In October, 8 Milestone students set off to Vienna for the annual NECE (Networking European Citizenship Education) Conference, which is organised by the German Federal Agency for Civic Education. This year’s theme, “1914-2014: Lessons from History? Citizenship Education and Conflict Management,” had many excited as this has been a year of looking back and looking at the conflicts in and around Europe.
The NECE Conference is an annual conference aimed at those involved in citizenship education on all levels, from the policymaker at the European level, through academics, to the media, and those active at grassroot levels, like our Milestone students. The conference promotes networking and exchanges of good practices, and with the Agency’s main motto of “strengthening democracy – fostering civil society,” the conference did just that. Academics, experts and representatives of civic organisations came from all over Europe, as well as from Egypt and Georgia.
After a 3-hour train journey and a short rest at the hostel in the city centre, we made our way to the conference site, a short journey to the outskirts of the city. The networking conference started with a warm-up of waltz-dancing lesson. The students, though reluctantly at first, put their prom preparation dance lessons to good use, and joined in with the dancing.
For many, the highlight of the conference was the keynote speakers. On the first night, we had the pleasure to listen to a lecture by renowned scholar Aleida Assmann, whose work together with her husband Jan Assmann on cultural anthropology, history and memory, mostly on German memory since 1945, has won many accolades within academia. Assmann reflected on the commemoration year of 2014, pointing out that 100 years is a watershed in memory. The Great War has a divided memory within Europe: the British and the French, the Entente Powers, remember the beginning of WWI very differently than the Axis Powers, the losing side of Germany, Austria and Hungary. Accordingly, commemorations this year had been remarkably different across Europe. She posed the questions whether a united European memory is possible. Next up was Philipp Bloom, historian, novelist and journalist, who reflected on European legacies in today’s conflicts, alluding to the question, “How could they?” which he argued is a very dangerous question to ask in regards to the past. He wondered whether they are going to say the same thing about us in 100 years, noting the seeming indifference to climate change.
The first day was concluded with a buffet-style dinner, where Milestone students gathered around to not only enjoy the food, but to also have a roundtable discussion of the first lectures of the conference, politics and current affairs. Heated debates followed suit, but after a long but enjoyable evening, scurried for the last tram back to the hostel.
The next day, albeit a long one, was an eventful one. The day started with a keynote lecture by political scientist Jan-Werner Müller, whose talk focused on European political crises and Europe’s capacity as an international player. He argued that we mustn’t always look at a ‘great’ enemy of liberal democracy; oftentimes the real danger is quiet and from within: populism. To illustrate his point, Müller brought up examples where populist politics have been on the rise within Europe, and was critical of the lack of coherent response by the EU both on an institutional level and on the grassroot level to the crackdown on civil society in these countries. During the day the project market was also opened, where different organisations, including NGOs, government agencies and research institutes networked and presented their projects on civic education.
The majority of the afternoon was dedicated to the 11 different workshops the delegates had a chance to choose to attend. Each had a different topic, and Milestone students picked to workshops on topics such as the rise of populism, the role of the media in conflicts, the role of identities in citizenship education, the power of concepts of war and peace, so on. Milestone student Zsófi Borsi was even asked to present the outcome of the workshop she attended on populism at the concluding World Cafe.