On 13-14th January, I attended the Commonwealth Youth Senior Officials Meeting 2020 (Europe and Canada region) and had the honour of representing the views of UK Young people at the event. The meeting was held at the beautiful Marlborough House in London – headquarters of the Commonwealth of Nations and the seat of the Commonwealth Secretariat.
The meeting was attended by senior officials responsible for youth at the government level, National youth leaders, youth workers and representatives from the Council of Europe, Commonwealth Youth Council, Commonwealth Alliance for Youth Workers Association and the Commonwealth Students’ Association. The commence the meeting, the Commonwealth secretariat spoke about their vision and missions of sustaining a Commonwealth that embraces diversity and improves the well-being of all Commonwealth citizens. It was inspiring to hear from the Senior officials of the UK, Canada, Malta and Cyprus who spoke about how they are promoting youth voice within their countries and it was thoroughly interesting to listen to the sharing of best practice through innovative projects carried out across the Commonwealth such as campaigns to improve digital skills development, youth volunteerism and the development of safe and inclusive spaces for young people.
I participated in a round-table style event where country-specific regional challenges were shared. During this, I had an opportunity to put forward the views of young people in the UK, by speaking about the national campaigns voted for by young people in the UK, through the British Youth Council. Throughout the discussion, a theme of increasing the voices of youth within the Europe and Canada regions to the Commonwealth were raised, hence a positive action that was taken was to keep the formal meeting of “Europe and Canada” to support the national youth councils within these member countries to have regional meetings ahead of the Commonwealth Youth Forum 2020. This was a great step for a more connected Commonwealth. I worked with youth across the Commonwealth and it was remarkable to see how united we are through our similarities. Commonwealth Youth Leaders identified similar priority areas within their countries such as tackling unemployment, ending poverty, the need for quality education, housing, protecting our environment and tackling climate change.
The meeting concluded with a presentation by the Commonwealth youth representatives to Commonwealth senior officials, decision-makers and the Commonwealth secretariat. I had a chance to speak about the campaigns voted for by young people in the UK through the Make Your Mark ballot. The UK-wide youth campaign of Protecting our environment was highlighted and how we have a collective responsibility to protect the environment from the effects of climate change for the next generation and to look more towards carbon-neutral alternatives. I also spoke about the campaign of Putting an End to Knife Crime. Too many young people’s lives are lost to knife crime and how we would like the Government to do more to help end the knife crime epidemic. I was able to highlight the positive actions taken by youth since the last Commonwealth Youth Forum such as The British Youth Council starting a youth forum working with the Bank of England, the UK’s attendance at the United Nations Youth Climate Action Summit and creating a Youth Voice Leadership Development Programme to increase the diversity of young people in leadership roles.
I would like to thank the British Youth Council and all of the incredible young people across the UK who are making a positive difference in society – It has been a privilege to be able to share UK Youth national campaigns with Commonwealth youth leaders and it has been a great experience to have an opportunity to put forward youth voices at this meeting.
The Commonwealth is a global family of countries connected through a sharing of common principles and values. Young people are key for building a more peaceful and united world hence, our communities must safeguard the valuable voices of young people.
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.
You might have heard that on May the 23rd that the UK will be voting for Members of the European Parliament, but aren’t we leaving the European Union? Why should I bother voting when it won’t matter anyway? Isn’t it just a waste of time?
Europe and the EU have always been controversial topics within the UK, and over the past 6-7 years they’ve been a near-constant aspect of debate; from Westminster and our devolved parliaments, to social media and between friends. It has also been divisive: we’ve seen election after referendum show that we as a country are divided, we’ve seen a rise in violent rhetoric and extremist views, and even the tragic murder of Jo Cox, a Member of Parliament, a week before the 2016 referendum.
It’s safe to say that the UK’s relationship with the EU is complicated. However, with Brexit supposedly happening before the 31st of October at least, it still might seem a bit pointless to care about who your MEPs are when we’re on our way out anyway. But that couldn’t be further from the truth!
Here’s 5 reasons why you should vote on May the 23rd:
- Your vote really counts. The UK has 73 MEPs, the joint third highest number for any of the EU’s 28 member states. Whoever you choose to vote for, the upcoming elections give you the chance to really have your voice heard at a Europe-wide level, and the candidates you elect could have a massive impact on the European Parliament for however long we remain in it. The political party of the MEP you vote for also makes sure that your voice matters, as the European Parliament is broken up into “political groups” which each countries’ political parties can affiliate to. These groups can have a massive influence over the parliament, and due to the large number of MEPs the UK has, your decision can really make a difference. Find out more about the EU’s political groups here. The European Youth Forum has created a voter comparator tool that you can further use to compare the priorities of the different groupings.
