Tedious chapters of European history

6th April 2007 at 01:00
"Fog in the Channel, continent cut off" ran the famous Times headline from the 1940s. The European Union did not exist then, nor the Channel tunnel.

But as the EU celebrates its 50th birthday, education ministers believe it is time to talk about a European history textbook common to all 27 countries. Few dispute the major achievements of the EU - a common market, a common currency and a common voice in trade negotiations - but a common memory is not one of them. Can a European history textbook for schools redress that?

National myths abound, and most young people have no idea of what happens in Europe, but for politicians to "agree" a "common" history is suspect.

Keenest of all is Germany, which has written a history text with France entitled GeschichteHistoire, already used in schools. This is a huge achievement for two previously warring nations. But other ministers are battling to define a common post-war history for the entire continent. Can such a text be anything other than an EU-style compromise that no one is happy with?

It will be a challenge to find a version of the Cold War acceptable to eastern and western Europe. Euroclio, the European Standing Conference of History Teachers' Associations, which advised Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina on their common history book, concedes that some things are interpreted very differently but there are also things in common.

Different interpretations are part of the discipline of history. Historians and teachers in the UK understand that there must be debate, but when politicians take charge, whitewash and exclusion, revisionism and spin often take place. Teachers see another problem: EU ministers are not interested in telling it like was - because the stated purpose of the book is "identity building".

EU surveys show that the sense of "European-ness" is declining among young people, even in pro-EU countries. A Euroclio survey found a decrease in international and European history topics taught in schools in favour of national history in the past decade. These are decisions taken by the very education ministers now discussing a common European text.

Gordon Brown has been promoting British values in schools, and countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark are more nationally inclined. Young people need to be taught about Europe, but an EU history text agreed by 27 ministers, with all the wrangling and horse-trading that involves, risks being little more than a bland, uncontroversial document that will barely stimulate young people's interest.

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