European Youth conference under Bulgarian Presidency leaves sour aftertaste

A view from the event [@euYOUTHconf Twitter]

Representatives of the European Youth Forum have expressed outrage at the way the EU Bulgarian Presidency organised an EU-sponsored youth event in Sofia last week, pointing out a perfunctory approach, mismanagement and inappropriate behaviour on the part of government officials.

At the EU Youth Conference organised in Sofia by the Bulgarian EU Presidency on 17-19 April, young people and policymakers met to discuss how to improve the lives of young Europeans.

The EU Youth Conference is the flagship event of the sixth cycle of the Structured Dialogue on Youth, a mass consultative process that aims to bring young people closer to policymakers.

At these youth conferences, which that take place on the occasion of every EU Presidency, youth elected representatives, together with national governments and European Commission officials, discuss and debate youth-related issues and come up with conclusions, which are then submitted to the Council of Ministers – as a way of ensuring that young people can co-shape the policies which affect their lives.

“The future of young people in Europe is one of the priorities of the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU,” the Bulgarian Presidency writes on its official website.

But according to Luis Alvarado, the President of the European Youth Forum, what happened in Sofia “was far from that reality, destroying the work of generations before us and disregarding young people at all cost”.

“This conference was an out-of-the-book example of what youth participation is not. Europe is a global example and inspiration for the rest of the world of what is possible when it comes to the empowerment of young people – because we have built it the hard way. And this conference has undermined and put in danger all of this,” Alvarado told EURACTIV.

“There were no young and European elected representatives on any panel of discussion of the conference […] Is this what they mean by fighting for youth empowerment?” Alvarado asked. He added that the Bulgarian government adopted a top-down, perfunctory and condescending approach.

The European Youth Forum chief said there were “plenty of UN officials” at this conference, who “are of course always welcome for inter-institutional coordination” but, in his words, “they don’t follow or contribute to the Structured Dialogue, EU youth policy and the processes currently at stake such as the upcoming new EU Youth Strategy and the progress of the ERASMUS+ budget negotiations”.

He also quoted government representatives from other member states who said that the UN presence was exorbitant for an EU conference and that there was frustration among other EU governments, researchers and youth leaders on how Bulgaria has managed this presidency.

Alvarado pointed out a number of shortcomings in the organisation of the conference, claiming that the Bulgarian Presidency wanted to change every process that was used in the past events of this type.

“The aim of these conferences is to reach out to groups of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. A key instrument to achieve that is to ensure they don’t have to put money from their own pockets to participate”, he said.

Alvarado explained that tor the first time in the history of this process, young people had to buy their flight tickets by themselves – in the past this was done by the relevant national government, given that this expense is covered by European Commission funds. “Young people are worried over their reimbursements and these new practices which put more obstacles”, he said.

Every six months, the EU executive provides the host member state a grant to organise the youth conferences.

“Why was this time different? There were young people who struggled to afford a ticket […] it’s a practical detail but showcases how ‘seriously’ young people are taken,” he added.

Free alcohol, half-naked women

Alvarado complained that free hard alcohol was offered at the conference and that the drinks prevented some of the participants from being in shape for the next morning working session.. More shockingly, he said that even though there was a session during the conference about gender equality and young women empowerment, at night there was a party at which “half-naked” women danced on tables, which he called “unacceptable” and “a clear indication of patriarchal stereotypes being promoted within our Union”. This clearly disturbed many of the young leaders and government representatives, he said.

“It’s outrageous that EU public money has been spent in this way. This is not the EU the young people I represent are fighting for”, Alvarado said.

Navracsics too busy

The President of the European Youth Forum also noted that Tibor Navracsics, the European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, left after the end of his speech without listening to the policy recommendations of young people.

“He was supposed to take these recommendations into account in terms of the ongoing shaping of the next EU Youth Strategy. Commissioner Navracsics needs to understand that young people of Europe expect much more from him and he needs to deliver. We expect the new EU Youth Goals to be reflected in the next EU Youth Strategy and we expect him to be ambitious and propose an instrumental increase of the ERASMUS+ budget as we have asked in our ERASMUSx10 campaign”.

