our plans are being implemented.

2.3.8. Another perspective on a Europe of knowledge produces thoughts and arguments about the role that new technology can play in the development of an alternative - i.e. more direct and effective - democratic process. In a context of unlimited possibilities for conveying information it may be time to address the question of how, through education and training, we might create a culture of refining information and checking the authenticity of knowledge. There is also the question of how to establish a culture in which higher and more direct forms of democracy can be developed.

2.3.9. Finally, the ESC welcomes the fact that the Commission's views as expressed in the communication - especially with regard to the number of objectives, focusing of activities, the role of the parties involved and international cooperation - are very close to its own views as already set out in previous opinions.

3. Specific comments

3.1. Policies for knowledge

3.1.1. The ESC's analysis of the communication raises the following issues:

- the problem of fully justifying the decision to build a Europe of knowledge and of proving that this is necessary;

- clear definition of the terms 'Europe of knowledge`, 'European educational area` and 'lifelong learning`;

- precise specification of scope (objectives, measures, number of citizens covered by measures, cost of measures).

The ESC has the following comments, which bear out and add to the relevant points in the Commission communication: The average citizen is more acutely aware of the disruptive effects on social equilibria and systems of the new economic order and the pace of development of knowledge and technology. Detailed and objective information must therefore be provided on what is happening and people must be involved in what is happening. It is therefore incumbent upon those who have knowledge, and in particular those who control learning and the process of building a learning society, to offer others the benefit of their knowledge. In the European context, this means that EU institutions, and in particular the Commission, must now present comprehensible, well-founded and cogent responses to the many vexed questions raised about this issue by the general public, questions which if not addressed will create dogmatic divisions arising from a lack of information and knowledge and based on entrenched positions. Throughout the planning, designing and implementing of the new programmes, serious consideration must be given to the comments made in the last two paragraphs. In practice this means: providing coherent, valid and cogent justification for every programme, and above all effectively clarifying its rationale and content, as well as the process by which its objectives will be reached.

3.1.2. The above analysis of the Commission communication is consistent with the ESC's institutional role and specifically with its sensitivities and priorities, which are determined by the major problems currently faced by European society. It is precisely these problems - in particular unemployment, European economic competitiveness and the threats to the European social model - that make the ESC wary and very probing when it comes to this type of centralized European Union decision. This is also why the ESC is asking the Commission to relate its positions on progress towards building a Europe of knowledge even more closely to the problems, struggles and concerns of Europe's citizens, especially its young people. The Commission's new proposal on education, training and youth will consequently be judged by whether its implementation helps to solve or at least mitigate these problems. The approach of the Commission proposal - which is determined by the objectives it wants to achieve, the number and scope of measures, the range of parties involved and their roles, and the general context in which the whole system is developed - is a step in the right direction. In the ESC's view, it is clear that the new treaty and its provisions on education, employment and social policy, establish a potentially better basis for developing the above policies.

3.2. Management policies

3.2.1. The ESC feels that the methods of managing the programmes present a serious problem. Europe's citizens have an inalienable right to be informed and to have access to information, and EU and Member State institutions have a real obligation towards them in this regard. The ESC therefore calls on the Commission to step up its efforts to publicize Community programmes - from the planning and implementation phase to the point where conclusions are drawn from the results of the programmes - using every means of communication, especially electronic media. At the same time the ESC calls on all European citizens to take an active part in setting up and implementing these programmes.

3.2.2. The ESC feels that even more effort must be made to improve European citizens' access to, and participation in, the programmes. The Commission is thus called upon to ensure that the obstacles faced by European citizens are automatically removed when they wish to participate. The possibility for people to refer to an alternative independent instance for solutions to any specific problem they are facing is an idea that should be encouraged.

3.3. Promoting employment

3.3.1. The ESC also agrees with the link established in the Commission communication between employment policies and policies for education, training and youth. But it would emphasize from the start that we should not expect more from education and training than they are able to deliver, thereby raising false hopes. Education and training are certainly crucial to a person's employability, but they alone will not solve the unemployment problem.

3.3.2. The point of the above comment is that the expectations placed on education and training policies should not be unrealistically high, and at the same time care must be taken to avoid erroneous conclusions about the methods for dealing with the serious problem of unemployment.

3.3.3. The ESC considers the six main types of action proposed () to reflect a sound approach, as they cover a broad spectrum of the needs in question. It considers the full achievement of physical mobility to be especially important, and therefore proposes that particular emphasis should be placed on this action, while at the same time seeking a balance between the different areas (education, training and youth) so that total distribution of funding is acceptable and the best possible outcome is achieved in terms of quality.

