Politics: Crossing the great divide

Phew, made it round the M25 to Tonbridge, Kent, in time. Through the gates to a vision of public-school splendour - gravel quads and a green carpet of a cricket pitch. I find a seat in a fine, high chamber. It's 9.45am and I'm at a one-day event, organised by the Council for Education in World Citizenship (CEWC), for 150 16 to 19-year-olds to help them debate key European issues.

It's straight into action with the Euro quiz. Should I know the gross domestic product of Portugal?

First up is Peter Skinner, a lean and hungry Labour MEP, who makes the European case. Many people think the UK economy is doing fine, he says, but what about our record on job creation and growth? Britain is only 18th in the world prosperity league . . . single currency is good because it removes transaction costs, makes holidays cheaper, disposes of exchange-rate fluctuations, and so on. He exhorts a slightly bemused audience to "look inside themselves and find the European that's there".

Up jumps Sir Teddy Taylor, Conservative MP for Southend East. He doesn't mince his words. The common agricultural policy is "a filthy protection racket", the EU is "undemocratic". He describes some of the papers to be used at the conference as "a load of pathetic propaganda", and warns us against the forthcoming Europlug - "it doesn't have a fuse".

They are stimulating but also a bit confusing. At least the audience has a chance to see how wide and deep the European rift is in British politics.

The students are from 11 schools and are mostly doing humanities or modern languages at A-level or as general national vocational qualifications. Nine pupils from Dorton College in Sevenoaks are visually impaired and some have other learning difficulties. Each has been assigned a mindercompanion from another school for the day.

The first workshop I go to is run by Mervyn Davies, a teacher from Tunbridge Wells boys' grammar school.He is taking a group of 15 through a debate on who should take decisions on, for example, the environment and law and order.

He teases out which could be the province of national governments and which could properly belong to the EU - with a regional level of decision-making as a possibility.

The students were convinced that environmental decisions should be European, but law and order were more of a national responsibility.

In another group, run by sociology teacher Elspeth Penfold, students discuss the same issues of where and at what level decisions affecting Britons should be taken. The level of debate is sophisticated and the group shows a moderate tendency. The claims of both of the morning's speakers are being treated with a degree of scepticism.

After lunch, it's on to subject workshops, which the students have chosen. Geography covers talks between Germany, Guyana, the UK and Poland over sugar crops and quotas. In the Spanish one, students struggle a bit with the language. And a German group is speaking English. These groups and those with other specialisms, such as media or art and design, are providing materials for an imaginary election on the issue of a European federation. There are three options: full membership of a federation (not unlike the US), "associate" membership of the federation, or complete rejection of it.

By 3pm the art and design group is intensely active. The federalists had come up with the solid if not inspiring slogan "Together into a future", while the antis have devised a doggerel:

They say "unity" we say "identity". Feeling grey, say "no way".

It's 3.30pm. The groups are ready to report back. The reporters speak up confidently before their peers and a consensus of views emerges. These 16 to 19-year-olds hoped that we would learn to appreciate other cultures more fully, worry about the single currency, fear the loss of democracy through the EU. They are neither sceptical nor enthusiastic about Europe. Above all they want more and clearer information.

Ben Patterson, a senior Euro researcher based in Luxembourg, sums up the day. He exhorts the students to discount bias in speeches and in research. He admits that the amount of bureaucracy at Brussels makes it hard for people to know what is going on. But he can see little grounds for the fears students have about loss of national identity. In his view, Coca-Cola and McDonald's are more powerful cultural influences on Britain's youth than the EU.

It had been a good day. It would have been impossible for a student not to have gone away better informed abut Europe. The mix of students worked well and it's likely that in a county like Kent, where there's a good deal of selection in secondary education, the selected will have benefited from rubbing shoulders with the unselected and vice versa.

The conference pack is well prepared and includes a quiz, cartoons, a glossary of Euro terms, a chronology of European integration, maps and statistics. The CEWC has been trialling and modifying these materials: the pack provides a lively way into discussing what has always been a difficult and intractable issue.

For details about Europe 2000 and other events organised through the CEWC,tel: 0171 329 1711

The Politics Association runs lectures and conferences for A-level students on Europe. It also supplies resources, including a book, Introducing the European Union, by Duncan Watts.

Tel: 0161 256 3906

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