Democracy and Human Rights under pressure: the effects of right-wing populism, post-truth and radicalisation on Education for Democracy with young people

Recommendations based on the cooperation and analysis in the STEPS project.

In more and more countries in Europe basic democratic participation rights are rejected and questioned, large groups in societies, political parties and government promote authoritarian rule, right-wing populist parties and their leaders deny human rights to certain societal groups  and are dismantling democracy, ordinary people and elected politicians spread hate on NGO´s and undermine democratic decision-making, mistrust is rising on the capacity of the political levels to solve societal challenges. As a consequence, there is a definite need to consider the role of Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights (EDC/HRE) with young people. With the European project STEPS (E+ KA 1 mobility project), DARE members aim to identify the relationship between populism, post-truth, radicalisation and EDC/HRE as work with young people on the political dimension and on the pedagogical dimension of EDC in youth work.

We face a growing and interdependent variety of challenges of complex natures: economic growth with less jobs to offer, migration and flight, security issues and liberal freedom, global competition, climate change,  distribution of wealth and solidarity,  access to social rights, to name but a few. These challenges largely affect the basics of solidarity and democratic living together, they are contributing to a resurgence of nationalism in its current form of right-wing populism, which are increasing those challenges even more.

As educators working with young people in both non-formal and formal education, we face a cumulation of challenges which make the populist threat uneasy to react on:

  • almost on all those levels where right-wing populists enter, a massive campaign against basic human rights for all, and against civil society organisations and youth work as provisions for democracy, begins
  • the manifold challenging of basic commitments of HR policies and standards in Europe and beyond, manifesting itself in pressure on perceived ‘others’ in our societies, namely all people of different origins – on refugees and migrants
  • a reflection among EDC practitioners to reach groups affected by extreme ideologies; which is as such reflecting the commitment of EDC in its inherent logic, but also questions the open and voluntary commitment of youth work provisions under a prevention perspective
  • an ongoing discrediting and suspecting of EDC work from right-populist parties/actors as manipulating youth with liberal ideas
  • an increase of European and national policies and programs to tackle hate-speech, radicalization , while long term oriented programs that support an infrastructural commitment to train and develop democratic capacities in our societies are lacking
  • the fatal consequences of the neo-liberal paradigm that affects all aspects of life in our societies, resulting in a disillusionment with the promise of equality, with societal and political participation, an unhealthy focus on competition, even within the educational sectors, while being confronted with the fact that in more and more European countries traditional forms of work/industries get lost or face dramatic changes over the next decades
  • an overstressing of competence acquisition and STEM focus in Formal Education, with EDC/HRE, youth work and especially the field of non-formal learning remaining in a secondary position. Resource oriented approaches and a strategic development of children and youth oriented learning spaces are lacking on a large scale in most countries as has been confirmed by the analysis of the STEPS project.

1. A shift in the political-societal discourse

De-construction of the provisions of democracy take place on all levels of the state and within our societies, as can be seen in Hungary, Poland, Austria, or Italy – to name just the most prominent developments.

In a highly individualised society, these movements, parties and governments who openly promote authoritarian and illiberal rule, can act non-transparently and gain support. Contrary to that, from the perspective of EDC/HRE providers, democracy understood as a form of society and living, more transparency in decision-making, more participation and more ownership of the political sphere would be needed instead.

The described development has large-scale effects on EDC/HRE itself, as we see a a re-introduction of patriotic- nationalist education. However, there are also effects on the perception of youth in society and on youth work in general, where a tendency in many countries is to enforce harmonisation as goal instead of democratic emancipation – to the detriment of minorities, individual voices and independent actors.

So, what to do

These developments happen daily in more and more European societies. There is a need to take action but also engage in the democratic discourse. Being providers of EDC/HRE we cannot stay on the sidelines and watch as basic premises of HR and democracy are being eroded and taken away. EDC/HRE with young people has come under pressure in a lot of countries, and the easiest way to do this is by an ongoing discrediting of organisations doing EDC/HRE with young people, by accusing them for ideologisation. Furthermore by changes in funding regulations, by shifting the priorities of programs, by re-shaping the regulations under which NGOs as educational provider work with young people.

