Young Europeans recently gathered in Brussels for two days of debate and to vote on their vision for Europe. Things were more cheerful than when heads of state and government take part, says Uta Steinwehr from Brussels.
The English and French interpreters sit behind the glass wall. A clock counts down the seconds for each speech. And each seat has an electronic system with which the participants vote on project proposals: Some things are as official as they always are when meetings are held in the plenary hall of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) in Brussels. But one difference is that the decision-makers are not adults, but rather just under 100 school students aged from 16 to 18. They are taking part in the project "Your Europe, Your Say" for 2018.
Eleanor and Maleeha from Great Britain had never felt truly represented as young people before. "We are not allowed to vote. That's why we're pretty much ignored by politicians. They don't see us as a group whose needs must be met," says Eleanor. You could see this in the Brexit referendum, she says. "That was a far-reaching decision that is going to affect our lives and our future. There was nothing we could do. That's not fair."
Both are enthusiastic about the Economic and Social Committee's event — it gives them the feeling that they are being heard. They also get to meet people from other countries and make new friends. Schools applied through the EESC and then were selected randomly, with educators nominating students to attend. As promised by the organizers, three young representatives from each of the 28 EU member states and the pre-accession countries, Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey, have come to Brussels for two days to have a say on their vision for Europe.
No legislative function
The EESC is supposed to represent "organized civil society" in the EU. The Treaty of Rome, which established the European Economic Community in 1957, stipulated that the EESC should support the European Parliament, the European Commission and the European Council in an advisory capacity. The EESC sees itself as a bridge between these institutions and the more than 500 million EU citizens whose interests it is supposed to represent. And that includes young people.
"Anything we can do to give young people a voice is worth doing," says Goncalo Lobo Xavier, one of the EESC vice presidents. He does not like young people being told that they are the future of Europe. "Yes, they are the future, but they are also the present," he says.
In "Your Europe, Your Say," young people form working groups, making 10 proposals each year on their vision for Europe. Since 2018 is the "European Year of Cultural Heritage," the focus is — not surprisingly — on Europe's cultural heritage. The three winning ideas will be presented to the EU institutions, explains Lobo Xavier. Only three out of 10 are selected, to show students how the democratic process works. And the young people's basic ideas sometimes flow into the work of some member states.
The challenge of language
On the evening before the group work is due to begin, Lukas from the Czech Republic is feeling nervous. He doesn't speak English often, but is keen to share one particular thought with the others: He is concerned that with all this globalization, small traditions and cultures will be lost. He is proud to be taking part in this event in Brussels: "We as students can do something for Europe's culture and future. It's the first time I feel like I can make a difference." His eyes shine; he uses hand gestures to emphasize his statements. He straightens out his jacket, as if he wants to start work right away.
At the beginning of the working day, the young people's visions for Europe are presented: equal rights, travel opportunities for all, maintaining one's own culture while learning from others, educational cooperation between countries and solidarity. They form groups to work out how they can achieve these goals.
Unity across borders
Two of Germany's representatives are Jule and Lejla, who are working with young people of the same age from Finland, Italy, Malta, Spain, Slovakia and Macedonia. The discussions go smoothly, even without a leader. The representatives allow each other to finish speaking and interact within the groups. Things only get heated when a proposal is made that the EU should ban anti-democratic parties. "That would be anti-democratic itself," and, "That is against freedom of speech," it is argued. Finally, the participants agree that an EU-wide exchange and training program for teachers could help. It is argued that if teachers received further education on cultural differences, they could build bridges and benefit many more people.
Lejla (C., in yellow) and Jule (two chairs further left) will present the teachers' program to the assembly
The group work has already finished for Marko from Montenegro and Gorazd from Macedonia. They chat while the group's speakers put the final touches to the joint presentation. Even though their countries are still accession candidates for EU membership, both are pleased to be part of the event. "We are also Europeans," says Gorazd. "I feel like I am on an equal footing here. Everything else is just politics between countries." Marko also voices his opinion: "I have the feeling that I can say something in the EU, because often small countries' voices are not heard in the community, especially those from the Balkans."
Both young men are hoping that there will be better opportunities for themselves and their countries when they "hopefully soon" become EU members. Marko would like to study medicine abroad. As a non-EU citizen, however, he has to pay more in some countries than locals or students from other EU countries.
Both say that they cannot understand the dislike between countries in the Balkans. "I was taught to judge a person by whether he has a good heart or not, and not whether he is Muslim, Christian, white, black, Albanian or Serb," says Marko. Gorazd agrees with him. "I think the fact that there are hostilities among us neighbors also has to do with politics." During the conversation, we are joined by a student from Albania.
The students repeatedly gather in groups to take selfies. As the day goes on, the representatives mix and connect even more. "I learned today that people always have something in common, even if they come from different countries and even if they have different opinions. That is reassuring," says Eleanor from Great Britain.
‘We have the same goals.'
Lejla from Germany found that this was also the point that most surprised her. "No matter where we come from, we actually think in the same way. It's really interesting that we have the same goals. Everyone can relate to what we want to achieve in Europe and how important the EU is."
Lukas from the Czech Republic has been able to share his thoughts, but in his group, rather than in the plenary hall. He has developed a program, together with the other representatives, that is intended to enable students to experience other cultures "first-hand" by attending school in various EU countries for several months. "I voted for the first time. I feel I can make a difference in the EU and I would like to go into politics later. This is a step in the right direction," Lukas says.
In the end, three proposals are selected through the ballot. One is an exchange program specifically aimed at pupils who have not yet been able to get to know much of Europe. The "House of Cuisine" project aims to connect people through food and the history of recipes. And finally, cultural experiments are to be facilitated by decentralized museums situated outside cities.
For Maleeha from Great Britain, the optimism and the strength to stand up for her own convictions are the main things she is going to take with her from this event. "Don't just follow the majority. It's okay to have a different opinion. This can also open up new perspectives for others who may not have thought about things in this way."
Such statements would seem to confirm the views held by EESC Vice-President Lobo Xavier. He hopes that these young people will share their experiences and inspire enthusiasm for the EU, countering anti-European tendencies. Using the "power that no one has invested in me," Xavier concluded the event by appointing the students as EU ambassadors.
The EESC is covering the train and hotel costs incurred for this article.