3.4. Building a Europe of knowledge

3.4.1. The ESC particularly supports the Commission's position, which is also the Council's position, that particular emphasis should be placed on achieving a high standard of basic general education and a range of skills (technological, social and organizational), which encourage innovation and cultivate a spirit of enterprise. However, the Committee feels that for many reasons the changes that are called for in basic general education cannot be made by, and under the sole responsibility of, national education systems. The pace of development of knowledge and technology is such as to require flexible and up-to-date monitoring mechanisms. These developments also produce a need for an immediate response to any impact they might have, or measures to creatively exploit the opportunities that they offer. The ESC therefore asks the Commission to create all the preconditions needed to mobilize and make use of national education systems and the huge potential they contain.

3.4.2. The ESC's comments on mobilizing national education systems so that they become involved in building a Europe of knowledge are based on the certainty that these systems are not sufficiently involved in the evolution of Europe, and even less in the goal of building a Europe of knowledge.

3.4.3. Obviously, these comments are not intended to diminish the value of Europe's multilingual and multicultural dimension. On the contrary, the ESC has repeatedly stated that it considers this crucially important dimension to be a positive factor in the development of the EU as an institutional entity, and in the development of the wider European space in general. However, it believes that in the context of the EU's new policy of international cooperation, and of any future expansion of this policy, certain timeless and invaluable cultural features that can be counted as part of Europe's cultural heritage should be sought out, identified and preserved ().

3.5. The European educational area

3.5.1. The ESC has the following comments on the gradual creation of an open and dynamic 'European educational area` and achievement within this framework of the goal of 'lifelong learning`.

3.5.2. The ESC endorses in principle the dimensions and scope of the European educational area as put forward by the Commission. It also agrees with the objectives behind this concept, and with the idea that it should be built up gradually. In general terms, the ESC considers that:

- the opportunity for the general public to have free and constant access to the latest knowledge will give people new horizons and objectives, new tools to use, and new means of action;

- the development of international, bilateral and intercultural joint actions will certainly help to cultivate and consolidate European citizenship, which, looking ahead, is a prerequisite for the next joint step to be taken by Europeans and the European Union towards further integration;

- an added bonus would be the continuous updating of skills to keep up with new developments affecting the economy, production and work (globalization of the economy, automation of production, new ways of organizing work). Combined with unlimited access to knowledge, this will contribute to changing the relationship between man and work, which will certainly be to the benefit of man. Specifically, the creativity, or greater versatility and efficiency, that people are able to acquire may enhance the hitherto strictly utilitarian relationship between the European citizen and work.

3.5.3. However, the ESC considers that there are two basic factors influencing European citizens' acceptance of the European educational area and thus its effective development:

- economic problems and in particular the outcome of the fight against unemployment;

- the relationship that will evolve between the European educational area and national education systems.

3.5.4. On the specific question of the relationship between national education systems and the European educational area, the ESC draws attention to the potential value of the Commission developing virtual education based on new communication and information technologies ().

3.5.5. The ESC considers that the experience and views of CEDEFOP should be brought to bear in developing the European educational area.

3.6. Parties involved

3.6.1. The ESC also attaches great importance to the section of the communication dealing with the parties involved in the process of transition towards a Europe of knowledge. The views put forward represent very significant proposals for the development of social dialogue as a general approach, but also for the development of social dialogue with respect to education, training and youth. The ESC particularly supports these views.

3.6.2. In view of the above, the ESC draws the Commission's attention to the need for a more precise definition of the collective remit of those involved in education, and of the remit of each party involved in the educational process, sector by sector. The whole venture, which of course requires a great deal of care, must not result in all parties becoming equally involved in everything. On the contrary, the whole system must be kept in balance as it develops and wherever contradictions arise, by establishing an ongoing, wide-ranging and effective dialogue based on the fact that each party involved has specific knowledge and authority in its particular area. Obviously, this argument does not apply to the traditional providers of education, i.e. the family, teachers and pupils themselves, whose knowledge, views and suggestions must receive particular attention.

3.7. A more integrated system

3.7.1. The ESC considers a key issue in the development of the European educational area, and in European education policy generally, to be the consolidation of relevant policies (education, training, youth) and integration of the relevant action programmes. Policies on education, training and youth must be incorporated within a single framework of action and integrated from inception and adoption right through to implementation. This view derives not so much from the fact that initiatives on education still exclude certain areas, but more from the need to adopt a centralized policy approach. It derives from the need at last for there to be a single strategy on education, training and youth, as well as integrated planning of measures.

3.7.2. In view of the above, the ESC endorses the Commission's proposal to limit the number of objectives and to make activities more focused. It also agrees with the specific goals and activities proposed, these being consistent with views it has already expressed in its opinion on the White Paper and in its Opinion on the Review of reactions to the White Paper 'Teaching and learning: towards the learning society` ().

