Thank you very much for the invitation to speak to you this morning at the opening of this 59th session of the European Youth Parliament. I am truly honoured to be here, amongst people who share a passion for politics and democratic change.
No-one active in politics is satisfied with the status quo: we all want to see change, although we would might disagree as to what needs to change and the policies necessary to achieve it.
Our passion may be fuelled by a burning sense of injustice: the treatment of young people by the police or children dying from hunger in a world where we can spend millions on weapons. We may have been moved to action when we have seen a relative poorly treated in hospital or put out of business due to cheap imports and no one has seemed able to respond to our anger or concern. Virtually everyone I know in politics has had something which has triggered them into action and made them stand up for their beliefs.
There are many people who will find such activity bizarre. I am sure you have friends who cannot understand why you are bothering; who will tell you that politics changes nothing and that all politicians are the same. They may also say some other, very uncomplimentary things!
They should meet some of those who I am privileged to meet in my work as a Member of the European Parliament, and particularly as a member of the sub-Committee on Human Rights. People who have been imprisoned and even tortured because they have dared to criticise their government or who have spoken out in defence of the rights of their people. Those who have no right to vote: those whose countries are in conflict and where elections are impossible or where can you can vote – but it had better be for the governing party or you will find your family threatened or without food.
People such as Ingrid Betancourt, abducted and held prisoner as a result of her political activities: Hu Jia, the Chinese environmental activist and campaigner on HIV/AIDS, currently serving a prison sentence and announced this week as the winner of the European Parliament’s Sakharov prize for Freedom of Conscience. There are countless others who desperately want to have the same political rights and freedoms we have – including the right to choose not to use their vote.
Political choices frame our lives and decide our futures. Politics matters.
We need to do more in our schools and elsewhere to demonstrate the importance of democracy. Students need to be able to practice democracy in action. For example, a school near my home in London has a scheme that involves a group of pupils in helping to raise educational standards and this includes some of them being involved in interviewing prospective staff. As a former teacher, I find this a little unnerving, but I am told it works well! We have some London Boroughs which have a Young Mayor – elected by young people and who acts as their voice. There are countless examples of good practice throughout the EU.
We cannot expect young people to emerge from education as active citizens if they have no understanding or experience of what participation means. But the practice of democracy and acquiring the necessary skills needs resources, such as time, energy and money. You have at least some of them here.
You are meeting at a time of major political challenges:
– the financial crisis likely to affect businesses, jobs and tax revenues and the potential social consequences arising from that;
– the crisis of climate change, where we need rapid and effective action to reduce the threats to food production, major movements of peoples and conflict over resources such as water. If I could add a personal plea for a strong resolution from you on this which could send a strong message to the European Parliament and the Council, I would be very grateful;
– the need to meet our Millennium Development Goals and deliver greater equality in the world.
I look forward to your conclusions and can promise you they will be seriously considered. I noticed that a recent Parliamentary resolution on the financing of pensions has included the need for the financial education of young people – part of an EYP Resolution from your Liverpool session. We need to think about how to better develop these links.
We need people seriously interested in politics and in working for democratic solutions which respect human rights. Think of the political systems and outcomes where that is not the case. Your time is not wasted here: you are exercising a very precious right – the right to political action. Make the most of it!
Find out more about the European Youth Parliament and how to get involved.