As educational organisations, our core mission is to develop democratic learning conditions and opportunities where all young people get the possibility to experience democratic self-efficacy. Reacting on a conceptual way, we have to face the fact that more and more groups in our societies feel alienated, de-integrated and seem to not share (anymore) basic democratic fundamental convictions as there are other, simplifying, narratives that compete with the idea of democracy as such. With controversies and disputes being central instruments of democratic decision-finding, EDC/HRE in youth work is challenged on two sides: as educational organisations we have to decide between engaging with groups influenced by right- wing populists, while consciously not focusing on the radicalised core of these movements, both with the aim to support the development of democratic resilience in societies. Neither way finds the scene of providers in a position of being prepared nor with enough strength already, as structured youth policies integrating EDC/HRE within and beyond schools are lacking in most European countries.

There is ample experience and examples of successful work with young people on democratic competences. Especially promising are concepts that connect the safe space of learning with the re-entering of the public space as democratic spaces in our societies.

Interesting and relevant initiatives

What is missing?

Although there exists a surprising number of European policy initiatives asking and supporting the development of structured youth work systems in our countries, there is a gap between the political will and existing policies and programs on the national levels.

Similarly, it often remains unclear where NGOs as providers of EDC/HRE are positioned in the field. Being in an intermediate position between supporting democratic learning in the formal systems and doing youth work activities, in most countries a clear political mandate is missing which offers and appreciates the space for civil society organisations.

Lastly, the NGOs themselves do not seem to have sufficiently developed positions and capacities in the spheres of educational policies or youth work. In these times where EDC/HRE are increasingly questioned, they easily end up in a vulnerable position if they are not  adequately positioned in the framework of national policies.

Policy Recommendation:

Non formal learning and youth work play a crucial role to enable the Paris declaration on Promoting citizenship and the common values of freedom, tolerance and non-discrimination through education. Formal education alone is not in the position to meet the current challenges and is in need of complementary structures that have the expertise, capacity and ownership to realize coherent programs.

Thus, NGOs with expertise in EDC/HRE need to be equipped better, as they are in the position to bridge the spheres of non-formal learning and formal education, of resource oriented approaches and competence frames.

Consequently, the European levels need to systemically ensure the capacity building of the fields of non-formal education (NFE) with young people, as, among others, the European Parliament claimed in its initiative on the European Values Instrument.  There is an urgent need for political actors on all levels, but also for NGOs of any kind in Europe, to actively and publicly show their solidarity and support to any educational institution that is facing ongoing hostilities by populist actors. Silence cannot, silence must not be the answer.

Related Policies:

  • Informal meeting of European Union Education Ministers: Declaration on Promoting citizenship and the common values of freedom, tolerance and non-discrimination through education (Paris, 17th March 2015)

2. Economy, neo- liberalism and democracy

There is a rupture in our societies, to use the words of Ruth Cohen: socio-political subsystems are facing rapid and massive changes and challenges, while at the same time the capacity and ability of political systems, parties and politicians to steer and impact these processes seems to erode and is questioned on a fundamental level. The neoliberal discourse and paradigm results in unsettled societies on a political and societal level:

Symptoms of this are growing (global) competitions on life-chances, on performance, on starting conditions, on status, on access to wealth and health. There appears to be a challenge for the individual to conscious decisions to maintain access to economic, social and political participation. This is in direct conflict with shrinking work, individualised and broken working and living biographies, and the experience of being object to economic financial processes that go far beyond the capacity or influence of the individual.

Over the last 25 years we have faced tremendously growing disparities of access to wealth and goods, a stagnation of social welfare and a political discourse that makes access to social rights in a secondary priority, while being challenged by endemic corruption and fraud among “elites”.

