“Young people are disproportionately under-represented in public institutions. Less than 2% of MEPs were under 30 when Parliament took office in 2014. This figure signals a discrepancy between this societal group and those who represent it: the gap is also evident in Europe’s political agenda”, declared Ville Majamaa, 26, Vice-President of the European Youth Forum (Eyf) , a platform that brings together 105 youth organizations – national youth councils and international youth organizations of different nature – of students, social, political, confessional etc…) – namely, approximately 40 million young people. “Our aim is to ensure that young people’s voices are heard in political decision-making at European level,” said Ville, who was born in Finland, studied in Great Britain, lived in Moscow and is now pursuing a Master’s Degree in Brussels. Ville has over a decade’s experience of activism in the Scouts and the International Red Cross, inter alia.
How did you follow the election campaign?
Youth policies per se are not a prerogative of European policies, but many political decisions have an impact on young people: from climate to employment … you name it. We contacted political parties at European level and met with the “spitzenkandidaten”, so that for at least for one day they would discuss issues and themes that affect and involve young people. We created a tool on our website that helps to compare the political programmes of different parties on specific topics. We then tried to reach out to young people at local level with our coloured camper: we promoted events with local organizations in cities across Europe, trying to involve young candidates. We held the YoFest! in Brussels at the end of April, when for one day young people had the chance to “occupy” the area outside the European Parliament.
Which requests did you put forward during the meetings?
We adopted a document in our plenary last November with ten requests for the future of Europe, from sustainable development to employment, given that, 11 years after the crisis, young people are struggling to find quality jobs; commitments to combat social exclusion and poverty, also in the light of the fact that young people are the group most at risk. For each challenge, we drew up a couple of concrete proposals.
Many young people are “naturally European” today, owing to past or present study or working experiences, but there also many young people that are distant from Europe: how do you reach out to them?
We noted that it’s easier to reach out to “marginal” groups of youths through their peers. In many cases these groups are not as organized as we are used to see, but this does not mean that they are not connected to each other, or that they don’t identify with a given community. Reaching out requires a greater effort on our part, in terms of creativity and flexibility. It’s very important to identify ways to connect, as we have done through some of our organizations whose purpose is to keep together these minority or disadvantaged groups of young people. But obviously they constitute a challenge that entails constant efforts…
Do you feel that European institutions are taking you seriously?
With the Commission and Parliament here in Brussels it is easier. On some issues, such as education, volunteering, employment, it is assumed that we are ‘stakeholders’ and it is natural for the Commission to involve us (for example in the case of the redefinition of the ‘youth strategy’). But in other areas, (environmental protection) involvement is much more recent; while there are certain areas in which we are generally not involved (such as peace and security).
Is the frequent mention of young people in political discourse rhetorical or authentic?
If we look at the definition of the multiannual financial framework, marked by a tendency to make cuts because of Brexit, the Commission and the Member States have repeatedly declared that they would not make cuts affecting young people. Commission proposed to double Erasmus funding, and Parliament requested a three-fold increase. Now we will have to see what the Council, the Member States, will say. In other cases, however, we continue being confined to very restricted policy areas and every time we try to emerge we are somewhat reprimanded: cohesion policies, agriculture, are areas that involve large amounts of money and major challenges, and here we are not always welcomed with open arms.
How impending is the populist drift?
For us it’s an issue of general debates and we discuss populist claims or decisions. One such example is the initiative DiscoverEu: it is necessary to be more cautious when it comes to investing on young people and not decide to distribute funds to the young generation a few months ahead of the vote – hoping that in this way they will go to polls. We saw it more as an electoral move than a genuine desire to address the needs of the younger generations. Moreover, even if young people obtain a free train ticket they still have to pay for board and lodging, which many cannot afford.
Also the idea that making young people travel around Europe is enough to make them feel more European is somewhat simplistic. We would prefer an investment in the mobility of young people in order to foster relations on the ground, for example by participating in short-term volunteering projects at local level. This would create personal bonds along with the concrete experience of being Europeans. There is no youth pan-European populist movement, it is rather a national phenomenon. But what worries me as a young person is the future of the European project, targeted by populist groups. I come from Finland, a small member Country: nobody would have heard about it at global level had it not been an EU Member Country. We are included in global debates only as a result of EU integration: major issues – ranging from climate to trade, to space exploration – must be addressed as a European body.