As the EST celebrates its 10-year anniversary we would like to take the opportunity to reflect on the last decade and formulate our ambitions for the next.
This year, the European Student Think Tank celebrates its 10th anniversary. In the decade since its foundation, it has brought together thousands of young people from all across the continent and beyond.
On the one hand, the EST has engaged young people in debates and discussions, conferences and visits of institutions. It has placed students at center stage in all of these events which has allowed them to connect, exchange ideas, share thoughts on the future of Europe and expand their horizons. Moreover, the EST has offered a platform for articles on the most urgent topics of our time, published on our website or in our annual European Policy Review.
On the other hand, the EST has seen ten generations of committed students working within the organisation to make it tick. Driven by the ideal of working towards a Europe of solidarity and openness, they devoted themselves to the EST, many of them without ever being known to our readers and followers. They are our editors, our Working Group members, our Ambassadors, and our Board members. If it were not for their commitment to our cause, the EST would not be.
In joining hands with students from all corners of the continent, we have learnt to appreciate our differences and revealed other boundaries to be fictitious. This work toward making young people’s voices heard has allowed us to hone our skills and has given us a shared sense of purpose. The current generation of the EST family stands on the shoulders of all the generations that came before it. We thank them for their invaluable work — everything we are building today stands on the foundation they have laid.
The EST of today is a different organisation from the one founded a decade ago. We have done our best to implement changes in our organisation that we would like to see in Europe’s political systems in the future. For this reason, the EST is dedicated to gender equality and diversity within our teams. Our Ambassadors come from all over the EU, as well as other European countries beyond this political border. Furthermore, our staffers have more diverse academic backgrounds, broadening the scope of our endeavours. These changes notwithstanding, generation after generation of students dedicating their time to the EST has carried on its mission: to bridge the gap between centers of power and young people.
The EST’s raison d’être has not lost any of its relevance: While the awareness of why youth participation in politics is important has certainly risen, our generation still faces some considerable roadblocks toward full and meaningful participation.
These obstacles include all forms of tokenism, i.e. measures that involve young people, but only to inform, placate or consult them at late stages of the policy-making process. By contrast, meaningful participation ensures that young people have a seat at the table during all stages — from the drafting and amending of policies to their implementation and eventual evaluation.
Another obstacle is the persistent narrative of young people being apathetic about politics. The myth of apathy completely disregards the structural elements inherent in our political systems that exclude young people. Instead, this narrative emphasises intrinsic traits of young people such as their mentality as the main reason for the lack of participation. In fact, young people tend to be more idealistic than older generations. We are ambitious about the changes we want to see in the world and want to be instrumental in bringing these transformations about.
Furthermore, young people are still undervalued as meaningful contributors to the political process. Most organisational cultures are hierarchical in nature and operate on the principle of seniority: The older you are, the more power and responsibility you are given. This principle is perfectly reasonable because ideally, having a lot of experience will enable you to make better judgments. However, this organisational tradition must not mean that people without the same wealth of experience cannot contribute meaningfully. Young leaders and activists all across the world are defying this traditional order and demonstrate that our generation has lots of energy, vision and valuable new perspectives to offer.
Youth participation is first and foremost a matter of intergenerational justice. We are the generation that will be affected the longest by the political decision made today. This is particularly true when it comes to climate and social policy. Young people need to be treated as key stakeholders, not merely policy recipients. Secondly, youth participation is a matter of good policy-making. Policies are most effective when they consider the interests of all societal stakeholders and the plethora of experiences and perspectives they can offer. Thus, the changes we need must ensure that young people of all socio-economic backgrounds can make their voices heard. In order to broaden the access to decision-making processes, these socio-economic differences need to be accounted for as they remain the main determinant of who does and does not participate.
While alliances with prudent seniors recognising this generation’s potential are crucial, we cannot rely on the goodwill of policy-makers offering our generation only occasional or sporadic opportunities to participate. Youth participation and representation need to be enshrined in our institutions. Our governing bodies ought to reflect what our society looks like.
With regard to the decade ahead, the EST will remain committed to empowering young people as stakeholders in the political process and as leaders of change. The EST’s bodies and projects will continue to promote youth-led discussion and research. We will seek to reach, involve and enable even more young people of various different national, socio-economic and academic backgrounds in the years to come. We are thankful for the talent, dedication, and ambition that has graced the EST in the last ten years – they allow us to look to the decade ahead with lots of optimism. There is a lot to be done still. We would be delighted if you decided to join our efforts.
Stefan Pfalzer serves as President of the European Student Think Tank 2019-2020.