A serious bit of a laugh
It is one of the disquieting ironies which besets society that while we are collectively besotted to the point of obsession with…
It is one of the disquieting ironies which besets society that while we are collectively besotted to the point of obsession with youth culture, we seem to find it rather difficult to take young people themselves very seriously.
Nobody likes a teenage know-all - just ask British Conservative leader William Hague. When the priggish 16-year-old Hague made his infamous address at a late 1970s Tory conference he was effectively hobbling his future parliamentary career. The image of the diminutive grammar-school boy, all Eton smirk and waxed side-parting, showering the cradle of middle England in smug right-wing platitudes, threatens to linger far longer in the public consciousness than any subsequent achievements. The European Youth Parliament offers a rebuttal of such narrow preconceptions at several levels. The EYP, which since its establishment 15 years ago has introduced a generation of school-goers to the Byzantine delights of legislative debate and will in November of next year hold an international conference in Ireland for the first time, knocks on the head the notion that teenagers are pathologically incapable of presenting rational political argument or of offering intelligent social commentary.
The success of the EYP - it is a panEuropean movement with active national associations in 27 countries - also disproves the suggestion that second-level students lack the maturity to take complex issues and distill, from their own ethical standpoint, reasoned arguments. And it is one in the eye for those who claim that teenagers are simply not interested in Europe.
That the project has proved itself to be such an unqualified success is testament to an insistence on the very highest standards. There is no mollycoddling, no matronly "dumbing down", here. Delegates are required to follow to the letter the house-rules and formal procedures of the European Parliament.
The EYP is more than simply a debating forum then: it is an accurate re-creation of the Brussels chamber - the only difference being the age of the speakers.
The 1999 Irish EYP national selection conference, staged recently at St Michael's College, Ballsbridge, Dublin, illustrated perfectly the widening appeal of the event. The three-day convention - during which delegates were required to draft and present parliamentary motions on specific live-wire topics such as refugees, the environment and monetary union - was lathered in an odd mixture of fresh-faced exuberance and stony earnestness, the atmosphere hovering diffidently between the bubblegum tingle of the school disco and the sobriety of academia.
The session, incorporating, for the first time ever, students from outside of Dublin alongside those from the capital, was the culmination of years of hard work for EYP organisers, led by national co-ordinator Mags Travers. The 130 or so delegates were chosen at separate selection conventions for Dublin and the rest of the country, ensuring a healthy mix of social backgrounds, opinions and - rather appropriately - an intriguing potpourri of accents.
Participants were divided into eight committees - for human rights, the environment, "the future" etc - and required to present "operative clauses" - parliament-speak for policy proposals - on a range of social issues. Full-blooded debate ensued, pinpricked by the occasional impromptu theatrical outbursts from the floor - Mexican Waves, spontaneous applause and dramatic flourishes from especially outgoing delegates.
In the words of one young parliamentarian, it was "a bit of a laugh".
The participants were monitored closely by a team of co-ordinators, themselves EYP veterans. Twenty delegates were selected to represent Ireland later this year at international conferences in Greece and France.
Motions passed at these conventions are often forwarded to the European Parliament proper for consideration. "We really push the kids. They are expected to meet very high standards when they compose resolutions," Travers says. "The standard really is astonishingly high. For example, a motion presented by an Irish delegate at an international session in Edinburgh several years ago - and rejected by that meeting - was later implemented by the European Parliament. Perhaps it was just a coincidence - perhaps not."
Now EYP Ireland is looking ahead to the November 2000 international session. More than 350 delegates will decamp to Dublin for the event. Dail Eireann and Dublin Castle have been pencilled in as venues, though proceedings are still at a planning stage.
"We've made great progress this year, with many schools outside of Dublin coming on board. Hopefully the arrival of an international conference here will further raise the profile of the European Youth Parliament," Travers says.