As you will have seen from the blog I posted yesterday I am in Budapest at a conference on early years education and care, ECEC, organised by the Hungarian presidency.
It has been an excellent event with experts from all over the EU and beyond. I was pleased today to be part of a panel discussion picking up on the main themes of the last day and a half. My fellow panellists were Peter Moss of the Thomas Coram Research Institute in London who did an excellent job chairing the panel, Bernard Rorke from the Open Society Institute which works with the Roma community in Europe, Benoit Parmentier of Europe de LEnfance in Belgium, Marta Korintus from the Hungarian National Institute for Family and Social Policy and Kari Jacobsen, from Norway, not an EU member, who is the former Head of the OECD Early Childhood Education and Care Network.
I talked about the need to ensure adequate funding for ECEC since all the academic theories and exchanges of good practice will not get us anywhere unless there is enough money to improve and expand ECEC services. It is my firm view that ECEC should be universal, and we have a long way to go in Britain to achieve that. I also referred the conference to my Report to the European Parliament on early years education and care which will go to the plenary in either April or May.
Yesterday I was privileged to visit a literacy project for 10 and 11 year olds with Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou, pictured, after she had opened the conference in the morning. The project was not quite what we in the UK expect when we talk about literacy, being bilingual in Hungarian and English. The children all had an excellent grasp of English and were completely fluent. This only serves to demonstrate that young children can become proficient in a foreign languauge if taught well.
I think it probably helped that the project was based in largest public library in Budapest, a beautiful 19th century building housing more than 800,000 books. The old building theme continued yesterday evening when the conference was invited to the Museum of Hungarian Folk Art, another very grand building of a similar age.
My thanks to the Hungarian Presidency and everyone who organised this conference which has proved a very worthwhile event. It is very good to see the Presidency give priority to ECEC and also to see the Commission taking it up by producing a Communication which has just been published. My Report provides the third part of the initiative and it is heartening indeed to see all three European Institutions working together in such a positive way.
This week I am speaking at a conference on early years development in Budapest, organised by the Hungarian government. The Hungarian government currently hold the presidency of the council of ministers and have set early years development as one of their key priorities for their six months at the helm.
Since I have recently written a report on the subject, the Hungarian government have invited me to talk at the conference and I was very happy to do so. It is great that this subject is being taken so seriously in the EU now. The commission will be releasing a communication on the subject soon and I hope that along with my report and the involvement of the Hungarian presidency, we will be able to forge a new approach to early year’s development across the EU.
Hungarian Minister Miklós Réthelyi was in the European Parliament yesterday talking to FEMM Committee members. He laid out Hungary’s plans in the field of gender equality during the 6 months of its Presidency. It’s fair to say the reception towards him from some members was quite hostile.
I grilled him on the constitutional plans in Hungary to grant a new legal status to the foetus right from the moment of conception. This could eventually lead to the complete banning of abortion, and even to the banning of morning after pills. I asked him if he really thought there would be no illegal abortions afterwards and was he really willing to risk women’s lives in this way.
Unsurprisingly, Réthelyi did his best to evade my question. If this change does take place in Hungary, then it will be a massive blow for those championing Hungarian women’s sexual and reproductive rights. The potential consequences of this new legal status could be devastating.
I also asked about his comment that he favours part-time work for women so that they can care well for their families. I was interested to know if he really believes this is the path that leads to more children, and more secure and happier families. The Minister talked a great deal in his presentation about working and stay-at-home mums. But he seemed intent to lump them in different categories. He told me he believes equal opportunities are vitally important for democracy; yet his vision of the expected roles of men and women are in my view not conducive to gender equality, or democracy.
If the Hungarian Presidency really wants to take forward FEMM’s gender equality programme, then clearly it needs to step back and rethink its position in certain areas.
First we had Silvio Berlusconi and now there’s Viktor Orban and the right-wing Fidesz government in Hungary. Control of the media, who owns it, who works for it and who distributes it – media pluralism in the jargon – is a subject which bubbles away under the surface much of the time in Brussels. However, the Hungarian new media legislation has put the issue very much on the current agenda.
This would perhaps not be such a big story if it wasn’t for the fact that the Hungarian government have just assumed the presidency of the Council of Ministers and are in the process of telling us their priorities for the next six months. Many of these seem to me to be very constructive and forward thinking, but unfortunately, they are being obscured by the furore surrounding these highly questionable new media laws.
Today though, the Socialists and Democrats had the pleasure of hearing what the European Commission have been doing to help tackle the issue of media pluralism. In 2007 the Commission came up with a three stage plan for media pluralism. The first stage was a working paper that looked at what efforts were being made already to promote media pluralism. Then they commissioned an independent study to establish the parameters for judging whether a media is diverse and diffuse enough. The final stage is to be a Commission Communication addressing the issue, but since stage two has only just been completed, this is still to come.
In the meeting we first heard from Mr. Adam Watson-Brown, who is the Head of Unit from the Commission’s task force on media pluralism. He pointed out that ownership of media providers was only one indication of the plurality of a countries media and not always the most conclusive element since you had to take in to account media licensing and public service broadcasters. Mr. Watson-Brown also pointed out that new technology was adding further difficulty to the discussion of media pluralism as large and established content providers could expand much faster in to new areas and begin to dominate nascent markets. This isn’t necessarily sinister, we just need a period of adjustment.
The second speaker was Dr. Peggy Valcke from the Catholic University in Leuven, who was the project leader for the Commissions report on media pluralism. She spoke extensively about the exhaustive methods used to establish a set of criteria for judging the media plurality of a country. It was very interesting indeed and far too complex to go into here, but if you fancy an interesting and very technical explanation, you can read the report in full here.
So we wait now for the Communication from the Commission. Media pluralism is one of the most important aspects of modern democracy. We need a diverse media providing contrasting views to ensure that citizens can access all the information and form their own opinions. I hope the Commission can provide some constructive solutions for this difficult problem.