In October 2020, I was elected as a UK Young Ambassador and Representative of the British Youth Council at the European Youth Forum. Not quite the news I was expecting during my first weeks at university, but I was delighted to be elected.
What is the European Youth Forum?
The European Youth Forum is the largest youth organisation in the world and represents tens of millions of European young people via delegates from both National Youth Councils, such as the British Youth Council, and international non-governmental youth organisations such as YMCA. We work to increase the participation of young people and youth organisations in society, and we are a recognised partner of the European Union, the Council of Europe and the United Nations.
Whilst there are many elements to the work of the European Youth Forum, and as UK Young Ambassadors we always strive to work internally within the British Youth Council as well as internationally, our main events are the biannual General Assembly and Council of Members meeting. At the 2020 General Assembly, we elected members to the board of the Youth Forum and the wonderful Tom Matthews from the British Youth Council fought a successful campaign to gain a place. Whilst this is an exceptional achievement and we are all very proud of Tom, it left me as the lead delegate with the voting responsibilities for last week’s Council of Members meeting.
Council of Members meeting 2021
Although we had hoped otherwise, April 17th and 18th found us back online instead of Brussels for this year’s Council of Members meeting. By ‘us’ I mean Tom, me and our last-minute-stand-in-extra-delegate-extraordinaire Dave Morris, policy officer of the British Youth Council. Dave’s presence meant that I wasn’t bound to the screen for every single second that the meeting was active.
Even though the meeting was online, there is something special about the atmosphere of a European Youth Forum meeting that it is still felt virtually, and as we sat at our respective screens, across Europe, there was a real sense of togetherness.
The main body of the meeting was taken up with elections for the Advisory Council on Youth for the Council of Europe. They are one of our partner organisations and we send the majority of their members from within our own member organisations, following the election process. Usually, we would be able to hold hostings in person and get to know the candidates personally. However, I found myself jumping on Skype, Facebook, WhatsApp, you name it- we tried it, calls in efforts to decide who was going to get the vote of the British Youth Council.
To be the person making those decisions on behalf of the British Youth Council is such a huge privilege and a role to be taken seriously. We also successfully passed a Motion on the Human Rights violation in Western Sahara and on the admission of the National Youth Council of Ukraine. I’m delighted to be able to say that we are continuing to grow and the European Youth Forum now has one more member organisation!
The way forward
As we adjust to life outside the European Union we face not only practical obstacles, such as the loss of Erasmus+ funding for non-formal educational programmes, but we must also adapt to a new international position. For this reason, the words of the Vice-President of the European Youth Forum, Frédéric Piccavet, really struck me. When speaking about the work of the Youth Forum he said, “that’s why I believe that we are stronger together” and as we go on into the post-Brexit era, we would be wise to remember this. Just because we are no longer within the European Union it does mean that the UK can or should foster strong and meaningful relationships within Europe because, fundamentally, we are at our best when we work together; something demonstrated clearly by the work of the European Youth Forum.
The British Youth Council are calling on the UK government to announce its plans to replace significant funding lost since the UK’s exit from the EU. Following the ratification of the new trading and cooperation agreement with the European Union, organisations in the UK have lost access to Erasmus Plus.
The youth-led charity is calling on Ministers to take steps to address the €1 billion shortfall in funding which will affect many organisations across the UK. More than 4,800 UK-based projects were awarded funding between 2014-2018. The EU programme enabled organisations to support young people to develop new skills, gain vital international experience and boost their employability. UK Youth Parliament and UK Young Ambassadors, which are coordinated by the British Youth Council, have both received significant funding and support from the European programme.
Sarah Staples, Chair, British Youth Council said: “It cannot be right that young people have lost out as a result of this new deal with the European Union. Many UK youth organisations will have to scale back their work with young people or stop their work altogether if this funding is not replaced. The government must prioritise creating some certainty for the future of this funding so young people can continue to have access to these opportunities in post-Brexit Britain.”
The programme was also well-known for student exchanges and enabling young people to study, volunteer and gain work experience. Despite promising otherwise, the UK government will no longer participate in any part of the programme. The government have since announced the inception of the Turing scheme, which is due to commence in September 2021, and will allow young people to study and do work placements in other countries. However, the British Youth Council has concerns that without action and a like-for-like replacement for Erasmus Plus young people in the UK will lose access to the informal educational opportunities which they have been able to access until now.
