Rehearsal in the Europa Saal

16 September, Osnabrück. A rehearsal in the Europa Saal, one of the spaces in the Osnabrück Halle events centre. Programmes and notebooks are hurriedly distributed on the delegates’ tables, chairs are disinfected and sound equipment is checked. Germany’s Federal Minister of Education, Anja Karliczek, raises her voice: “I am happy to be able to welcome you to this informal meeting…,” she says. The sound technician nods, gives a thumbs up: Everything is fine.

Karliczek smiles and leaves to welcome the delegation of education ministers from the EU's 27 countries. They have come to Osnabrück at her invitation, to discuss the future of vocational education and training in Europe. The sun shines in the blue morning sky, the red carpet is already rolled out. The delegates’ vehicles begin to arrive. The German Minister greets her counterparts – in this picture, she welcomes Slovenian Education Minister Simona Kustec. The meeting delegates all agree that, just as the COVID-19 pandemic is putting pressure on businesses around Europe, this is an important and appropriate time to meet in person and exchange opinions in order to give new impetus to vocational training on the continent.


An ambitious goal

It’s a challenge to organise a large meeting like this during a pandemic. So the event can take place according to the hygiene regulations prescribed during the pandemic, the team from the Federal Ministry of Education has come up with some clever ideas. With a smile, a mime artist with a clown face advises the guests to maintain social distancing. Instead of a tightly packed buffet, the waitstaff bring lunch, under protective covers, directly to the conference tables. Cloths cover crockery, cutlery and the seats, and translators’ cabinets are regularly disinfected. In the spacious break room, the bar tables are so far apart that even this large space feels almost empty.

There are important topics on the agenda: What measures have EU member states taken in vocational education and other learning institutions during the pandemic in order to maintain operations? What can member states learn from one another? How can vocational education, in all its aspects, be strengthened in Europe so that it makes member states more competitive, innovative and efficient. The German Minister of Education has an ambitious objective: during the meeting she would like to develop a new foundation for improved European cooperation in the area of vocational training. Education Minister Karliczek's aim is for this draft proposal, called the “Osnabrück Declaration”, to be jointly adopted by member states at the Meeting of the Education Council in November, during Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the EU.

Not a coincidental meeting place

It is no coincidence that this informal meeting is taking place in Osnabrück, a city of 160,000 inhabitants in the German state of Lower Saxony. The city is at the centre of a region with many educational opportunities: strong training organisations, tertiary institutes and a wide range of prospects for innovative vocational training and education. A world-leading manufacturer of agricultural technology introduces “process-based dual training” - Germany’s renowned system of dual training sees students going to school and apprenticing in the real world at the same time. This manufacturer’s example involves cooperation between the vocational school, which includes relevant content in its curriculum, and the latest business developments. The curriculum is also using digital tools to customize its offerings for individual students and to make it more flexible during a crisis. The business and the vocational school are capitalising on information from trainees all across Europe and have developed a model that breaks down barriers between vocational and academic education.

Nineteen of the 100 strongest businesses in Lower Saxony, employing some 80,000 people, have their headquarters in the economic region known as Osnabrück-Emsland-Grafschaft Bentheim. Minister Karliczek actually completed her own training in this region, she told reporters during a brief statement upon arrival at the meeting. So she is well aware that the region, one of the Germany’s leading areas for vocational education, deserves attention.

In the center of Osnabrück, at the heart of Europe

Osnabrück sits in the middle of Europe. In the Middle Ages, the city was part of the Hanseatic League; important trading routes intersected here. Today, it is still an important centre for logistics. To the west lie the Netherlands and to the south the city borders the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Sitting between the Teutoburg Forest and the Wiehen Hills, Osnabrück is the only German city located in the middle of a nature reserve, the UNESCO Global Geopark, TERRA.vita.

Today, Osnabrück is a charming university town, enriched by culture and art. The Felix Nussbaum House is a museum well known for collecting the works of its namesake, a leading German painter and one of the main representatives of the New Objectivity school. Nussbaum was born in Osnabrück in 1904 and murdered in the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944.

The Erich Maria Remarque Peace Centre in the city centre is a memorial to yet another famous son of Osnabrück, the writer Erich Maria Remarque, who shook all of Europe after the First World War with his radical anti-war novels.

Down narrow alleyways

It is 17.45 and the delegation gathers in front of the Osnabrück Halle event centre. The ministers will now stroll together to the most important memorial in the city: the Hall of Peace, inside Osnabrück’s town hall, where the Treaty of Westphalia was signed 350 years ago. Their path takes them past the university, based in what was once Osnabrück Castle, and down narrow alleyways, through the picturesque Old Town, with its small cafes and restaurants, gabled houses, ancient fountains and churches.

