Back 9th Council of Europe Conference of Ministers responsible for Youth

Saint Petersburg, Russian Federation , 

Speech by Gabriella Battaini-Dragoni, Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe

"Young people's access to rights: development of innovative youth policies"

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Distinguished Chair,
Your Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Dear delegates and guests,

I bring you cordial greetings from the Secretary General of the Council of Europe. Mr Jagland strongly regrets that other pressing commitments prevented him from coming to Saint Petersburg.

He regrets his absence particularly because he believes so strongly in the role of young people in promoting and defending human rights, democracy and the rule of law. He is convinced, as we all are, that mobilising young people into shaping and forming politics is a pressing requirement for all our democracies. If we fail, the gap between those who govern and those who are governed will continue to grow.

[A look back]

This is the 9th Conference of Ministers responsible for Youth which the Council of Europe has organised since 1985. Already at the first conference in Strasbourg we looked at the "participation of young people in society". Indeed, young people themselves and their active participation in society have been at the centre of all conference debates since that Conference.

And time and again we have used these conferences for developing medium and long-term programmes for youth-policy action at national and international level. In virtually every conference we have discussed changing priorities. The last conference – in 2008 in Kyiv – agreed on a 12-year programme of priorities, called the "Agenda 2020", which is still our guiding document today.

There is thus a strong current of continuity guiding our work.
I understand that some of the delegates and guests here in the room still remember the first conferences, held in much smaller conference halls, since the Council of Europe membership was so much smaller then.

[A changing environment for youth policy]

At the same time, the environment of youth policy has changed much over the years, and with increasing speed.

Outside Europe, several countries in our neighbourhood have started to implement fundamental political reforms, which have brought them into much closer contact with the Council of Europe, and closer to global standards of human rights and good governance. This is an open-ended process. It is evident however that young people are the driving force behind these reforms. They legitimately ask for more participation, more citizenship, more democracy, a better protection of human rights, more jobs and more possibilities for travelling and meeting their peers in other world regions. Our youth policy must also address these concerns.

In Europe itself, the European Union has developed its own youth activities, reaching out to a much wider area than just the 27 member states of the Union. In the youth field — as in many other areas — we are co-operating very closely and very constructively with the European Union. I am convinced that this is a real "win-win situation", which will hopefully develop further in years to come.

Perhaps the most fundamental changes are happening, however, in the midst of our own societies. Young people today are in a contradictory situation.

1.     They are better educated than ever, but have more difficulties in accessing the labour market.

1.     Thanks to the Internet and social media, they are better connected to the world than any generation before them, but they need the support of their families for much longer, because of the gradual withdrawal of the welfare state and a shortage of affordable housing.

1.     Young people are ready to participate and to commit themselves to working for the common good, but they do not find a place in our political institutions, which are not sufficiently flexible and welcoming because they have not changed much since the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century.

1.     Young people today are very conscious of the imminent global threats—poverty and global warming, to name just two — but they must watch almost helplessly as the international community grapples with local armed conflicts and the protection of national privileges.

There is another fundamental change affecting the lives of young people. Since we held the first Conference of Ministers responsible for Youth, everyday life has become much more culturally diverse. Very often it is young people who are the strongest advocates of a truly multicultural society; but, all too often, they are also suffering most from the growing intolerance and mistrust haunting many countries in Europe.

These are some of the issues you will discuss today and tomorrow.

[The role of this Conference]

Let me remind you that your conference, like the other conferences of specialised ministers, is an important part of the "political architecture" of the Council of Europe. In the framework of the on-going reform of our Organisation, the Committee of Ministers recently firmed up its expectations of these conferences. A recent resolution adopted by the Committee of Ministers requires conferences of specialised ministers to:

1.     Facilitate the activities of the Council of Europe in accordance with its priorities;

2.     Provide high-level input for intergovernmental activities in the field concerned;

3.     React to particularly serious events.

I am absolutely confident that this conference will meet all three requirements.

Youth is — and must remain — a priority theme. Democracy cannot be built without the commitment, active involvement and creativity of young people; otherwise, democracy will die. And who will in the future defend human rights and the rule of law, if not young people?

Incidentally, I have recently been very impressed by an outstanding example of democratic citizenship. Anton Abele was 15 when he created a Facebook group called "save us from street violence", as a reaction to the brutal killing of a Swedish teenager in 2007. He managed to organise a massive campaign. Three years later, Anton Abele became Sweden's second-youngest-ever Member of Parliament.

The second requirement is "high-level input". Well, that will be your task over the next two days.

The overall picture of the situation of youth across Europe is grim. There is a real risk of a "sacrificed generation", as Mr Volontè called it in his recent report to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Youth policy must address the burning problems of young people. Youth policy cannot be complacent. And youth policy must constantly change if it wants to stay abreast of developments.

How to change, what to innovate — and, perhaps also, what to leave behind — these are the questions to which this conference can find answers. It seems to me that addressing youth problems by taking a serious look at young people's access to rights goes to the core of the matter. You can be sure that the Council of Europe will study the results of your conference very closely.

And the third requirement is "to react to serious events".

If a youth unemployment rate of over 50% in parts of Europe is not a serious event, I do not know what is.

If the marginalisation of whole groups of young people, their systematic under-achievement in education, and their ghettoization in the midst of our cities is not serious, I do not know what is.

If the continued discrimination of girls and young women in some of our societies is not serious, I do not know what is.

If the continued obstacles faced in particular by youth organisations in some of the signatory states of the European Cultural Convention are not serious, I do not know what is.

[Closing remarks]

Dear delegates and guests,

Let me conclude on a positive note.

The youth sector of the Council of Europe is celebrating its
40th anniversary. As a result of the unrelenting efforts of the Parliamentary Assembly in the 1960s, the first European Youth Centre and the European Youth Foundation took up their work in 1972.

Some of you may know that I have very personal — and very positive — memories of the first phases of this work, when I served as an educational advisor in the European Youth Centre in Strasbourg for some years.

Since 1972, more than 100,000 youth leaders have been trained in one of the two youth centres of the Council of Europe. More than 300,000 young people all over Europe have benefited from the financial support of the European Youth Foundation. We regularly reach out to well over 1,000 different youth organisations across the continent and involve them in our work. With our co-management system, we have set a deeply innovative example of good practice.

To date, we have analysed in detail the youth policy of almost half of our member states. We have introduced quality labels, European standards in non-formal education with young people, and ground-breaking educational methods.

This is clearly a success story. I encourage you both to celebrate, together with the Council of Europe, the accomplishments of our youth policy over the last 40 years, and, to pave the way for bold decisions and innovations in the years to come.

I thank you for your attention and wish you a very fruitful and stimulating conference.