The national youth council has written to Gavin Williamson CBE MP, Secretary of State for Education and Oliver Dowden CBE MP, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to urge action so organisations can continue to deliver for young people post-Brexit.
The British Youth Council recognises that the majority of young people voted to remain in the European Union back in 2016. At the time young people were very concerned about employability prospects, opportunities for young people, threats to our education system and rising racism and fascism within our society. The British Youth Council urges the government to work with young people to ensure that they are given a voice on the global stage and to work with them to give them opportunities for education, to build relationships across national and cultural boundaries and to build their employability prospects.
Coming to the end of my role as UK Young Ambassador for EU Youth Dialogue, I have begun to reflect on journey. EU Youth Dialogue allows young people to interact with policy makers at an European level. The 7th Cycle of EU Youth Dialogue had three main themes. These were based on three EU youth goals – 1) Quality Employment for All, 2) Quality Youth Work for All and 3) Opportunities for Rural Youth. As UK Young Ambassadors we designed a nation-wide consultation that engaged 530 young people.
As a unit, my team of UK Young Ambassadors were given a voice to represent UK youth on an international stage. This meant we learnt to become strong communicators. We used our national consultation to be informed of the views of young people in the UK. This enabled us to communicate their views when delivering presentations and when networking. Delivering a national consultation on opposing themes did present us with challenges. We found that young people struggled to complete such a long survey. This put more pressure to ensure that focus groups and other dialogue events were encapsulating the evidence we needed for the report. Fortunately, when it came to data evaluation, we started to see themes pop out.
One of the main results from our consultation was the challenges surrounding the Future of Work. Young people across the UK were concerned about accessing quality jobs, as they believed it was difficult to prepare for a labour market that is constantly reshaping.
One of the core concerns is the availability to high quality access to the Internet, which is eerily poignant in the rise of remote working due to Coronavirus. Young people believed that certain groups were inherently disadvantaged if they did not have access to good quality Internet. They identified issues with recruitment being exclusively online – as this means those without stable Internet access are unable to apply. This year has saw a huge digital transfer of both the job market and jobs themselves. Young people now need Internet access, not as a commodity, but an essential for employment.
Additionally, young people highlighted the barriers they faced living in rural areas. They expressed issues from a lack of amenities. These included poor public transport, poor access to health, education and leisure facilities and high-quality broadband. Young people worried that they had to move in order to access education or secure quality employment. However, they wished to remain in their current areas and support local businesses.
Another outcome from the consultation was the need for Quality Youth Work. In the UK, youth work is often seen as a voluntary role. Our findings recognised the need for youth work to be seen as a profession. The standard of youth work could be raised with investment in youth worker qualifications that recognise the profession. The aim is that official youth worker qualifications will create a more sustainable strategy for youth work across the UK.
Overall, this paints a picture of a myriad of challenges that UK young people face. However, the outcome of the consultation was not gloomy. While young people highlighted their difficulties, they also presented solutions. They even felt communities themselves could be an effective tool for change that would provide short term solutions that addressed and adapted to local needs.
As an out-going UK Young Ambassador, I have been lucky to secure a role with Future Leaders Network as the Co-Chair of the Y7 2021 Taskforce. I will be leading a team of young people to deliver the G7 Youth Summit in the UK next year. I hope to use my networks and connections to further promote solutions to the challenges raised in our consultation.
For other young people out there, I would say become a champion for your concerns. Feel empowered to become a catalyst for change in your area. Reach out to leaders in your community and tell them about the challenges in your area. Write to your MPs, MSPs, MLAs, MSs – inform them about your needs as a young person. Provide leaders with evidence (such as this report) or any that you have gathered. You can even organise your own EU Youth Goal workshops in schools, colleges or youth clubs. Young people should lead the way as change-makers, not only in their local community, but internationally too.
Last month, the European Youth Forum held its first ever virtual General Assembly. Two hundred young people representing one hundred different organisations from across Europe met to debate policy papers, admit new members, and elect a new European Youth Forum board. I had the honour of being nominated by the British Youth Council to stand in the elections and after a long, intense period of sharing my vision, I am delighted to say that I was elected!
The international team at the British Youth Council must take much credit for this success; their support and encouragement has been incredible. I will serve a two-year term to will work with the newly elected board and lead the European Youth Forum. The board is responsible for the organisation, we represent the Forum externally to organisations like the European Union and the United Nations and decide the Forum’s strategic direction in consultation with our member organisations. I stood in these elections because I believe there are significant internal changes the European Youth Forum needs to make. We need to utilise our immense capacity as the world’s largest network of youth organisations, and our ability to create the change we want to see in the world.