“It is quite sad that member states are being more ambitious than EU institutions when it comes to the increase of the budget of the most successful EU program in history – we expect more leadership.”

EURACTIV contacted the European Commission for a comment on the issue as well as whether it exists a mechanism to monitor how the EU money is spent in these conferences.

No answer has been provided by the time of this article’s publication.

He also said that young people were frustrated with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, who according to them in his speech, urged young people not to forget their first duty of nature to procreate, using the example of a German minister who has 7 children. “Easy for him who is not part of the first generation that will be worst off than their parents”, commented Alvarado.

In addition, Alvarado noted that following the conference, Bulgarian government officials badmouthed youth representatives on social media, who “dared” to criticise the organisation of the conference. He added:

“They realised their mistake and started deleting their posts.”

Contacted by EURACTIV, Raycho Raychev, Vice-President of the Bulgarian Youth Council, confirmed Alvarado’s claims about the lack of youth participation in the panels, adding that there were also debates without any interaction with the participants.

He also complained that the flight tickets issue caused accessibility difficulties for participants.

Applauding Borissov

But he went a step further: “It is crucial to highlight that the Ministry forced the volunteers to stand up and applaud after our Prime Minister’s speech, also written questions were given by the Ministry to some of the participants for the Citizen dialogue with the Commissioner.”

He noted that the Bulgarian youth council faces the same attitude from the government in its everyday work, as the Ministry of Youth and Sports in Bulgaria excluded it from the planning, co-management and the evaluation process during the Presidency.

“Deaf people were included in the event but and no accessible and inclusive environment was provided to them for the whole time.”

“While the results were concluded till 3 am and the DGs from Estonia and Austria worked hard on them, the Ministry representatives were at the conference party, in a club with female go-go dancers. I could say that the Ministry is having a fancy way to promote our Youth Goal of gender equality.”

What the Bulgarian government says

EURACTIV contacted the Permanent Representation of Bulgaria to the EU for a comment on the issues that were raised.

Regarding the absence of young people in the panels, Spokesperson Elitsa Zlateva stressed that the European Youth Goals, which are the main outcome of the Conference were developed by 11 thematic working groups consisting of young people and representatives of the public authorities in charge of youth policy in EU, Western Balkan and Eastern Partnership countries.

“The President of the National Youth Forum of Bulgaria and the President of the European Youth Forum were actively participating in the entire process.”

“On the first day if the Conference a youth representative was included as speaker together with representatives of the European Commission, Ministry of Youth and Sports, UN in the high-level discussion panel.”

She also referred to a special format of the “Citizens’’ Dialogue” with the participation of the EU Commissioner for EYCS, the Minister of Youth and Sport of Bulgaria and the UNSG’s Special Envoy on Youth (aged 28).

Zlateva also played down the ticketing issues, explaining that there is no mandatory procedure to be followed. “Thus, to provide more flexibility to the youth delegates the Presidency decided to follow the model of reimbursement.”

‘Beyond strictly-EU format’

The Bulgarian Presidency has set up an “ambitious agenda” in the field of youth and decided to put a particular focus on cross-sectorial issues related to the European Youth Strategy priority “Youth and the World”, she said.

“In line with the UNSC Resolution 2250, one of the elements to be included in the draft Council Conclusions in the youth field will be linked to the role of youth in building a harmonious and peaceful society in Europe. With this objective in mind, the Youth Working Party in the Council of the EU established a unique cross-sectorial partnership with the UN Working Party of the Council and the initiative was highly welcomed.”

“The Presidency decided to further strengthen this approach by expanding the scope of the participation in the European Youth Conference thus providing an opportunity for further exchange and hopefully a source for inspiration beyond the strictly-EU format. Besides the UN, in the conference took part representatives of EURODESK, and of the Western Balkan and Eastern Partnership countries,” she concluded.

Young participants in the conference “suspect” that behind the UN focus there were personal motivations.

“The Structured Dialogue is a positive and powerful tool for young people to be co-shapers of policies at EU level. Even though it is far from perfect and needs reform, it’s unique in the world and inspiration and it must be protected from public officials trying to use it for personal gain undermining the efforts of an entire generation,” Alvarado commented.

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