The promise of ‘winning the democracy’ in Europe in the 1990s has not resulted in equal access to social rights, nor in more solidarity and the equality of all.  Since the new millennium started, but in particular in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008/09, (a challenge to overcome with which only financial actors seem to be tasked) large groups of people share the traumatic experience of instability, austerity and of a downgrade of public and private welfare connected with insecurity, a halting of financial and personal independence, and the threat of deprivation and economic anxiety.

This has lasting effects on societies as people face pressure to act responsibly and take lead in a more and more comprehensive way, which requires not only good preparation but also high reflection skills. Today, young people grow up in a world that promises freedom and teaches caution, that praises success and discards creative thinking (that so often is the root cause for success) – the impact of such contradictions and expectations on the developing self of youth is dramatic and leads to a generation whose values and logics of action are yet to be understood, taken seriously and catered to by the powers that be: There are manifold expectations towards youth, the reciprocity / impact of which on youth in adolescence and the developing self.

The question remains whether the interests and ambitions of youth match these expectations in the dimensions of personal development and adolescence, of autonomy and independence, of accessing rights and, especially, of the active engagement of and organizing among young people.

So, what to do?

EDC/HRE with young people, especially under the European programs, has for a long time been reduced to mere social competences acquisition and to skills learning relevant for the labor market. In most of our countries, EDC/HRE is not or only fairly connected to vocational education and training nor is the world of work sufficient part of the focus of EDC/HRE with young people. The theoretical and conceptual approaches to discuss other views of and paradigms on the economy and introduce more solidarity oriented models have been discredited at large with the argument of ‘politics without any alternative’. Thus, there is a vital risk that the good arguments of emancipatory critical education and thinking (such as e.g. provided in the social forum, but also among cooperatives on local levels, sharing economy et al) will be taken over by a nationalist policy discourse. For EDC/HRE this becomes a vital challenge, as we need to promote a solidarity- and equality based vision, oriented towards the realisation of social rights, solidarity and sustainable global development.

What is missing?

It is a, likely forgotten, strength of EDC with young people to develop alternative visions of society, to provide spaces for Utopia. Youth work and the development of non-formal learning as such are in all countries historically rooted in youth movements that fundamentally question the status quo of their societies and developed emancipatory spaces and places for designing, thinking and living alternatives.

To re-connect and reintroduce the discussions about commons, about public spaces and goods, about the access and distribution of wealth and the responsibility of education in society is a strength and core task of EDC/HRE, it is not revolutionary in nature. There are a lot of youth led-initiatives, civil and community organising, that are actually supporting the European youth strategy and the attempt to better connect Europe with the everyday life experience of young people. These initiatives should be taken seriously.

Interesting and relevant initiatives

  • Futures of Europe: core idea of this project to counter the over-simplified “Not this!” put forward by said movements and encourage the inhabitants of Europe to think – and dream – about the city, country and Europe of the future they want to live in.
  • ATTACADEMIE: Analysing Globalisation and Taking Democratic Action

Policy Recommendation

A critically assessment and reflection of the economy under a lense of power relations , equality, solidarity, access to social and economic rights and needs to again become a central focus of EDC/HRE with young people as it affects the sustainable development of our societies as such.

The challenges our societies are currently facing and that our democracies suffer from are largely affected by a neo-liberal ideology. EDC/HRE learning should not remain stuck in labor marked dominated competence learning but develop means and skills for ethical judgement, for global justice and reasoning about economic alternatives.

The European Youth Strategy, but also Erasmus+ and the new generation of programs should put an emphasis on these aspects much more than they currently do. Thus, an understanding needs to be developed on the European political level that youth issues are not only to be steered, but policies have to actually provide instruments and means to create the space and opportunity for self-efficacy.