A family photo where European history was written

Osnabrück’s town hall is part of Europe’s cultural heritage. European history is writ large here, the way it is in few other sites on the continent. In the building’s Hall of Peace – and also in the nearby Münster townhall – the counts and kings of Europe signed the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. This ended the Thirty Years' War, one of the most terrible wars in Europe up until then. The era of religious war was ended through diplomatic negotiation and compromise, as opposed to military violence. This is why Osnabrück deserves its reputation as a birthplace of European diplomacy. Osnabrück was also the site of a development unique in all of Germany at the time: until 1803, there was a system of alternating succession for Protestant and Catholic prince-bishops, which led to peaceful co-existence between the two Christian churches.

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The foundations of peace and democracy

Osnabrück’s historical heritage has shaped the city. Named the “City of Peace,” it supports peace studies in many ways. Every year, the city awards the Erich-Maria-Remarque Peace Prize. The German Foundation for Peace Research in the Ledenhof (pictured) researches the political and institutional foundations of democracy and peace, while the University of Osnabrück hosts a Centre for Democracy and Peace Studies. Top academics also research peace and civil society from a European perspective at the Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence in European Studies. Peaceful European coexistence is also an educational mission in Osnabrück: the city has seven “European Schools”. In 2015, the European Commission awarded Osnabrück, along with Münster, the European Heritage Label “Sites of the Peace of Wesphalia”.

Peaceful work every day

“Osnabrück is truly a city of peace.” Jens Koopmann nods and grabs a chair from the council meeting hall. The head of the Osnabrück Town Hall’s secretarial team and his colleague, Stephanie Seelmeyer, have a long day behind them. Now it's time to clean up. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the reception of European education ministers had to be relocated from the Hall of Peace to the council meeting hall, which is currently under renovation. The chairs were delivered only the day before and workers added the finishing touches up until nightfall. Seelmeyer and Koopmann roll up the flags of Europe and the city, carrying them to a separate wing of the town hall: the twin town wing. “In here, the work of peace is tangible every day,” continues Koopmann. He is not only responsible for the proceedings of the Town Hall, but also for the twinned towns. “They have a special meaning for Osnabrück,” says Koopmann.

Building bridges

Osnabrück was among the first German cities that concluded town twinning agreements in the 1960s. At that time, the Lord Mayors of Osnabrück and the Dutch city of Haarlem met at the opening of an exhibition about Dutch textiles and glasswork. They decided to build bridges between their cities – so recently enemies – and that the people of Haarlem and Osnabrück should meet each other and come closer again. Haarlem became Osnabrück’s first twin town. Today, the city has eleven twin towns, from Vila Real in Portugal to Tver on the Volga to Derby in the United Kingdom. The city ambassadors, a programme unique in Germany, show how important the twins are for the city. Since 1965, young people between the ages of 18 and 30 from the twin towns have come to Osnabrück to work for a year as the ambassador of their city to the town hall. As a representative of their municipality, they talk in the city’s schools about their hometown, organize meeting projects, or lead business visitors from their hometown on tours of Osnabrück’s companies. In exchange, Osnabrück sends young residents to some twin towns, such the one in France. “Every ambassador works in their own room, decorated in a style typical of their country,” says Koopmann as he opens the door to Angers.

Comprehensive partnerships

Osnabrück has no closer relationship than that with Angers, situated on the Loire in northwestern France. There are more than ten school partnerships, numerous trips by residents, and cultural engagements and sports matches. Theatre groups, musical bands and singers regularly come for “Maiwoche”, the annual week-long festival of Europe that Osnabrück organises for representatives from all twin towns every May. Especially successful was the postcard campaign for Christmas 2019: city ambassadors from Angers and Osnabrück decorated Christmas cards with primary school-aged children and sent them to children in the twin town. That’s how they celebrate Christmas here.

Bridging divides

The Angers Bridge is the name for the old bridge at the edge of Osnabrück’s Old Town, a tribute to its French twin. The city honours its other twin towns similarly: there is a Haarlem Bridge, Derby-Platz (Derby Square), and Platz der Städtefreundschaften (Square of Municipal Friendship). Osnabrück, Angers, and Haarlem have also developed a town trio. The trio rotate in organizing youth camps, sporting events, or online discussions about common European projects together. “During the lockdowns we asked each other: what do you need?” explains Koopmann. Thus a work clothing manufacturer in Osnabrück sent boxes of lab coats to Haarlem. To keep the exchange alive during the lockdowns, the city ambassadors thought up something special: every Friday each of the twin towns took turns posting a recipe from their region on Facebook for home cooks.

From Past to Future

Lord Mayor Wolfgang Griesert also got involved in keeping contact alive during the Covid-19 crisis. His counterparts in all twin towns sent him a video promise: they will repeat our European festival, the “Maiwoche”, in 2021. Today, Griesert is proud to greet European education ministers at the town hall. “If Europe sticks together, we can master the future,” says Griesert. “We can show that today.” The Lord Mayor closes the doors of the town hall, turns the old key in its lock and lets go of the famous handle inscribed with “Peace 1648”: the original cornerstone for modern Europe.