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.
The British Youth Council are urging the UK Government to address the concerns of young people in any further Brexit negotiations. The youth-led charity has repeatedly highlighted the importance of including young people in decisions that will affect their future.
The importance of maintaining funding opportunities, such as the Erasmus+ programme, remains a priority for members of the British Youth Council. Despite reassurances from the Government, the British Youth Council also stressed the importance of young people and youth organisations having access to the same opportunities. The statement was made in response to the Commons vote which took place on Wednesday 8th January 2020, which saw Members of Parliament vote against compelling officials to negotiate continuing full membership of the programme.
A spokesperson for the British Youth Council said: “Young people’s voices need to be heard in the future Brexit negotiations, not just as a footnote, but as key stakeholders in the future of the country.
“Moving forward we’d like to see young people more involved in the decision making so we can ensure young people don’t loose out in post-Brexit Britain.”
The charity expressed disappointment at the Government’s decision to ignore calls for a second referendum on the final Brexit Deal. The British Youth Council recognise that in 2016 the majority of young people voted to remain in the European Union. Young people were very concerned about employability prospects, opportunities for young people, threats to our education system and concerns about rising racism and fascism within our society.
Young people aged 16 and 17 were also wrongly excluded from the EU Referendum, according to the national charity. The British Youth Council continues to acknowledge that these young people, all of whom are now eligible to vote, were denied the opportunity to participate despite growing support among politicians from across the political spectrum.
In November Lucia and I travelled to Amiens in France to represent the British Youth Council at the Council of Members Extraordinary Meeting (COMEM). It was an opportunity to come together with all the members of the European Youth Forum to discuss policy and campaigns.
On Thursday evening, Lucia went to the announcement of the European Youth Capital for 2022 which President Macron gave a speech. The ceremony takes place every year in the previous European Youth Capital, and the event is always a spectacle. After some moving performance pieces including poetry, acrobatics and dance, each Youth Capital finalist was invited to show their application video and give a short speech about their city. The winner was announced as Tirana, Albania – congratulations!
We then spent most of Friday and Saturday debating the European Youth Forum’s Strategic Plan and the policy documents which outline the European Youth Forum’s position on areas from “The Future of Work” to “Gender Equality”. The documents aim to strengthen and enhance the work done in specific areas of youth policy and spots areas that need to be focused on. By working on amendments for each document, we were able to have a say on issues important to the British Youth Council and the values we stand for. We also got to speak with the European Youth Forum’s board members about their campaigns and some of the areas they are focused on. We were really pleased to be able to vote on the admission of organisations to the European Youth Forum either in full or observer member status. The successful organisations were: The National Youth Council of Turkey (GoFor), Youth Express Network (Y-E-N) and the European Confederation of Independent Trade Unions Youth (CESI-Youth).
As this was my first trip abroad as a UK Young Ambassador, I spent a lot of time getting to know all the other representatives from around Europe and trying to gain a better understanding of how the European Youth Forum works as an organisation and as a group of young campaigners.
One of the highlights was Friday evening- we managed to get some free tickets to watch Amiens play an ice hockey match which they won 4-2!
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.
The British Youth Council are calling on the Government and prominent campaigners to address the concerns of young people in any new Brexit negotiations or plans. The youth-led charity feels the voices and wishes of young people, in particular, have not reflected in Brexit negotiations up to this point. Therefore, we believe the best way to give young people a clear say on their future is to join the growing campaign, calling on the Government to deliver a People’s Vote on the final Brexit Deal.
A spokesperson for the British Youth Council said: “Young people’s voices are not being heard in the Brexit negotiations. It’s really imperative that the Government commit to listening to young people and their concerns moving forward.
“The British Youth Council also believe the Government should hold a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal. This is the biggest political decision of our lifetime and we think its important young people have a clear say on our future.”
The call comes as yet more uncertainty looms over the future of the UK’s relationship with the European Union, with the Government’s proposed withdrawal agreement being voted down by Members of Parliament last week. The British Youth Council recognise that in 2016 the majority of young people voted to remain in the European Union. 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 are keen to stress that young people care about their future and should have their issues discussed and addressed. We’ve also made it clear young people should be provided firm reassurance over their futures in the coming months. We believe that the rights of young European citizens living in the UK should be upheld in wake of the Brexit vote as they contribute so much to the UK. We’re joining calls for the government to ensure that the rights of young EU citizens, that have lived in the UK for over a year, to live work and study in the UK remain unchanged by negotiations with the EU.
The importance of maintaining funding opportunities, such as the Erasmus+ programme, has also been raised by British Youth Council members. Young people and youth organisations, both during the withdrawal negotiations and in the framework of the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union, should have access to the same opportunities.