In same vein, the focus of competence development in learning processes of EDC/HRE needs to be reflected and rethought in the dimensions of gaining democratic competences and awareness by connecting young people´s individual sense of meaning with the idea of a public spirit and common values through the idea of empowerment for democratic self-efficacy.

Policies Related:

  • COE Recommendation CM/Rec(2015)3,Access of young people from disadvantaged neighbourhoods to social rights
  • COE Recommendation CM/Rec (2016)7 on young people’s access to rights

3. Media, new media and social media

To support the development of digital competences, media literacy and critical thinking is an urgent task as social media, new information resources and timely information have lasting effects on our societies and on the opportunities of people to participate in all dimensions of life.

However, the media market in Europe is in a fragile state and is in most countries no position to deliver quality journalism nor filter information adequately. The introduction of restrictive media laws by states, even the killings of journalists in EU member states, show that the freedom of press and the existence of free media in Europe as a basic provision for democracy is no longer  guaranteed in Europe and has become fragile.

The access to high quality and balanced information is the basis for any sound estimation of facts, which is in high demand as people need to learn, adapt and re-shape themselves to fit the challenges of the ever-evolving world we live in. Still, democracy is built fundamentally on the assumption that rational persuasion can occur. We see worrying developments, where we as educators cannot provide fast and fitting answers: false agents, fake news, hoaxes, the influence of external actors´, propaganda and the strategy of any radical movements to isolate their audience and supporters from a broader public discourse and high quality information, by entering thought spaces via seemingly harmless categories of emotion and trust and, once successful, remain secure in the world of  echo chambers, filter bubbles and confirmation biases.

So, what to do?

There are numerous high quality approaches that have been developed to work from a resource oriented perspective with youth on the topics of hate-speech, of disinformation and fake news that range from week-long workshop concepts to short excourses adaptable to be used in the classroom. Especially in social media work with young people there are high quality concepts that cover online and offline, from developing capacities for media use and production to the critical reflection and consumption of media as well as observing the mediascape from a perspective of consumerism.

Capacities to communicate, interact and stay interconnected are pre-requirements and an essence of democratic life. It needs to be stressed that, especially in the field of EDC with young people, concepts exist that positively build on these abilities and skills and do not only focus on the potential threats. These concepts integrate the three basic dimensions of digitalisation and youth work in a positive and enabling way:

  • To understand how digitalisation is shaping societies, including its impact on youth work and on young people
  • To be able to take young people’s digital cultures into account in youth work practices
  • To be able to encourage young people to shape the process of digitalisation

What is missing?

In most of the countries we find – in line with the Council of Europe No Hate Speech-campaign  –  a variety of approaches to work with young people on hate-speech, on fake news, and on counter strategies.

There seem to be few pedagogical concepts that also contextualize these phenomena to a media and media market analysis in our countries. It is of considerable importance to connect these aspects to the perspectives of democracy, formation of opinion and Human Rights.

Young people ask for an honest-broker[6] to provide access to and the filtering of information, while the question remains how such instruments/brokers can or should look like. This is a field where EDC with young people should vitally engage, by fostering and enhancing cooperation between education and youth work, with media organisations, activists and legal aspects/actors. Thus, EDC/HRE can provide the space and means for reflection on the conditions for critical journalism, the importance of democratic media and media in a democracy, for connecting the big dimension access, control, power in our societies with the individual capacities, capabilities and to act as responsible democratic citizen.

EDC/HRE needs to be an integral part of any youth work, non formal and formal education. There need to be established structures which provide for exchange, for the discussion, reflection and testing of concepts among pedagogies and trainers. There is a fundamental responsibility for the European levels and institutions themselves to provide such means, instruments and structures: e.g., places, spaces and fora for interaction and training, resources to publish and discuss youth research.

Interesting and relevant initiatives

Policy Recommendation

The European Commission has acknowledged that democracy is at risk. Now it is time to take the next steps and move from lip services to concrete actions also in the programmatic dimension: free information media are a basic and core democratic provision. Thus, the EU should foster the support of training, mobility, exchange/debate of young journalists, students in communication media in its Education and Media programmes.

