Last year was the European Year of Lifelong Learning. The Commission claims that the message of lifelong learning reached more than 20 million people, some 5 per cent of the population of the European Union. I have discussed the subject with many British people over the past few months and have yet to be convinced that the message reached its target groups.
It was never intended to be a high-budget education programme. Rather, it was an awareness-raising exercise, with the purpose of bringing people of all groups into the field of education. There were several supposedly high-publicity conferences and pilot projects, in many cases concentrating on the new technologies. Everywhere, it was recognised that there is an overwhelming need for today's workers, young and old, to be well-trained, adaptable and articulate in the information society.
I do not criticise the efforts of those involved in the project. What I wonder is how, in future, we can ensure that such an initiative reaches further.
The message must be taken not just to schools, libraries and adult education centres but also to youth clubs, social centres, pubs, shops and factories. We must try to open doors that have been closed for years and offer real opportunities to those who have previously slipped through the education net.
The European Year Against Racism is the most important initiative of this kind. The election last week of Catherine Megret of the National Front in the municipal elections in Vitrolles, near Marseilles, has opened the eyes of many people to the threat from extremists. Similarly, we have seen slow and steady rise of the far right across Europe. Fascist groups, anti-Semitics, nationalist and xenophobes are poisoning an ever-larger portion of society.
From France and Belgium to Austria and Italy, the extremists and nationalists are registering significantly at the polls. Appalling racist graffiti and posters are often evident on continental streets. We must heed these warning signs and learn the lessons from our neighbours - for the situation on the mainland of Europe today will be here in Britain tomorrow if we do not take bold steps to avert it.
The European Year Against Racism gives us the chance to discuss, with young and old, the challenges that face society. We must raise public awareness to combat prejudice and work to promote equal opportunities.
No one is born prejudiced. We learn our attitudes from others as we grow up.
You cannot enforce effective legislation against fascism and racism, but you can legislate to promote a balanced and appropriate curriculum. Children need to have good practice reinforced by praise and encouragement. Anti-social or racist behaviour must be challenged and rejected as soon as it appears whether in the home or at school.
The European Year Against Racism provides an opportunity to highlight this message and start a change in values. The budget for the year is Pounds 3.7 million. A broad range of activities is envisaged and the type of activities that may qualify for funding include sports and cultural events but also conferences and seminars.
For the sake of society, let's hope we make it work .
For more information on the European Year Against Racism contact Julie Clouder at the Community Relations Unit, Home Office, Queen Anne's Gate, SW1.
Robert Evans MEP is Labour's European spokesperson on education