Utopia in the Making: European Waves at Your Europe Your Say 2023
On the 23rd and 24th of March, Stoycho Velev took part in the annual Your Europe Your Say youth democracy dialogue seminar hosted by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), an EU consultative body composed of employers, employees, and representatives of civil society. On behalf of European Waves, Stoycho covered the event as part of the traveling journalists’ team and spoke to some of the EESC members, participants, experts, and guest speakers. Special thanks go to Mathilde de Meester, Nicole Molinari, and Greta Scott for their valuable work in securing a spot for European Waves in the first place.
Just a few weeks ago, on an unusually sunny morning in Brussels, the EESC welcomed students from all 27 EU member states and 7 candidate countries at Jacque Delors Building – a home the advisory body shares with the European Committee of the Regions. For the first time in three years, delegations from all over the European continent would meet face-to-face at the 14th edition of the Your Europe Your Say youth seminar – a forum that seeks to engage young people with the idea of participatory democracy, productive dialogue, and youth representation at the highest European level.
On day one, while the opening ceremony was taking place at the Atrium, providing an occasion for the arriving delegates to gaze upon the neighboring building of the European Parliament, the many journalists that had just landed in Brussels from all over the world met with EESC Vice President Cillian Lohan. Straight to the point, in his keynote address, he emphasized the challenges before the European idea in times when trust in democratic institutions is continuously going down whilst young people seem to be more and more interested in politics.
His conviction that young people all over Europe seem to be ready and willing to not only remain “followers of democracy but activists for it” was followed by EESC President Christa Schwengs’ remarks. She made the case that YEYS is yet another instrument in the hands of young people to take interest not only in politics, but also in themselves, in their counterparts across the continent, and in a future that largely belongs to them.
“An event like YEYS is great – we are talking about participatory democracy and how to get the youth involved. This is one of the tools to do that. Just being given the chance to submerge ourselves in this environment, seeing Brussels, seeing these buildings, it kind of brings you close to what’s really going on.”
These are the words of Leila, a high school student from the Finnish delegation who, alongside her classmates, Matti and Emma, represented the same school from a little city in the middle of the country. She describes herself as a “humanities person” that is keen on an academic path in political science. Emma shares her interests, although in her words she is more willing to take a step back and evaluate where her true passion lies before making any rash decisions on her professional future. As for Matti, he seems to be heading in a completely different direction and is already quite set on a career path, as he’s eager to work in the finance sector, while modestly mentioning how Switzerland might be a cozy place to land a job in.
Alongside a hundred other students in the span of those two days Emma, Matti, and Leila focused on this year’s seminar topic revolving around European dystopias and the unfortunate scenarios young people might imagine befalling the European continent. Despite their rather different student profiles, they all assumed an authoritarian EU would set the stage for a dystopian future for Europe, as well as any form of silencing people with certain views deemed either progressive or traditional.
For one of the main keynote speakers – the EU Youth Coordinator at the European Commission Biliana Sirakova, initiatives like these are created precisely to make sure dystopias do not happen – mainly by engaging young people to become active citizens without whom democracy could simply never endure.
“What these young people did today exemplifies what democracy is all about: it is the power of people coming together to make a change and have an impact."
- Biliana Sirakova
On day two, all 105 students were divided into teams and guided by experts from the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS) to come up with their own ideas of how to tackle young people’s misrepresentation within the European dialogue. Identifying the unfortunate scenarios Europe might face, for them it was precisely the miscommunication and lack of transparency that posed an imminent threat to the European Union’s future. At the end of the seminar, each team had to choose a speaker who would publicly present and defend their project idea.
Some of the students’ proposals included establishing an EU ambassadorship programme bringing together young people from each EU member and candidate-member state that would serve to provide civil education and thus “show the real face of Europe.” Others emphasized that students even younger than them need to be targeted by building bridges between nations and communities and promoting common European values. EU knowledge and ways of participation in European democracy need to be more transparent and approachable.
However, perhaps the most intriguing suggestion was developing an “EYou app’’ that would contain simplified information on EU matters. Content would include details about EU Parliament members and political platforms, as well as the latest EU affairs developments at a grassroots level. The platform would also serve as a “bridging the gap” between young people and EU representatives, making the European civil dialogue closer than ever.
A considerable number of these exciting proposals during the YEYS modules came from students from Ukraine and Moldova. This year’s seminar was particularly special for them as it was the first time those two countries were invited to take part in the event. Alongside their counterparts, they bore witness to the closing spectacle by the Polish theatre company Theatre Navpaky and their powerful performance entitled “Світ за очі” (There, out of sight) – a compilation of nine Ukrainian songs, visualizing stories of young people facing various obstacles in life in a setting that ultimately mirrors contemporary events in Ukraine. They emphasized the grand idea most of us inevitably forget – namely that our freedoms are at stake when we wake up every single morning and in the blink of an eye our everyday lives could irreversibly change.
“We should never ever take what we have for granted.”
Those words concluded my personal conversation with Mrs. Martina Širhalová, an EESC manager for international relations and member of the Committee’s Section for Employment, Social Affairs, and Citizenship. She still recalls recent times when the biggest threat to the freedom of Europeans was not military but was linked to the lasting effects of the pandemic.
When we had COVID and all borders were closed, previous YEYS participants as young as our guests today realized how incredibly difficult it was to go to another country, even if the border stood 5 km from one’s home. Unfortunately, students caught a glimpse of what their parents experienced years ago when the European project was still in its early stages. Now, when I look at those young people here, I believe they are optimistic, and I am optimistic for them. The incredible opportunity this seminar offers for them – of meeting people from different countries, from different backgrounds, talking to them, and communicating their ideas and experience, can and will only make them richer.
In fact, this is indeed what YEYS 2023 was all about – bringing young people together by building relationships that last while allowing them to see that free and democratic Europe is an ideal they ought to cherish and fight to preserve. As they hastily roll their suitcases across the podium of the EESC welcome hall, eagerly exchanging contacts with all the friends they made in those couple of days before waving goodbye, they all but affirm a belief many of us still share - that ultimately what brings Europeans from across the continent together will always be more important than what separates them.