There's more to the EU than banana splits

17th January 2003 at 00:00
Students on the Euroscola scheme debate issues vital to the union's future - not the shape of fruit and veg. Martin Whittaker reports

In the chamber of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, students from 27 countries are taking a crash course in being a Euro MP.

They sit in the MEPs' big comfy seats, and wear their headsets for a translation of parliament director Jean-Jacques Fritz's welcoming speech. "You will be able to make your voices heard, to express what you are expecting from the future of Europe," he says.

The students, all over 16, participate in an opinion poll using the chamber's electronic voting system. They vote on whether the EU should set up a European army (the majority say no) and whether Europe should play a more important role on the international political scene (the majority say yes).

Another question is: "Do you think you are given sufficient information about the European Union in your schools?" No, say the overwhelming majority.

The Euroscola programme - a day's debate involving students from schools throughout Europe - was set up more than a decade ago. It is an attempt to enlighten youngsters and teach them that there is more to the EU than the Maastricht Treaty and regulation-sized fruit and veg.

The parliament building is an enormous, rather beautiful yet scandalously under-used edifice of steel and glass, where Euro MPs come for the parliament's plenary sessions for just four days a month.

The rest of the time it lies empty, other than for the 20 annual Euroscola events. Representing the UK on the latest of these is a group of 25 A-level languages students from the Royal Forest of Dean College. As well as offering A, AS-level and GCSEs the college also offers NVQs in languages for students on vocational courses.

Jane Harvey, the college's languages co-ordinator who made the trip with two other lecturers, says the Euroscola is a coup for a further education college like Royal Forest of Dean. The college in Coleford, Gloucestershire, is in an area of high rural deprivation with poor transport and low wages.

"A chance like this is really positive and it means a lot," she said. "They did not know a lot about this subject, but they have been researching it. They have worked really hard."

The European Parliament meets travel costs, and the students pay pound;75 for accommodation and food on the five-day trip.

The day-long Euroscola begins with an introduction by EU officials and an explanation of the workings of the parliament. Then a representative from each country's school stands in front of 700 students and teachers in the debating chamber to give a speech in a second language.

On this occasion, the event has been broadened to include schools from countries hoping to join the EU including Slovenia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Some students take the opportunity to raise issues of concern. One, from the Netherlands, says the EU is not doing enough for to tackle the scourge of drug abuse. For Cyprus the pressing issue is human rights. Others, like Poland, say how much they have pinned their hopes on joining the EC. Estonia, meanwhile, points out that it won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2001.

After the youngsters vote in the opinion poll they get the chance to quiz the Eurocrats. The proposal to create a European armed force comes up again and again, as does illegal immigration. Are we moving towards a United States of Europe? Will the EU eventually replace individual states?

In the afternoon, students are split up into working groups to consider different themes, such as how can the European Parliament be used to guarantee a more democratic Europe? What can young people do for the EU and what do they expect from it? What are the priorities for EU reform?

EU official Otmar Philipp says the Euroscola emphasises the importance of languages as well as giving students a working knowledge of the EU. He believes not enough is taught about it in schools.

"That is regrettable but a normal situation for a lot of other countries too," he says. "It is not up to the EU to develop the curriculum of the member states. They should try to overcome these problems.

"I think this is a great chance to meet students from 26 other countries. And we hope teachers and students develop contacts."

What did the students think? "I think it has changed our views a bit," says Mark Bennun, aged 17.

"When we got on the bus I think everyone in common with the rest of Britain was a bit anti-Europe. But that's changed after meeting people. We were also impressed with all the foreign pupils."

Languages lecturer Caroline Harmer said: "Students met 700 people from 27 different nationalities - not something you get to do every day in the Forest of Dean."

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