The Role of Schools in Motivating EU Citizens to Act in Accordance With the Fundamental Rights of Non-EU Citizens

Schools may be especially promising avenues, argue Tommaso Colombo and Jos Philips, to motivate individual EU citizens to act as needed for realising a central EU ideal: the ideal of a Union where fundamental rights are guaranteed, not only those of EU citizens, but also those of non-EU citizens.

Tommaso Colombo and Jos Philips, University of Utrecht

In an earlier blog post, we argued in favour of a right-based reconstruction of the EU ideal to guarantee fundamental rights. According to this reconstruction, the EU has moral reasons to guarantee the fundamental rights also of non-EU citizens, among whom non-EU citizens who are fleeing their homes. However, can this ideal be realised? As will soon become clear, a direct answer to this question is not the purpose of this post. Rather, our purpose is to suggest that schools could play a role in realising this ideal within the Union, and that, thus, further research should be pursued in that direction. In this blog post, we will focus both on non-EU citizens whose habitual residence is outside the EU and on non-EU citizens who live within the EU’s borders (meaning to leave it open whether they have the citizenship of a non-EU state or are stateless). We are primarily thinking of non-EU citizens in need, and not so much of, for example, affluent immigrant communities; but the points we make are applicable to all non-EU citizens.

An ideal for the EU and the role of individuals

Let us briefly elaborate on what we mean by a Union in which the fundamental rights of non-EU citizens are guaranteed. We mean a Union where this ideal is realised not just in words but in fact: a Union that does not engage in official violations of non-EU citizens’ fundamental rights (whether these non-EU citizens are on the EU’s territory or outside it), where non-official violations of those rights are at most occasional and effectively prosecuted, and where positive duties to further realize these rights are taken up.

The realisation of the ideal of guaranteeing non-EU citizens’ fundamental rights within the Union will require both the EU’s institutions and individuals (that is, individual citizens) to function and behave in accordance with it. We differ here from those commentators who think that human rights-realization is only (or at least predominantly) an institutional matter. It does, we hold, also require action and forbearance on the part of (all) individuals. Even more: in this blog post, we will look only at individuals, both in general and when we will deal with the role of schools. In other words, we will look at the realisation within the Union of the ideal mentioned above by focusing on the role that individuals are supposed to play. Furthermore, we will investigate the role of schools through the lens of one of the groups of individuals found there, namely, students.

Individual motivation

Now, how should individuals act in order to realise and maintain the above-mentioned scenario? Here are what are, at the minimum, three key elements of a plausible answer: they should not violate fundamental rights of non-EU citizens; they should not support people who violate those rights; and finally, they should support people and institutions that guarantee them. However, can individuals be motivated, in the sense of actually being moved, to act in the way just mentioned (call this the motivational question)?

People becoming motivated to act in accordance with the fundamental rights of non-EU citizens can be seen as an expansion of their moral community or their moral circle. It is a process of coming to consider non-EU citizens (and incidentally, also all, rather than only some, EU citizens) as having an equal moral standing and of coming to have substantial concern for their important interests, despite group-based and strategic considerations.

A lot could be said about how individuals could become motivated to act in line with such a morality. We merely want to suggest, in the remainder of this blog post, that schools could play an important role here. Such a role could be in line with different (meta-)ethical views, and could be tested another time within a more comprehensive analysis that we will not pursue here.

The role of schools

Often, schools are seen only as places where knowledge is mediated – where students of different ages absorb information and develop skills related to their school’s programmes. However, schools can be more than this. They can be places in which the great importance of fundamental rights can be understood and in which EU citizens, as students, can in several ways encounter non-EU citizens, encounters that might bring these citizens to expand their moral community and to see non-EU citizens as moral equals – and vice versa. How, more concretely, could this happen?

First and foremost, in schools, stories can be told concerning the value, for all members of the human family, of having their fundamental rights guaranteed. This might bring students to understand the vital importance of fundamental rights.