3.7.3. As a complement to the above-mentioned objectives and actions, the ESC would refer to the proposal it made to adopt, promote and generalize the system of in-school assistance ().

3.7.4. The ESC makes particular reference to the framework laid down by the Commission for the development of relevant activities. The requirement is for integrated activities and, clearly, activities that make full and effective use of the relevant investments. In other words, there should be:

- definite general and specific goals, incorporated within a wider framework;

- a specific timetable for achieving the goals;

- specific opportunities for any corrective measures during the course of implementation;

- a way of making use of the results of these actions to fuel new actions with more ambitious goals.

3.7.5. In this connection, the ESC approves the Commission's call for a 'common framework of activities, coordination and monitoring` that will 'detail the objectives, types of measures, common and experimental activities and the monitoring of good practices`. However, it would highlight the question of defining the special frameworks for action in the sphere of education, training and youth, which relevant decisions are intended to accomplish. The ESC believes that both the scope of common points of reference and actions, as well as the framework for action in each individual area, must be clearly defined.

3.8. Public funding

3.8.1. But the ESC feels that successful development of the European educational area and hence the achievement of a modern and competitive European educational concept hinge on the funding earmarked for these objectives. It considers current funding for the development of European education, training and youth policy to be inadequate given the magnitude and seriousness of the problems it aims to solve. The ESC therefore calls on the Commission, and on the other Community institutions, to re-evaluate their position on the matter and to decide without delay to provide sufficient funding to meet actual needs.

3.8.2. With regard to the Commission's specific proposal on the financing of measures, the ESC:

- believes that all parties fully accept the principle of co-financing for programmes. However, the impact of a programme in the Member States depends both on the scope of the programme and on the amount of funding provided by the Community. This means that there is a level of Community funding for programmes below which its credibility, and that of the Union, would be called into question;

- stresses that the system of co-financing is already working efficiently in such a way that funding is being used exclusively for the stated objectives;

- believes that the general objectives of the Agenda 2000 action programme on structural policy, as well as the specific proposal to introduce a new Objective 3 (), are important prerequisites for a new approach to securing public funding for education.

4. Conclusions

4.1. The speed of developments in the sciences, and particularly in technology, as well as the - to some extent consequent - developments in the economy and the labour market, oblige the EU to speed up its process of modernizing and completing its institutions. In this context, the ESC attaches great importance to the Commission's central proposal on the 'capitalization of knowledge` partly through the development, dissemination and full utilization of the means of acquiring it. The ESC also regards as timely and appropriate the Commission's initiative in presenting its proposal on the Community's future action in the fields of education, training and youth.

4.2. In principle, the ESC generally endorses the substance, content and legal basis of the Commission proposals. It also agrees with the course of action proposed for completing the procedures so that the new measures on education, training and youth come into force on 1 January 2000. The ESC's comments and suggestions are thus intended to clarify and supplement the Commission Communication.

4.3. The ESC stresses the importance for the EU's overall perspective of the Commission proposal for the 'gradual construction of a ... European educational area`.

It takes the view that the proposal:

- clearly covers an area which is not covered by the national educational systems;

- contributes - still in the context and under the terms of the Treaty - to coordinating the national educational systems, so as to make them more effective and competitive both in the production of knowledge and in the processes by which it is acquired by young people and citizens in general;

- can lead the European citizen, through the system of 'lifelong learning and training`, to levels of personal, productive and socio-political activity corresponding to the spirit and expectations of the times and in touch with the basic values which gave rise to European civilization (a humanist orientation, excluding none and enabling citizens to participate responsibly and practically in social life).

4.4. In the ESC's view, the main responsibility for building a Europe of knowledge lies with the EU bodies and particularly the Commission. This observation must not be interpreted as a centralizing logic or approach. On the contrary, it should be seen as an additional, continuing central effort to achieve:

- increasing transparency and publicity in decision-making procedures, greater clarity in presenting the reasons for choices and more precise definition of terms and scale;

- increasingly widespread and substantive participation by European citizens and their public representatives in the procedures for planning, drawing up and implementing the relevant programmes;

- closer linkage of the policy choices and specific actions on education, training and youth with the main contemporary problems, and particularly with that of employment;

- simplified management of programmes, with better utilization of resources to ensure unfettered, more widespread participation of European citizens in those programmes.

