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Silenced in a free market

Creating and improving Europe's free market has been one of the major discussion points at the recent Dublin summit. How far Britain wishes to go with Europe on integration is key to the debate and arguments during this turbulent and lengthy pre-general election period.

But a truly free market is not just about goods and capital. A key piece of the European jigsaw is the free mobility of people. Not only must Europe's citizens be free to move around the European Union countries "without let or hindrance" (to quote from the British passport), but they must be able to use their skills and qualifications wherever they go. Britons seem to be behind the rest of Europe in many of these areas.

The United Kingdom is not party to the Schengen agreement under which border controls between seven of the mainland states have been removed. Our skills training and qualifications are not easily transferred to or accepted in the other member states. Crucially, most Britons, specifically the English, do not have the language skills to communicate in a free Europe.

The Treaty of European Union, agreed at Maastricht in 1992, laid down the principle that Europe should "contribute to the development of quality education" by encouraging, supporting and supplementing the action of the then 12 member states.

As the European Parliament reaches the half-way point of its fourth elected mandate, there are signs that the "free Europe" and "mobility" questions are being addressed by Parliament and the Commission with regards to education and training. The Pounds 650 million Socrates programme attracts more than 150,000 applications from students and nearly 13,000 from teachers. Vocational training is being addressed by the very successful Leonardo programme.

Central to all of these projects is the challenge that each European citizen must have the opportunity to acquire the necessary skills to be educationally and professionally mobile. During 1996, European Year of Lifelong Learning, at least two substantial documents have attempted to tackle this challenge. Commissioner Edith Cresson's white paper Teaching and Learning - Towards the Education Society included many new ideas, notably the "second-chance schools" to assist young people who pass out of the system without qualifications. The Mutual Recognition of Academic and Professional Qualifications from a Commission communication documentattempts to tackle the barriers caused by the reluctance of some countries to recognise the qualifications of other states.

From the UK's point of view, one theme runs through every report and every document - namely that if our young people are to be properly mobile, they need language skills. The lack of these has been a recurring stumbling block. The Government needs to look seriously at ways to amend the education system to promote teaching other languages before key stage 3.

Let's hope that the general election produces a government set on letting Britain's young people play a full and proper role in an increasingly mobile European Union.

Robert Evans Robert Evans MEP, a former primary head, is Labour's European spokesperson on education.

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