I also believe young people should be at all levels of decision making. The board of the European Youth Forum has typically been made up of people in their mid to late twenties, meaning Europeans of my generation have not had a representative. When my term begins on January 1st 2021, I will be the youngest board member and one of the youngest in the Forum’s history at 19 years of age. I finally believe that as the Brexit transition period ends, young people in the UK must maintain representation in Europe. I hope that having a voice on the board of one of Europe’s most influential youth organisations will help to achieve that.
As I write this, the UK is 35 days away from the end of the Brexit transition period. Nothing will fully substitute our EU membership, but my new role will enable me to represent the views and needs of young people in the UK within European circles. The European Youth Forum is extremely concerned about the consequences of Brexit for both young people in the UK and the EU, particularly in relation to Erasmus+. Since 2014, £900m of funding has been distributed from the EU to UK Erasmus+ projects, with over 930,000 young people involved in these projects. In 2017, 16,561 UK students travelled to the EU through Erasmus funding, while 31,727 EU nationals came to the UK. If Brexit negotiations conclude at midnight on December 31st without an agreement on the UK’s continued participation in Erasmus (which seems likely) then we will lose the quite incredible benefits it has provided us. At the European Youth Forum’s General Assembly last month, we voted in favour of a motion to back the extension of Erasmus+ to non-EU members. We will continue campaigning for this so that young people in the UK might again benefit from the enormous educational, social and cultural benefits that Erasmus+ has given previous generations.
The next few years are going to challenge everyone. The triple threat of our current economic crisis, the implications of Brexit, and the looming climate crisis means that life is going to be quite different not just for the next few months, but for decades to come. This is why it is crucially important for the European Youth forum to connect, to empower and to provide a platform for other organisations and for young leaders so they can advocate, campaign and lead others in pursuit of a world. A world that is more equitable, respectful, and caring. I want to show by example that having young people in positions of leadership can be of immense value; my hope is that more and more young people will be encouraged and inspired to become leaders in their own communities and that more and more organisations will support and invest in young leaders as the British Youth Council and the European Youth Forum have supported and invested in me.
Over the next two months, I will be posting blogs to provide further context to the five points which form my manifesto for board member of the European Youth Forum. This is blog one, detailing my first manifesto point: lead the new normal.
Lead the new normal
What does it mean to “lead the new normal?” To me, it means reflecting on our experiences from the past six months, learning from our experiences, and implementing those lessons so that we can emerge from the health crisis as a more effective team of youth organisations. In doing that, we strengthen our ability to advocate and campaign for others to respond to this crisis in a way which safeguards young people’s needs and rights.
The process of reflection and lesson learning should have member organisations at its heart. At least one board member should have the responsibility of leading a process which engages member organisations in identifying how the European Youth Forum can improve its ways of working, based on the lessons we are learning from the crisis. I propose that the process replicate the format of the governance review. Below are three ways I believe we need to change in order to lead the new normal:
- We can become more adaptable and resilient by reducing our dependence on physical meetings. This does not necessarily mean reducing physical meetings, though that may be necessary in the short term, but it does mean making sure that if a member organisation or representative is unable to attend a meeting, they should be able to perform basic functions, like voting, remotely or by proxy. It also means increasing our interactions between statutory meetings, as detailed in point three. As a board member I would advocate for reducing our dependence on physical meetings and increasing our interactions between statutory meetings.
- We can become more productive by utilising the best parts of technology to cut down the agendas for the Council of Members and General Assemblies. Activities which are not improved by a physical meeting, should take place virtually ahead of in physical meetings. This would either reduce the length of the Council of Members and General Assemblies, or it would increase the amount of time that can be spent networking, campaign planning or in workshops- the most valuable parts of physical meetings. As a board member I would advocate for activities like voting on amendments to take place virtually ahead of physical meetings, which would then enable physical meetings to have far more personal interactions.
- We can become more connected and interdependent as an organisation by meeting more frequently and less formally, but virtually. New delegates should have the opportunity to join a virtual new delegates group where they can meet other new delegates, create a network of contacts and meet frequently throughout their first year. The board should run more virtual consultations and dialogues to give member organisations opportunity to input into discussions. I provide more detail on how the board can become more connected, transparent, and accountable in my third manifesto point to be released in the coming weeks. As a board member I would advocate for a step change in the amount of interactions between meetings so the European Youth Forum is not characterised by two statutory meetings per year, but by continual interaction between youth organisations and the European Youth Forum throughout the year.
