"I was born in Scotland 25 years ago, so I'm really a Scotsman," Reinhard Schwalbach announced to around 60 participants at the Eurodesk Summit in Brussels on March 26. Of course, he was referring not to himself but to the youth advice and information network of which he is President. Eurodesk has been offering young people advice and information about mobility opportunities abroad for 25 years – with increasing success and to great acclaim.
Pleasure, but also business
However, the Summit was not just about celebrating. A Eurodesk Summit is first and foremost a working meeting that has to examine the changing challenges. These include the obstacles to cross-border learning experiences, as described by Marianna Georgallis from the European Youth Forum, the platform for European youth associations. Georgallis defined youth mobility as the right and freedom to cross borders. This right, she said, should apply not just within the EU but also to young people who want to come to Europe on youth exchanges, for work experience or as au-pairs. But it is here that problems arise: lengthy waiting times, high fees, excessive bureaucracy and incomprehensible rejections from visa authorities. The European Youth Forum had entered into talks with the European Commission and European Parliament on this, but lately the dialogue has begun to stagnate.
One of Eurodesk's tasks is to link up with youth work activities on the ground – an area of work that is structured in very different ways in Europe. Koen Lambert reported on the search for a common European understanding of youth work. His European Youth Work Convention Steering Group is preparing a European Youth Work Convention which will result in a declaration on the common European understanding of youth work.
Henric Sternquist and Pascale Woodruff from the European Commission's Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Integration provided input on youth information and employability. The DROP’PIN portal, which they developed themselves, offers the first overview of projects aimed at improving young people's employability and brings users together in an online community.
New challenges in the wake of the Paris and Copenhagen terror attacks
Antonio Silva Mendes is the designated Director of the Youth and Sports Department of the European Commission's Directorate-General for Education and Culture. The fact that Mendes took so much time for the Eurodesk staff shows just how important Eurodesk is. "I congratulate you on 25 years of outstanding achievements and on the effective network you have built," praised Mendes. However, he stressed the importance of looking ahead rather than backwards. "We face new challenges today. We see young people dropping out of school, we see young people alienating themselves from society. How can we reach them? We have to take a broader view, cooperate with sports clubs and schools, develop cross-sectoral projects." Mendes' comments also highlighted a thematic shift. "So far our focus has been on young people’s employability. After the terrible events of Paris and Copenhagen, however, we also have to think about how we can prevent radicalisation and promote inclusion. In the long run, this will also promote employability. This is the challenge and this is why we need to reach more young people than ever before," he urged.
Graeme Robertson was able to provide information on the current reach of the European Youth Portal. An impressive 114,000 “likes” have been recorded on Facebook and the portal itself is developing successfully - the number of users far exceeds pre-relaunch figures.
A life’s work
But the Summit did eventually take on a celebratory note. Sparkling wine was served and President Reinhard Schwalbach delivered a speech. "We have grown from a small seedling into a major network. A project has developed into an organisation," he said. He then introduced two people who have played a pivotal role in the organisation's development: Bob Payne and Alekos Tsolakis.
Tsolakis has supported Eurodesk on behalf of the European Commission from the very beginning. "What does Eurodesk mean to me? Perhaps that for the first time I have really felt like a European. My boss told me to take a look at this project in Scotland. He said they were doing some interesting things there with youth information. So I took a look. And Bob impressed me, and that had nothing to do with the good whisky! We have represented the organisation together ever since, and it hasn't always been easy. But the good ideas don't always come from London, Paris or Berlin. They sometimes come from the European regions – for example from Scotland – and they're useful for everyone in Europe."
Bob Payne, founder and first director of Eurodesk, continued. "We did something very simple. In Scotland, all youth workers are qualified to provide youth information. So anyone who’s in youth work is also involved in youth information. And we always believed that it's not important what other people think young people need. What matters is what young people themselves think they need. That was the underlying idea," he said.
"And this developed into what I would call a life’s work," added Reinhard Schwalbach, turning towards Payne. "I think that’s fair to say, Bob." For a short moment, the room fell silent – in recognition of someone who has made a difference to young people and to Europe.