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Cresson shows off her culture

EUROFILE. Jean Monnet, one of the founders of the European ideal, once said that given the chance again he would not have attempted to try to integrate Europe by economics but by culture; a view echoed by the late Francois Mitterrand in his valedictory address to the European Parliament.

In the wake of the president's death, Edith Cresson, the European Union education commissioner, seems to have picked up the cultural mantle. She has recently published a White Paper, Towards the Learning Society, in which she describes how she intends to move towards her Europe of active citizens through a system of voluntary service.

A former French prime minister, (for just 323 days in 1991), Edith Cresson has a regal air - shown off to the full recently when she and her entourage swept into a meeting of the European Parliament's culture and education committee.

Mme Cresson also now oozes enthusiasm and confidence after a shaky start to her time as a commissioner last year. She plans, she told the meeting, to make it possible for young people to spend six months in their own country, in another member state or perhaps in a developing country, doing worthwhile work, under the auspices of the European Commission.

This work might be a social or environmental project, it might be protecting international heritage or even working for companies. Some committee members asked her whether unscrupulous employers could take the subsidy and exploit young people. This was emphatically denied. Nor was it a substitute for the compulsory military service that still exists in some member states.

The voluntary civilian service scheme is based on one already operating in Germany, for which there are twice the number of applicants as places.

Mme Cresson's European project has the support of all her colleagues in the Commission and a budget of about Pounds 12 million. She hopes that between 2,000 and 2,500 young people will become involved - a pilot scheme is nearly ready.

Francois Mitterrand, once described Edith Cresson as a "woman for difficult times", so this presentation was easy for her. Details still need to be worked out and practicalities overcome. However, Mme Cresson is supremely confident that it will work and it would be a foolish person who doubted her.

Then, just as quickly as she had arrived, Mme Cresson left the committee. There is much in her White Paper that the commissioner hadn't mentioned: information technology, apprenticeships, schools for people who want a second chance at education, "proficiency in three languages" and a lot more, but that will clearly have to wait for another day.

Robert Evans The writer is Labour MEP for London North West and a former headteacher of Crane junior school, Hounslow, from 1990 to 1994

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