Is Europe letting its youth down? The Council of Europe is forgeting its past!

16. 05. 2019

By Carina Autengruber, President of the European Youth Forum

Happy birthday, Council of Europe. Forgive us if we have little to celebrate. After 70 years of existence and 50 years since the establishment of the European Youth Foundation, it seems that the progress for youth rights is about to hit a brick wall.

Founded in 1949, the Council of Europe brings together 47 Member States together around a major legal instrument: the European Convention on Human Rights. However, the work of the Council of Europe goes well beyond the work of the Court. Over the past decades, the Council of Europe has developed a series of activities promoting its basic principles of upholding human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

It was Willy Brandt, who in 1969 in order to respond to young students demonstrating in the streets in ‘68, proposed the creation of the European Youth Foundation to support youth movements and allow them to work closer together.

It was Chancellor Helmut Kohl who wanted a second European Youth Centre in Budapest to welcome the growing number of youth activists in Europe after the fall of the Berlin wall. It was 1994.

For the past 10 years, the European Youth Foundation has been giving grants to European, national and local youth organisations, reaching out to almost 3.5 million young people across Europe. In the same period, the European Youth Centres in Strasbourg and Budapest have been training 20,000 young people to become human rights advocates, and act as multipliers to promote the rule of law and participation of young people in democratic life. 

Now, young Europeans may be facing a new reality. The Council of Europe’s Secretary General, Mr Thorbjørn Jagland, announced earlier this month that due to the organisation’s budgetary crisis he has developed a contingency plan. This plan, which needs to be adopted by the Member States, involves shutting down the entire Youth Sector by 2021 and turning it into a partial agreement.

This would be a disastrous move. If the Youth Sector is turned into a partial agreement, we will continue to face a very volatile future for the sector, depending entirely on the whim of Member States. Ultimately in the longer term we risk an irretrievable loss, not just for young people but for the future of Europe.

As the most pro-European generation, young people once again are set to be the most let down by European decision-makers. Perhaps even by those who just decades previously were the ones who benefited directly from the youth activities of the Council of Europe. Is this really the message European political leaders are sending to the millions of young citizens marching in the streets demanding that their voices be heard on issues like the climate crisis?

If this contingency plan becomes a reality, the achievements and gains made by the Youth Department of the Council of Europe would be severely cut short. From no longer being able to directly influence European standards in youth policy to affecting the operations of the co-management system, the most advanced form of youth participation in the world where young people have the same decision making power of governmental representatives in youth policy development. Young people in Europe cannot afford to lose all that.

The Council of Europe has reached a pivotal moment, not just in finances but in leadership. These huge budgetary decisions that will change the role, influence and outreach of for generations to come are being made just before the election of a new Secretary General next month, with a new mandate starting on 1 October 2019. Why are the priorities of the future of the Council of Europe being set by the incumbent rather than the incoming leader? 

The role of Member States in avoiding this crisis also cannot be overlooked. A ten per cent increase in financial contributions from each Member State would offset the organisation’s entire budget deficit, while just 10 million per year in contributions from all would cover the financing of the Youth Sector. 

As the European Ministry of Foreign Affairs meet in Helsinki this week, we’re calling for Member States to take youth issues seriously. We must avoid any disproportionate cuts to young people at all costs. We must allow the chance for new leadership to fully assess the role of the Youth Sector, and we must enable the Council of Europe to continue to protect and promote youth rights. 

It is shocking that on the 70th anniversary of the Council of Europe, young people must fight for their rights rather than celebrate. Time for Europe to learn from its mistakes. Don't make youth pay for another crisis.

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