Council of Europe budget cuts for youth are a threat to a more democratic and peaceful Europe

, by Valentin Dupouey

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Council of Europe budget cuts for youth are a threat to a more democratic and peaceful Europe

The Council of Europe is currently celebrating its 70th anniversary. 70 years to promote democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Europe. But as the youth sector faces severe budget cuts at the Council of Europe, not everyone is joining the joyous party.

The international organisation (not be confused with the Council of the European Union nor with the European Council) is well-known for its European Court of Human Rights. Less known are its activities to achieve its key goals through a strong youth civil society and the advancement of youth rights.

Since 1972, the year when the youth department of the Council of Europe was established, the organisation has been at the forefront of innovative youth policies, instruments and participation mechanisms. The planned budget cuts are problematic for youth organisations in Europe, for young activists and more widely for peace and democracy in Europe. Hopefully, mobilisation of young people can prevent this outcome.

Youth activities of the Council of Europe

In the dynamic bubble of European youth organisations, concepts like the “Advisory Council on Youth” (AC) and the “European Youth Foundation” (EYF) are an integral part of daily life. The former is a world-unique decision-making mechanism that has embodied the forward-looking nature of the Council of Europe’s approach to youth participation since its establishment: through the AC, young people are involved on an equal footing with decision-makers from the different member states in the shaping and implementation of all activities of the youth sector.

This assembly of 30 young people representing the diversity of youth civil society in Europe is elected every two years. [1] It meets twice a year with representatives of the 47 Member States and three additional states that signed the European Cultural Convention to decide, on an equal footing and in consensus, on the youth sector’s priorities, programmes and budget. This is youth participation at its highest level and a democratic process in one of its most advanced forms.

In particular, the AC, along with member state representatives, steers the work of the European Youth Foundation. The EYF is an instrumental financing body for youth organisations and youth projects all over Europe. Its annual budget of almost four million euros allows youth organisations to organise international youth meetings, trainings, campaigns and seminars. It offers both operating grants, allowing youth organisations to function, and project grants, allowing youth organisations to organise shorter-term projects.

The projects the EYF supports are not only impacting young people, allowing them to develop skills for democratic participation and intercultural understanding through non-formal education, but it is also directly advancing the greater goals of the Council of Europe by strengthening an independent and well-functioning youth civil society. [2]

These are the two best-known elements of the youth sector of the Council of Europe but not the only ones. Hold your breath. The European Youth Centers in Strasbourg and Budapest, Euro-Arab youth cooperation, the No Hate Speech Campaign, a myriad of non-binding resolutions and recommendations for the advancement of youth rights and youth work, a unique cooperation platform with the European Commission in the field of youth, a platform to allow cooperation between researchers, decision-makers and practitioners in the field of youth, MOOCs [3], manuals and handbooks for practitioners in the field of youth, large-scale conferences, an online magazine, support to national youth policies, research work, etc. The list of past achievements and current activities of the youth sector of the Council of Europe is pretty much endless.

But it may soon be a thing of the past.

Council of Europe’s budget difficulties

The budget of large institutions and organisations can be complex. Let’s try to keep it simple. Those familiar with the intricacies of the functioning of the Council of Europe are aware of the ‘zero nominal growth’ budget policy that has been set in place by the member states in 2014. In simple terms, it means that the budget is not growing at all year after year.

To add more terms to the equation, in 2018, Turkey has decided to renounce the status of major contributor to the budget, leaving a €20 million gap. To make the situation even more dire, since 2017 Russia has decided to freeze its contribution to the Council of Europe. It did so after losing its voting rights in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe due to the conflict in Ukraine. This decision left an even bigger budget gap of over 22 million euros. All in all, this means that the CoE has to save around 14% of its annual budget.

The Secretary General of the Council of Europe has recently devised a contingency plan to cope with this budget crisis. The plan foresees cuts of 6–30% in all sectors of the Council of Europe. Except for youth. The plan simply “proposes to end the financing of the Organisation’s youth sector activities from the Ordinary Budget as of 1 January 2021 and to set up a new enlarged partial agreement on Youth.”

Partial agreements are voluntary associations through financial contribution of states for a specific set of activities. Each Member State of the Council of Europe could then decide to join, or not, and therefore to contribute financially, or not, to the partial agreement on youth. Given the Member States’ general level of generosity regarding the financing of youth activities, this gives bleak prospects for the future of the Council of Europe’s youth sector.

Due to the specificities of the Council of Europe’s finances, the budget of the European Youth Foundation is not directly threatened at the moment. However, unravelling its governance structures is equally dangerous.

Safeguarding the youth budget

From its very own way of functioning to the impact at the grassroots level of the project it finances, the Council of Europe’s Youth Sector has constantly proven it is advancing the greater goals of the Council of Europe.

In a time of shaking democracies in Europe, when young people are turning their backs to traditional forms of participation, when nationalist populism threatens the very foundations of a Europe of peace, democracy and the rule of law, it is unthinkable to even consider making young people less of a priority.

More than ever we need what the Council of Europe has been able to offer young people: opportunities to equip young people with skills for democratic participation, for peace and intercultural understanding. More than ever we need what the Council of Europe has offered Member States: a guiding voice for youth policies oriented towards youth rights, youth work, youth participation and youth autonomy.

What can be done now? No decisions have been taken yet as the contingency plan remains a draft. Even more so, in these next few days, young people and youth organisations should contact their representations to the Council of Europe, their youth and education ministries, and their foreign affairs ministries, who have the final say in the matter. Young people should remind them that youth and youth civil society matter more than ever in the safeguarding and development of strong democracies in a peaceful Europe.

Youth civil society has initiated online mobilisation. Its message is clear, and often carried in a humorous way. The Council of Europe cannot take such a huge step back by cutting youth funding!

JEF-Europe has received funding from the Council of Europe’s European Youth Foundation every year since 2014. This funding allowed to organise, among others, 20 seminars training about 650 young activists, indirectly involving 3,000 young people. Each of these seminars involved young people from 15 to 20 nationalities.

Footnotes

[120 members are elected by the European Youth Forum’s General Assembly and 10 members are nominated by the Council of Europe’s Secretary General.

[2JEF-Europe is a regular beneficiary of the European Youth Foundation’s funding through operating grant and through project funding. In particular, this funding has allowed JEF-Europe to organise its cycle of seminars and campaigns for several years.

[3Massive Online Open Course.

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