Why not open EU programs like Jean Monnet[7] for media and editorial departments? Every farmer and fisherman gets their equipment supported by the EU and any youngsters get free interrail tickets to run around in Europe – and all that without any pedagogical reflection?

Given the challenge of dysfunctional media markets and the pressure on information media as such, we need to critically reflected on the question, whether or not it is not an overburdening of the individual to guarantee the proper capacity to select, filter and proof for the quality of sound resources. Here, the field of EDC/HRE with young people has proven to react fast, has developed sound concepts and adequate offline and online training tools. As providers of EDC/HRE we can contribute with this experience, and with our non-formal learning concepts.

Such a provision is logically bound to a functioning pedagogical field of youth work which has been demanded in the Council of Europe Charter on Youth Work [8] and should be followed in any reporting and reviewing instrument, e.g. the COE Charter on EDC review, Eurydice studies etc.. Necessarily, such a system of EDC in youth work should be seen as a quality indicator for the public provision of democracy learning on a state level, with a core responsibility of the public hand to support it.

Policies Related:

  • No Hate speech Movement:  A youth campaign against hate speech and for Human Rights online of the Council of Europe[9] and the corresponding national campaigns.
  • FRA monitoring and reporting mechanisms on European Fundamental Rights Policies

4. Digitalisation and its ethical dimensions

The speed of changes affecting people’s life is accelerated by the increasing digitalisation of our lives. While digital technologies may simplify lives in some ways, they bring with them quite a few additional burdens. With a view on media literacy and the development of digital competences, there are emerging performance tasks for all fields of education as already mentioned above. Digitalization is an all-encompassing development that relates to all aspects of life and to all dimensions of our societies. Basic questions about access, distribution, effects, control and benefit need to be asked and discussed, continuously and by the public, especially as they imply a strong ethical dimension.

So, what to do?

Like for the field of solidarity, of democratic decision making, of access to and balance of power and control, as well as for overall participation in society, the capacity to develop digital competences and digital literacy remain of a specific challenge. The (open) access and control of data, their transparent and democratically controlled use and application to society is one of the fundamental challenges for our democracy today.

The need to make ethical judgements and to reflect the use and production of media from a citizens and Human Rights perspective is a task which requires the development of advanced EDC/HRE capacities and skills that go beyond most provisions of EDC/HRE we currently have. Unanswered ethical dilemmas result in fears and feed their perpetuation all across our societies.

What is missing?

An integrated approach which connects the societal- and ethical dimension of digitalisation to the approaches in EDC/HRE that are closer connected to the lived realities of its subjects/young people is a demand to which EDC/HRE has not really found an answer yet. The dimensions of digitally induced/enabled change cover all aspects of life in an accelerated manner: smart cities, economy, ubiquity of big data, health and wellbeing to name just few dimensions. There is a need to provide spaces and capacities for digital empowerment, as well as for sound reflection. Connecting citizenship, democracy and Human Rights to the digital sphere is a strong challenge for EDC/HRE that goes beyond information and media and app-user aspects, but reflects, emphasizes and enables questions of privacy, autonomy etc. in a digitalized world.

Interesting and relevant initiatives

Policy Recommendation

At the moment the majority of educational providers is only in the position to be an object of the described development rather than driving and developing it from a subject oriented perspective. There are numerous approaches of media literacy and digital competences development, of e-learning, of tools to integrate in any learning formats that offer starting points. The sphere of EDC/HRE itself currently lacks the analysing capacities, clarity and motivation to interact with developers, philosophers etc. to enable a reflection beyond the app-surface and evolve non-formal learning accordingly. There is a strong need for EDC/HRE to bridge Human Rights and Democratic Citizenship with the digital sphere, to introduce connections between Human Rights and democracy to dimensions of digital tools, data and infrastructure.