Secondly, schools can also be seen as spaces in which stories can be told to EU citizens, regarding non-EU citizens as refugees and migrants, and their experiences. Such stories, especially when told by non-EU citizens themselves, can help EU students to develop sympathy and empathy towards the characters of the stories, a process that, certain research suggests, might help EU citizens to develop their emotional connectivity with non-EU citizens in real life situations.

Thirdly, schools can be also seen as places in which non-EU citizens and EU citizens meet and communicate with each other. On such occasions, dialogical and deliberative processes can be developed. On the one hand, in a dialogue with non-EU citizens, EU citizens might be brought to support their views and opinions on several matters with reasons and arguments that must be justifiable not only to them but also to non-EU citizens. On the other hand, occasions might be created during which EU citizens and non-EU citizens find themselves deliberating regarding real cases and concrete situations related to their community, creating opportunities to collaborate that might generate a sense of interdependence. An activity that, by using John Stuart Mill’s words, might take EU citizens “out of the narrow circle of personal and family selfishness, and [accustom] them to the comprehension of joint interests, the management of joint concerns—habituating them to act from public or semi-public motives, and guide their conduct by aims which unite instead of isolating them from one another”.

A brief remark: we are not aiming to argue conclusively that stories, dialogues, and deliberations should either be used or considered effective in order to bring EU citizens to expand their moral circle. This section has only been explorative. We are suggesting that further research is worthwhile on the role of schools in motivating individuals to act in accordance to non-EU citizens’ fundamental rights. Let us give some further reasons as to why it is worthwhile.

Acceptable motivation and motivation across time

Leaving aside reflection concerning the effectiveness of the means through which schools can bring EU citizens to expand their moral community, one of the reasons favouring further research in this direction is related to the acceptability of the means at stake.

The methods utilised to motivate people to act in accordance to the fundamental rights of non-EU citizens should be acceptable; people should not get motivated so as to realise a Union that guarantees the rights of non-EU citizens at a morally unacceptable price.

Of course, this can be interpreted in several ways. We use the following criteria: EU citizens should be brought to act in accordance with fundamental rights of non-EU citizens through means that 1) do not undermine their own fundamental rights, and 2) their nature as agents (that is, beings who are not only subject to the laws of nature etc., but can also understand themselves, and be understood by others, as acting for reasons). While other motivational methods and approaches might be more controversial, the activities that we suggested could take place at schools seem in line with these two criteria. This shows the acceptability of these methods and provides a reason to research them further.

Another reason for looking at schools is that schools could play a role not only in the realisation of a Union as described at the beginning of the blog post, but also in its maintenance. In other words, schools could play a role in realising also across time the ideal of guaranteeing the fundamental rights of both EU citizens and non-EU citizens. This is to say that, for instance, even if we live in a society in which the majority of its citizens act in accordance to fundamental rights of non-EU citizens, we should still ask ourselves whether this is enough to maintain a society in which non-EU citizens’ fundamental rights are guaranteed across generations. In this context, schools could have an additional role and could, for instance through story-telling, maintain vital discourses around fundamental rights.

Thus, motivating people through schools is often acceptable and has potential across time. These are additional reasons for researching schools as promising avenues for realizing that vital EU ideal – the ideal of a Union where the fundamental rights not only of EU citizens, but also of non-EU citizens are guaranteed.

Now of course, luckily a great lot of research has been done into schools and citizenship, and into related themes. This blog post is a plea both for putting existing research to use in the current situation, and for doing new research that specifically concerns this situation: a situation where there are great numbers of refugees and migrants in need – and more generally non-EU citizens in need – while at the same time it is the EU’s ideal that the fundamental rights of all humans are guaranteed.

Many thanks to Therese Herrmann and Emerald Henderson for their comments on a draft of this blog post. Any shortcomings remain entirely ours.

Tommaso Colombo is a graduate student at the University of Utrecht’s Ethics Institute. He can be contacted at t.e.colombo[at]

Dr. Jos Philips is an assistant professor in Political Philosophy and Ethics at the University of Utrecht’s Ethics Institute. He can be contacted at[at]

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