Over the past six months, we have been forced into a radically new way of working. There are many negatives to this change, but there are also some positives. In order to lead the new normal, we must first show that we, as the world’s largest network of youth organisations, can rebuild for the better.
This crisis has taught us what it is possible to do, we must use this time to push forward to a new and better way of working. I am committed to advocating for a more adaptable and resilient, more productive, and more connected and interdependent European Youth Forum.
This April I visited Brussels for my fifth and final assembly meeting as the UK Young Ambassador to the European Youth Forum, which I attended alongside Lucia Jones. At this meeting, which brings together around 150 young representatives from across Europe, we usually discuss and pass resolutions on continent-wide issues as well as elect people to represent us on other platforms and advocate for youth rights. At this particular meeting, we discussed a couple of policy papers which essentially did as they say on the tin – one on demanding urgent climate action and the other on better youth representation – though perhaps surprisingly the second one did not pass through this time round for more technical reasons. We also admitted a new organisation, the Junior Chamber of International Europe, to become an Observer member, and were treated to a speech from the Deputy Prime Minister of Belgium on why young people were important and the future (Shock! Gasp!).
However, it now being late May, I have since suffered the excruciating pain of another round of exams, and am struggling now to write beyond the clichés of an essay. Luckily though, the subject which I would love to talk briefly to you about now are clichés – specifically those which are dredged up time and time again within the world of youth advocacy, apparently present across the whole of the continent, and in my opinion deeply dangerous to the future of improving our lives. I have already mentioned one of these clichés – that youth is the future – and at the heart of the statement it is not at all wrong and incredibly true. But claims like this, which also include statements like better rights are the answer to our problems, and that more funding is the solution, though they hold a lot of truth, are unoriginal and a sign of uninspired thinking within our networks. Unfortunately, I’ve seen (and written) ‘social media’ or ‘networking’ or ‘funding’ on a group Flipchart as the solution to our current problems more often than I’ve had hot dinners. It is true that social media is an issue, for example, the European Youth Forum has 144,000 followers on Facebook and rarely musters more than a dozen likes on a post – simply wanting more of what we already have shown to be ineffective is ineffective. Within discussions, these lazy solutions to problems shut down debates at the same place they have for decades. They stop with a cliché, not a point – giving us long-standing soundbites which politicians can regurgitate to us with very little consequences compared to supporting a solid policy position. Therefore, we must really all push to challenge ourselves everyday on not reusing the same jargon for the issues we face as, eventually, it will lose all of its meaning.
In all honesty, I must now tell you, though you may have already gleaned this from the descriptions above, this meeting at times did get a little tedious… albeit with two very significant exceptions. The first was the election of our very own Pegah Moulana, one of the most skilful, committed and engaging young people that currently represents the British Youth Council, who was re-elected to the Advisory Council of Europe to help oversee certain aspects of that organisation including the European Court of Human Rights. In particular, Pegah has these past two years already been working on improving the condition of young refugees and fostering Middle Eastern-European dialogue. Her election this year coincided too with a proposed 100% cut to the youth programme of the council, so now more than ever we need to be sure to support her to hold up the infrastructure of protecting our rights. This is especially important in the context of this being one of the only European institutions which isn’t tied to the European Union. If we can do so, I am certain her work will continue to show that international youth advocacy does generate real-world positive change and can bring people together who otherwise would have been separate.
The other exception was the address made to us by the 23 year-old Yasmine Ouirhrane who was 2019’s Young European of the Year. She told us of the racism she received growing up in rural Italy to an Italian mother and a father who had immigrated to Italy, and also facing discrimination throughout her life as a woman. However, she harnessed the negative energy people had dealt out to her and reshaped it into a passion for creating a fairer and more equal society at a European level. Now living in France, she was instrumental in organising the huge Yo!Fest last year in Strasbourg as well as working with disadvantaged groups in the city year round. Her example is one which we should all seek to emulate as it shows that if you want to improve society at a European level we must change lives at a local level with community projects – not the other way round. It is without a doubt the culmination of all the local projects across Europe which drives forward the positive change in our society – and that the European Youth Forum must always stand to protect the vital funding, and political support, on which many of them depend.