Ethics and Access: Digitalisation potentially creates new dividing lines in our societies, while the promise of democracy and Human Rights is to provide equal access to all of our societies for all people. Digital resources, media, data, infrastructure, thus, need to be available to: adults – youth – children, those with audio or visual impairments, those who cannot afford a device, or have a lack of access to the languages, technical codes and abilities.

Policies Related

  • Developing digital youth work – Policy recommendations, training needs and good practice examples for youth workers and decision-makers: expert group set up under the European Union Work Plan for Youth for 2016-2018[10]

5. Education

The described developments in our societies are of a challenging nature and may well cumulate into multitudes of crises and dilemmas. EDC/HRE with young people cannot neglect these threats and will, as young people will, need to find answers for them. EDC/HRE as such is clearly in the position to be a key field of action. Therefore, it needs to be referred to, be embedded and applied thoroughly to all spheres of formal and  non-formal education and youth work. Education, thus, relates to a broad field where school is just one aspect, and applies to youth work, non-formal learning structures, and any provision of informal education.

To provide means, to support young people with methods, resources and tools to find one’s bearings and take decisions impacting all dimensions of their and others lives in society,  as human being is a powerful task! It goes far beyond the predominant loading, packing and equipping of young people to become a competence-laden something, as is currently the case in most school systems, but focuses on developing means and enabling conditions to live from a perspective of ethical reasoning. Taking into consideration the difficulties to develop a point of view as a global citizen, this is, unfortunately, also a sphere in which educators and pedagogues traditionally do not feel as soundly equipped as they could – and often lack adequate support, and resources.

So, what to do?

EDC/HRE in youth work relates to the aim of contributing to emancipation, of supporting curiosity, and seeks to provide means to young people to associate and self-organize, to develop critical thinking. In a situation where more and more big decisions are delegated to the sphere of the individual, our work is also about exploring the private sphere in a new and emerging political dimension. This can be challenging, demanding, disillusioning and burdensome. EDC/HRE in youth work is about developing empathy and engaging with controversy, while at the same time staying passionate and curious. A key to create such learning spaces is the involvement of young people in building the spaces and the ways in which Human Rights Education is being approached.

The resource orientation of non-formal EDC/HRE and youth work as well as its rootedness in the lived realities of young people has proven to be concepts that can support them in developing such capacities. It connects the dimensions of gaining knowledge with acting according to Human Rights and taking democratic action. These processes cannot be handled in a single sector, or a single curriculum, but need to be based on supportive and integrated approaches. Cooperations between the different fields of education and youth work and the creation of such learning provisions are necessary pre-conditions for supporting the development of resilient democratic societies: Democracy needs to be lived in order to be learnt. This is exactly what the DARE network inherently is a synonym of, as it bridges and interconnects Human Rights Education and Education for Democratic Citizenship, formal and non-formal learning.

The (re)introduction of nationalist education, the erasing of HR from curricula and the questioning of young people´s civic engagement in many European countries is a clear indicator that an EDC/HRE based approach, a sound youth work structure and the reduction of cooperation barriers between formal and non formal education are one of the tools Europe needs to look for when developing the needed democratic resilience.

What is missing?

There are many good and targeted approaches for cooperation between youth work and schools, between non-formal and formal learning. However, it is still the case that a systemic provision of non-formal learning structures, of youth work integrating EDC/HR is lacking in most European countries. Such a cooperation needs systemic approaches, faces systemic barriers, rooted in the inherent logic of FE and NFE policies and a lack of sound youth work structures.

NGOs are in a prime position to bridge the two spheres and support cooperations between formal education and youth work. They can provide expertise in the dimensions of policy development, of methodological approaches and on the strategic development of content and resources.