4.5. The ESC lays particular stress on the importance for the entire effort of upgrading the quality of the general basic education provided, and of coordinated exploitation of the vast potential contained in the national educational systems as a whole. It therefore calls upon the Commission to make the most of all available ideas and take well-judged measures to overcome the ingrained habits which keep nearly all the national educational systems tied to outdated operational frameworks. To that end, an approach which is worth pursuing and implementing - among others - is the creation - backed up by specific measures - of a climate of competition within the community (schools, education regions, national educational systems) and the cultivation of a competitive attitude towards the educational systems of non-member countries ().

4.6. On the Commission's other proposals, the ESC:

- agrees with its views on the number of objectives and the concentration of efforts, stressing in particular the role of virtual mobility as a tool of the European educational area for building a Europe of knowledge;

- regards the views expressed by the Commission on the way of developing activities and the role of the socio-economic actors concerned as proposals of great importance for the future prospects of the social dialogue;

- feels that the integration of the new policy on education, training and youth in the perspective of enlargement, and the new approach to follow-up and coordination of efforts (legal instruments) are a step in the right direction. However, it emphasizes that the limits of each distinct sector and the need to record in the meantime the 'common European cultural heritage` must be clearly defined.

- Finally, as regards public funds and the management of the programmes, the ESC stresses the need to treat education, training and youth as policies of the highest priority. Endorsing the adoption of the third objective, it underlines that special attention must be devoted to the system for co-financing the programmes to ensure that it operates reliably and efficiently.

Brussels, 25 March 1998.

The President of the Economic and Social Committee


() COM(95) 590 final.

() COM(97) 256 final.

() OJ C 295, 7.10.1996 and OJ C 95, 30.3.1998.

() Agenda 2000 (COM(97) 2000), Part I.

() Physical mobility, virtual mobility, cooperation networks, language skills and understanding of different cultures, and improvement of Community sources of reference.

() The two and a half millennia over which Europe has steadily developed and evolved represent a rich heritage for all Europeans, and an invaluable resource when it comes to finding ways of solving or overcoming any of the complex problems created by the transition towards a globalization of economic and other activities. It is, of course, the responsibility of everyone to cultivate this heritage, but it is primarily the responsibility (legally and formally) of the EU institutions. The ESC therefore calls upon the Commission, within the framework of the Treaty, to incorporate into its plans measures to trace, document and promote Europe's common cultural heritage.

() This concerns the use and introduction into education of new technologies in general, where the EU is lagging behind the United States and Japan. (In its White Paper on education and training, the Commission notes that sufficient experience has already been acquired here with the development of the telematics applications programmes.).

() COM(95) 590 final and COM(97) 256 final.

() This is similar to the system of 'accelerated schools` developed in the United States. The aim of this system is to combat the premature exclusion of children from learning and knowledge. Such exclusion, which is not always total, is attributable to the difficulties faced by many children - usually at an early stage of their schooling - in becoming productively integrated into school life. These adaptive difficulties, which have various causes, are generally dealt with by providing in-school assistance, which consists in diagnosing the problem and resolving it through appropriate educational approaches and by offering partially or completely individualized teaching. It is proposed that in-school assistance should be provided within the existing education system, during and outside of normal school hours, by specially trained educators. It is also proposed that in-school assistance should be given not just to weak pupils but also to children whose educational performance is considered to be above the average for their age level and who for this precise reason are also finding it difficult to integrate productively into school life.

() To help the Member States adapt and modernize their systems of education, training and employment.

() This idea derives from the need to create a climate in which national education systems can break free from the inertia they have largely fallen into. It is proposed that an 'Olympics of learning` be launched, the aim of which would be to award prizes to groups of pupils or students, or school groups and educational institutions and centres in general for their contribution towards achieving objectives drawn up by the Commission. Awards could take the form of: special subsidies for specific activities; mobility programmes; grants; infrastructure support, depending on the recipients of the award.

APPENDIX to the opinion of the Economic and Social Committee

The following amendments were approved by more than a quarter of votes cast, but were rejected during the debate:

Point 3.8.2

Delete the last two points.


The second point does not indicate exactly what we wish. Do we or do we not think that it is a good thing for the system to involve additional Community funding?

The third point concerns the proposed Structural Funds' Objective 3; here we should wait before taking a stand until the specific opinion to be delivered on these Funds is ready. In addition public funding cannot be guaranteed through the Structural Funds - only the Community's contribution.

Result of the vote

For: 22, against: 37, abstentions: 11.

Point 4.5

Replace 'the creation .... of a climate of competition` in the last sentence by 'the stepping up ... of exchanges of experience`.


A climate of competition between schools, education regions and national educational systems is inappropriate in this context. Effective competition means that the most effective party will oust the others. A national educational system cannot be replaced by another. What we should aim to do is to learn from each other so that all of us will have more effective educational systems.

Result of the vote

For: 29, against: 38, abstentions: 2.