Education policy

(Photo: European Commission)

Education policy

In the Lisbon Treaty, education is dealt with under the heading of "supporting, coordinating or complementary actions". In this section, legally binding acts can be adopted, but direct harmonisation of national laws is not permitted.

The EU has only limited competence in the area of education policy. In fact, it can contribute to the development of quality education in the member states. Such incentive measures can be decided for EU education policy by a qualified majority in the Council and co-decision with the European Parliament, see Article 165-166 TFEU, previously Article 149 TEC.

The Treaties do not permit harmonisation of the content of member states' education systems.

Horisontal principles relating to national and other forms of discrimination, and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, apply to all parts of education.

The EU Court has already decided on issues of access to student subsidies and access to universities for foreign EU-citizens.


Activities of the European Union: Education, Training and Youth  

About Lifelong Learning, see:


The EU Court has defined education as a service. There is free movement of
students and teachers in the EU. Schools are not only public entities.
They work in a market and the market conditions are set by treaty
articles, interpreted and implemented by the market-oriented EU Court in
Luxembourg and by means of directives from Brussels.

It is clear that education is an obligation of every member state, but no treaty
provision can hinder the Union from establishing a joint system of
education by a decision by qualified majority. The operative competences
are provided in Arts. 165-166 TFEU.

The Union can also enter into international agreements on trade in
education services according to Arts. 206-207 TFEU. Trade agreements are
normally decided by qualified majority in the Council.

Article 207.4 TFEU establishes a possible derogation by unanimity if international

agreements “risk seriously disturbing the national organisation of such
services and prejudicing the responsibility of member states delivering

It is the Commission also which interprets whether an agreement is “seriously disturbing the national organisation” of education.

The EU Court has established that secondary education is a service
according to the treaties, now covered by Arts. 56-62 TFEU of the Lisbon
Treaty. There is free movement of services.

Students are free to study at home or abroad according to the same rules as
the nationals of the states they are studying in. Foreign students from
other member states have free access to government subsidies when they
have journed in the country of their studies for a certain period. The length of such periods is currently under dispute in the EU Court.

Foreign students can also claim study places in educational areas where a particular country has a big need for educating its own students.

There are special directives governing mutual recognition of educational
qualifications, which have been assembled in a new directive that entered
into force in October 2007.

These directives also harmonise the content of a wide range of educational qualifications. Previously there were special directives for doctors, nurses, architects, dentists, pharmacists, veterinary workers and midwives.

There are also special EU rules financing student travel abroad for
educational purposes, e.g. Erasmus, Leonardo da Vinci, Socrates, Grundtvig,
and Comenius for basic schools.

The Services Directive covers education but not health. It entered
into force from 2010 and will then give the Union further competences.

Amendments to this directive were proposed to safeguard collective bargaining in the area of education, for example nationally negotiated salaries for teachers, national tax laws and member states' rights to decide independently whether services should be organised publicly and/or privately. These amendments were all rejected when the
directive was adopted in November 2006.

Companies therefore have a free right to establish education
centres in another EU country. Teachers may be paid according to lower
foreign standards.

According to the verdicts in the Viking, Laval and Rüffert cases of 11
December 2007, 18 December 2007 and 3 April 2008 respectively, it may also
be illegal for example for national Teacher Unions to take action against such lower
salaries as long as they respect the national minimum wage of the host country or when there is no collective agreement covering all employees.  

It may also be illegal under EU law for governments and local
authorities to request Education Centres to abide by normal salaries
as a condition for obtaining public financial support.

Before its adoption, there were many attempts to establish the Services Directive as a clear set of rules that would protect the laws of the member states concerned, but they failed to obtain majority support.

A political compromise was achieved around the whole services package by
giving up on legal clarity. So it is now be up to the EU Court of Justice to
decide on many issues in relation to education, citizens’ access to
education and the salaries of teachers and income support for students.