Ever since the European Union was established, it was followed by heavy presence of youth participation and engagement within its everyday affairs in several aspects of political life. As the integration process has been improving and progressing, youth participation have also arisen and became comprehensive within the EU agenda. As from the bottom-up approach, several various initiatives have been consistent with quite long tradition. The only pan-European federalist youth organisation is JEF Europe, based in Brussels. With 13.000 members, dispatched into 30 national sections, JEF has held its Congress, a biannual event which gathered representatives from all over the Europe. Our member of editorial team Nenad Stekić (who himself participated within the event), has interviewed JEF Europe Secretary General – Valentin Dupouey Sterdyniak, about the perspectives of JEF Europe, federalism and rising populism across Europe.
NEU: JEF Europe has arisen into a respectable youth organization. What differentiates it from other supranational NGOs in Europe nowadays?
JEF Europe: JEF is unique in many ways! First of all, it has a long history. While the umbrella organisation JEF Europe was founded in 1972, its sections have been operating continuously since the end of the Second World War, making it the oldest pro-European and only Federalist youth organisation. Apart from its history, JEF Europe has two unique features: As a political non-partisan youth organisation, it uniquely manages to engage individuals and organisation to debate about European issues. Our members are politically engaged all across the political spectrum and we are very proud of the fact that we can make them debate and even often agree on important European political issues.
Our second feature is the balance we have found in our activities between political work and grassroots work. JEF Europe keeps ideas alive for the future of Europe, develops new ones, and at the same time develops projects, actions, campaigns to translate these ideas into reality. Very concretely it means that we develop political thoughts through resolutions, and we advocate for them, but we also organise trainings, street actions, educational activities, etc.
NEU: JEF Europe is being actively engaged into European everyday affairs and politics, but it also gathers many young people all across Europe. How would you describe youth participation and influence (if any) within the EU institutions decision-making policy?
JEF Europe: This is a very broad question which calls for different reflections. At the European level, youth participation in European decision-making process is encouraged through a mechanism called the « Structured Dialogue in the Field of Youth », or Structured Dialogue for short. Through 18 months cycles, the EU is consulting young people on different topics and produces recommendations agreed between institutions and youth organized civil society. However, while this is a very welcome and unique mechanism, it reaches out mostly to organised youth through civil society. Some stronger efforts must be made to include all young people in the process. Youth organisations, under the leadership of the European Youth Forum (of which JEF Europe is a member), are not only engaged to make this process more inclusive, but they are also leading advocacy campaigns ensure that the recommendations produced by the Structured Dialogue are being implemented by Member States.
Youth organisations are also fighting to ensure young people are considered in a cross-sectoral perspective. Youth policies cannot remain in a silo: employment, health, participation, housing, education are all closely related to youth issues.
Some other mechanisms are allowing for greater youth participation at the European level. The Advisory Council on Youth of the Council of Europe for example is a unique co-management body that allows young people to directly shape decisions and policies of the Council of Europe. The EU could seek inspiration there.
Finally I want to point out that democracy and participation is chain that goes from the local to the EU-level. To ensure meaningful participation at the EU level we must ensure that the lower rings of the chain, at the local and national level are strengthened as well. Youth participation must start at the local level, through innovative and experimentation-oriented civic education.
NEU: Beside federalism as a central idea(l) in according to which JEF Europe operates and is being active, what values would you stress as the most significant ones? What could possibly jeopardize them?
JEF Europe: JEF Europe organises all its actions and projects around a set of core values. The closest ones to Federalism are democracy, peace and the rule of law. We believe that federalism is the most effective form of democracy and that it opposes authoritarian regimes more than anything else. This also explains why we have been very active regarding the situation in Hungary and Macedonia for example.
Following these core principles we also believe in the role of civil society, civil dialogue and youth participation. We believe in the importance of strong mechanisms to allow civil society, as a channel between citizens and institutions, to express its views and influence decision making processes. Finally, and perhaps very obviously, we believe in the intercultural dimension of life and volunteering. We promote intercultural understanding and meaningful interaction between citizens from every background and different cultures. We believe that volunteer-based youth organisations, such as JEF Europe but not only, are crucial to creating a European identity that comes as a complement to other identities.
NEU: European Congress, a JEF Europe’s biannual statutory meeting was held in Malta from 10 – 12 November, and JEF Europe with 13.000 members, got its new leadership. What do you consider as its biggest challenges in the next two-year mandate?
JEF Europe: The challenges of JEF Europe are closely linked to the challenges Europe is facing. With the upcoming European Elections in 2019, JEF Europe’s challenge will be not only to ensure a high voters turnout (especially among young voters) but also to ensure voters are casting their votes for candidates who are supporting ideals and values we believe in. For this we need to be able to communicate our project to all candidates but also to create a positive narrative around it. We need to mobilise all our resources, our sections, our innovation power to reach out to all citizens.
JEF is also facing constant internal challenges: we are seeing a constant growth at the European level in our membership but this is not taking into account the very diverse and heterogeneous reality of our members. JEF Europe must be able to support the growth and development of sections composed of several thousands of members but also of sections made of a few individuals, with very diverse resources, expectations, experience. One of the solutions our Congress unanimously voted in favour for a solidarity travel fund that will allow smaller sections to fully participate in the internal democratic life of our network. We are also offering more and more capacity building events in order to develop skills of our members and allow them to exchange good practices.
NEU: How do you perceive rising wave of populism and nationalism across our continent? Do you consider rather as a threat or an opportunity to further demonstrate European values in combating Euroscepticism?
JEF Europe: Once again, it is not easy to give a short answer. After the shockwave of 2016, following Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in the US, we were all fearing to see these populist and nationalistic movements gaining even more ground in 2017. Even though different elections in 2017 have given us more hope, we cannot rely on a certain form of naive optimism.
Populism, nationalism, self-proclaimed illiberal democracies, and regimes with authoritarian tendencies are the furthest away from our own believes and values, and as such our biggest opponents and a threat to our vision. The threat doesn’t only come from their own political goals but also from the methods these movements are using: propaganda, misinformation, attacks on civil society. Fighting these methods is a constant challenge as it means that we have to question our own actions and how we communicate to citizens.
But paradoxically, having an identified opponent is also an opportunity for all pro-European movements. The solutions these movements are offering are obviously not working, and the more they are exposed, the more we can argue rationally against them.
NEU: As a youth inclusive organization, JEF Europe along with its national sections is attracting many young people. What would you underline as the strongest arguments for
being/becoming a federalist in modern Europe?
JEF Europe: Federalism is the exciting democratic project that would bring the highest form of democracy and citizens engagement all across the continent to achieve a more tolerant, united and integrated Europe. This should be sufficiently attractive as an idea for people to join in.
But, I would even change the question: «why becoming a federalist youth activist?»
It’s is probably the most exciting period to be engaged in our movement. We left Brexit behind us, new strong leaders are speaking out federalists messages, the European Elections are upcoming in 2019 and it is time to shape the post-2020 Europe. All the ingredients are gathered to put up an exciting federalist battle through new projects, youth exchanges, campaigns, debate, street actions. And mostly, it’s fun! Joining JEF Europe means exchanging ideas and projects with like-minded, open young people from all over Europe, it means travelling, it means developing your skills for a cause you believe in. This is what we call the #JEFspirit!