- Send a message about Brexit. However you felt about the 2016 referendum, the European Parliament’s elections are a great way to show decision-makers how you feel about Brexit and the Government’s approach so far. A clear victory for pro-European or pro-Brexit MEPs would influence the decision the UK parties will make in the coming months. There are a large number of parties and candidates standing for these elections who represent a range of opinions and views. Proud ‘Remainer’ or ‘Brexiteer’? Somewhere in-between? Make your vote count! Find your region’s candidates here.
- It’s fairer for smaller parties. The UK uses a proportional representation system called the “d’Hondt system” for electing its MEPs. This means that there could be a better chance for smaller parties to gain seats than in our general elections! However, some people have also argued that the high number of small parties similar positions on key issues (like Brexit) could fragment the vote. Either way, if you support a political party that doesn’t often get seats in Westminster, your vote could be the deciding factor in whether or not your candidates become MEPs, and your party could potentially have a better shot than in the system we use for general elections. Find out more about the d’Hondt system here.
- This could be your last chance! If the UK really does leave the European Union before October the 31st, this could be your last ever opportunity to vote in an election for the European Parliament. Participating in the elections is a unique opportunity to vote alongside citizens from across 28 countries, electing representatives to a shared parliament with political groups that work hand-in-hand with colleagues from across borders to tackle issues. In a post-Brexit UK this would be an opportunity that future generations – our children, grandchildren, and even younger siblings – might not get: so if you’re eligible to vote, use your right while you still can!
- Speak up as a young person. The European Parliament elections typically have a bad turn-out for young people, and those aged 18-24 typically have the lowest voter registration of any age group (read more here). This means that some people say that young people don’t care about politics, or mark our turn-out down to laziness or a lack of interest in being an active citizen. However, just looking at the recent rise in young people taking a stand – from the Climate Strikes to the demonstrations and marches related to Brexit – it’s clear that they couldn’t be further from the truth. Regardless of Brexit, whether you’ve never voted before or campaign religiously at every election, voting on May the 23rd sends a message that you do care about politics, and you won’t let your voice be ignored. And even if you don’t decide to take part, remember that there’s hundreds of thousands of young people who just aren’t old enough, or aren’t quite eligible, who would jump at the opportunity to vote in something they care about.
Convinced? Thinking about it? Either way, you don’t have long left to register as registration closes on the 7th of May (register to vote here), and if you’re an EU citizen, or hold dual-citizenship, it’s a bit more complicated if you want to vote for MEPs in another country in the EU (find out more here).
You also might have the chance to meet some of your MEP candidates, or attending hustings or debates, in the run up to May the 23rd! If you want to feel extra prepared for these hustings, check this document here with ideas of questions you can, on advancing youth’s position in societies.
Huw Sherrard is a UK Young Ambassador (Scotland) to the EU Youth Dialogue, the UK Youth Delegate to the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, and a member of the European Youth Card Association’s Youth Panel.
Surreal is the only way to describe walking into one of the most famous and prestigious buildings in the UK. The walls and rooms were so decadent that it was so easy to feel out of place. But it also served as a reminder of why exactly we were there: to discuss solutions to the problems that came out of Commonwealth Youth Forum; to work out how to hold governments to account; to renew the energy and enthusiasm around our work.
After listening to a warm and witty opening speech by Lord Ahmed, Minister of State for the Commonwealth and United Nations, we then were graced with His Royal Highness, Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex. He spoke powerfully about his passion around the Commonwealth and mental health in particular. His message resonated with me so much, as he reminded us of our duty to create a sustainable world so we can leave a better world behind for our children; with the Prince expecting his first child and myself having younger siblings, we can’t afford to forget that message.
The roundtable discussions then started. Split into 5 tables for 5 different questions on topics such as maintaining the momentum of the Commonwealth Youth Forum in 2018, mine was about the most effective ways of working together. First, we each presented some of the work we have been doing across the country, which was absolutely humbling. To be around a table with such extraordinary young leaders is such an exceptional experience, I made sure to appreciate and enjoy it and truly listen. We then looked at how to work effectively in terms of strategising and resource sharing.
Different strategies came out, some of which I’ll definitely implement in my future campaigning. The chair of the Commonwealth Youth Council, Tijarni, talked about how creating public demand can be so effective in keeping momentum for a campaign. In a world where there are new issues every day, it is difficult to keep people engaged and enthused with a piece of work. Putting a more positive spin and the importance of framing also came up, which is such an impactful point because the majority of discourse around social issues is shrouded in negativity.
Afterwards, I presented a summary of our discussions and listened to the other summaries. As cliché as it sounds, I genuinely felt energised afterwards; you could actually feel the electricity in the room.
The day finished as quickly as it started, with all of us saying our goodbyes. But we could all leave that stunning palace with a renewed sense of optimism, and, more importantly, a genuine call for action. We won’t let false promises lull us into inaction, not this time. This is too pivotal a moment for our futures, our children’s futures, and our world’s futures for that.