Interesting and relevant initiatives

Policy Recommendation

It is the vital interest of any European policy programme to support the development of EDC/HRE structures of non formal youth work and formal education that foster cooperation between these levels. European policy development in this regards is of a specific importance as the rise of right-wing populist governments brings with it an increasing lack of political will and resistance  to develop structures that are committed to basic Human Rights principles. The more independent structures exist, the easier it is to fight the populists.

National Agencies have proven in Erasmus+, that they can become agenda setters in the field of youth policies and should strategically support the development of cooperation between non-formal and formal learning. This is of specific importance as there is a need to support a change of paradigms in education from employability and economic utilitarianism to democratic participation and resilience – especially so as youth work and education are both increasingly expected to also prevent young people from becoming radicalised.

The COE in its Charter review processes and institutions such as Eurydice, but also peer learning activities in the field of youth, should investigate and reflect on success conditions of cross-sectoral cooperation between FE and NFE especially in the field of Citizenship education.

Similarly, more European provisions are needed for the exchange of concepts and capacity development, especially for people active EDC/HRE in non-formal education and youth work.

In times when in more and more countries NGOs as providers of EDC/HRE face attacks, pressure and are being criminalized, there is a clear need for all levels to actively show solidarity with them and reject these attacks fundamentally. Silence cannot, silence must not be the answer.

Policies Related

  • COE Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education, CM/Rec(2010)7
  • Recommendation CM/Rec(2017)4 of the Committee of Ministers to member States on youth work
  • Council Recommendation on promoting common values, inclusive education, and the European dimension of teaching
  • Sustainable Development Goals 4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all (especially Goal 4.7.)

6. Radicalisation and a shift of perceptions of “the radical”

Anti-democratic movements and authoritarian leaders introduce a new perspective on the perception of radicalisation, which risks to be reduced to the topic of migration, anti-islamism, radicalized muslims and is vitally fed by ongoing terrorist attacks, by anti-semitic agitation etc.. As a consequence, national prevention and deradicalisation strategies have been developed in almost every country that often refer to youth work as a central tool for counteracting these processes.

To be equipped for preventive work, intervention and case work requires not only a well structured system of youth work in countries, but also a broad approach covering the variety of aspects relevant for working with youth in general. In most countries the systems of youth work are quite weak and are not equipped adequately: Thus, a narrowing down of youth work to a sole focus on prevention and de-radicalisation becomes a risky strategy.

Security concerns play a dominant role in the discussion about radicalisation.  They should not interfere with the concepts of youth led and youth oriented spaces, of safe spaces where young people can develop their views and practices of democracy. If prevention and deradicalisation is meant to work properly, it necessarily needs to be aligned to functioning structures and distinct competences – and competence models – of youth work in general.

To protest, to oppose, to being radical and challenging is not necessary a deficit in a democracy,the context is much more complex. Radical thinking and action has been a vital instrument to claim more democracy, to access human rights and participate in the achievements of today’s societies as they are (see: womens´ suffrage, minority rights, gender issues etc.). Democracy is not a static concept, but lives from development and is vitally bound to it. Thus, it is an essential part of being democratic to not only follow and like but also develop and discuss alternative visions and solutions. In systems that enforce individual performance or harmonization, this becomes a topic of utmost importance for democratic life, for solidarity and for access to social rights in society.

In the field of EDC/HRE with young people the general approaches are of a positive resource-  oriented nature and aim for the empowerment through strengths rather than the mitigation of weaknesses. They are set up and intended to support the development of democratic capacities and to encounter any forms of intolerance, of anti-democratic attitudes on all levels. Following an understanding of prevention work (level 1), these concepts are accessible, scalable and ready for use.

That said, such concepts do not automatically include the expertise and capacity to work with anti-democratic ideologies and those attracted to them (level 2), nor are those capacities foreseen or expected to conduct successful de-radicalisation (i.e. exit work, level 3). It is dangerous and misleading to expect EDC/HRE in youth work to contribute to the latter without the development and provision of adequate youth work resources to include such work by the state. The only promising concepts the STEPS project came across in these fields come from European countries that already have a broad, diverse and highly experienced field of youth work which inherently integrates EDC/HRE with young people.

The terminology of radicalisation itself is problematic, as we see that a right-wing oriented mainstream in society is shaping the discourses as such. Quite often we came across the mentioning of “there is no problem with radicalisation in our country as we have only few muslims”. This dramatically underlines how dangerous and misleading a short handed analysis of phenomena of radicalisation can be, how a term can be reduced to attribute certain issues to whole societal groups. It is of a specific risk, if EDC/HRE provisions (and others, such as free media discourses etc.), are not in place or in the position to effectively question the status quo in the country.

Democratic values are in contradiction to right-wing extremism and violent radicalisation. As a consequence, the learning and internalising of democratic values and orientations can counteract extreme and anti-democratic attitudes. Youth who gain experiences of democratic belonging, democratic participation, democratic acceptance and responsibility in democratic processes are less prone to violence, racism and extremism. Developing democratic resilience within youth means to provide spaces and places for experiential learning, actively getting involved in politics and the public as a basis of any pedagogy of democracy. A lived democratic culture is a provision against populism and radicalisation.

So, what to do?

  • prevention work, radicalisation and de-radicalisation is not a topic solely related to youth issues and youth policies, and, thus, a multi-dimensional focus that relates to society in general needs to be developed
  • As educators we need to create stronger connections to our societal surroundings. We need to take a strong stand for an expansion and active re-gaining of democratic civic spaces, of public spaces, their provision and institutions.

What is missing?

Integrated approaches to youth work, youth policies and the role of provisions of non-formal learning are lacking on a large scale in almost all EU member states. Youth policies do not sufficiently include EDC/HRE, or actively use the knowledge and experiences of civil society actors, nor do they cover and distribute competences according to the experiences made in the sphere of youth organisations and NGOs. On the contrary, all over Europe we have witnessed the ongoing shrinking of spaces for civil society, the cuts in public spending on youth, the reduction of analysis and programs to the short-handed perspective of societies in the trap of economization in the last decade.

Capacity development in youth work and non-formal learning connects to the specific dimension of radicalisation prevention on several levels:

  • to support and enable directly youth for democratic involvement
  • to enable the working field as such to lead its professional discourse, set and define its professional standards
  • to put those in the field in the position to become effective democratic actors, which enables them to question policies and programs instead of adopting them without challenge

Interesting and relevant initiatives

Policy Recommendation

An honest debate needs to be had on the provisions and capacities of EDC/HRE and youth work in our countries. The European levels and institutions have a responsibility to support programs and developments in those areas and levels where the national states fail in this role. European Instruments should foresee capacity building programs to support the development of such providers on the national levels. It is difficult to create fields of policy action where a sound analysis of the working sector related is missing, while at the same time reporting instruments do not foresee to involve the expertise and capacities of NGO´s.

A mapping of spaces for youth across Europe is highly needed: there is an urgent need to develop and provide spaces where youth can freely express themselves, learn with the aim of democratic self-efficacy, democratic rights and responsibilities, while at the same time being provided with a training ground for respect and tolerance.

The COE reference framework of competences for democratic culture that integrates the perspectives of all sectors and supports cooperation that can be a tool to develop democratic competences of citizens and limit the reach of populist discourses. The CDC framework provides a starting point to engage cross-sectoral debate and reflection among the fields of education and youth work, and should be followed up on by national initiatives that go beyond pilot projects.

Policies Related

  • Conclusions of the Council and of the Representatives of the Governments of the Member States, meeting within the Council, on the role of the youth sector in an integrated and cross-sectoral approach to preventing and combating violent radicalisation of young people
  • EU Commission Communication supporting the prevention of radicalisation leading to violent extremism[16]


see eg the researches of Andreas Zick, Beate Küpers, Peter Krecko et al. Institute for political capital, Friedrich Ebert Foundation