Floor Van Houdt and Antje Rothemund reflect on the partnership
By Howard Williamson
Floor Van Houdt is Head of the Youth Unit within the European Commission. Antje Rothemund is Head of the Youth Department in the Council of Europe. They spoke recently with our co-editor Howard Williamson.
HW: Thank you to both of you for agreeing to consider a few questions. These are intended to provide both an institutional perspective and a slightly more personal view from the current heads of the youth sections of each of the institutional partners that first established and continue to sustain the youth partnership.
HW: The partnership is about to celebrate its twentieth anniversary. Are you surprised at its longevity?
FVH: In the spirit of evidence-based opinion-shaping, the question whether the two decades reached by the two partnership institutions should be a surprise, must be one for evaluators – or even historians – to resolve.
However, from a more personal perspective, I can assert that it has been interesting to observe how this co-operation has persisted up to this day, witnessing the coming and going of various renewals and different generations of programmes and policy strategies on the side of both the European Commission and the Council of Europe.
Based on its long years of experience, the co-operation has now reached a certain maturity around the nature and scope of our co-operation, as currently practised through the partnership. It creates new perspectives for the years to come.
AR: Yes and no. I was already working for the Council of Europe when the first then-called “Covenant on youth worker training” between the two institutions was negotiated in the mid-1990s. There was a long and laborious debate on the very principle of a co-operation agreement such as the one proposed: do the two institutions have the same objectives regarding youth? Will the Council of Europe’s human rights values and co-management principles be respected (that question was particularly important to the Council of Europe)? Will it be a David-and-Goliath partnership in terms of financial capacities? What will be the added value of a formalised co-operation agreement in a rather non-formal youth sector? It was a hefty debate and during the initial pilot phases, co-operation was closely, even suspiciously, supervised from all sides. However, the first series of model training courses was evaluated positively and that led to the first multiyear five-year covenant.
So, yes, I am positively surprised by the longevity, as two decades ago it was a daring and avant-garde project and the political process leading to the first covenant was complex. And, no, I am not surprised as, once it had finally taken off, there was little doubt that this co-operation was going to be very relevant and important.
HW: The framework of activity of the partnership has evolved over time, and its key work priorities have changed. Can you help readers to understand how that has happened? What are the reasons behind the contemporary framework of priorities within its work plan?
FVH: In 2013 the work of the partnership was evaluated. The evaluators asked both partner institutions to seek greater focus to reach clearer outcomes in a cost-effective way. Based on this, our current co-operation is built around two specific and two horizontal objectives.
The two specific objectives are “Better knowledge” and “Promotion of youth work”. Under “Better knowledge” the partnership has a think-tank function aimed at establishing a clear picture of current and upcoming challenges and trends, based on various sources of evidence, including work by researchers in the Pool of European Youth Researchers (PEYR) network and dedicated events and papers. The partnership also has a clearinghouse function: collecting, validating and sharing the best knowledge available. Then there is the “Promotion of youth work”. This involves advocacy regarding the contribution of youth work to important activities for young people, such as civic participation and social inclusion, and attention to quality youth work and skills.
The two horizontal objectives are “Co-operation with a regional focus” and “Communication and information”. The regional focus is closely linked to the Council of Europe’s bigger geographic catchment area. It is without question that peer learning and capacity-building with our close neighbours and partners is precious. In this spirit, our current co-operation focuses on Eastern Europe and Caucasus, Western Balkans and Southern Mediterranean regions. Under “Communication and information” we disseminate the results of activities among a wider audience.
So each partner institution brings in its particular strengths. In the case of the EU, our half of the funding comes from the Erasmus+ programme. Erasmus+ funds many different projects in the fields of education, culture, youth and sport.
AR: I believe it is important to recall the historical context here. Institutionalised co-operation between the then European Community of 12 member states and the Council of Europe of then 25+ countries already existed before the partnership as we know it today. In particular in the 1990s – when fundamental changes were taking place in Europe – there was a lot of ad hoc co-operation, not least on activities in the emerging democracies as both institutions were working towards enlargement.
The Council of Europe’s youth sector was established in the 1960s; the European Youth Centre in Strasbourg, the European Youth Foundation and the co-decision-making structures – bringing together governmental and youth representatives – started in 1972. The European Union’s Erasmus programme was founded in 1987 and it became clear very quickly that international exchanges should also embrace “out-of-school education”, thus in 1988, the Commission started its first youth exchange programme Youth for Europe. The seasoned multilateral experience and know-how of the Council of Europe’s youth sector was an important reference for this new venture of the European Commission. The Council of Europe’s expertise and experience was also recognised, later on, when the larger Youth in Action Programme on European co-operation in the youth field was launched: its Article 7 stressed that “the Programme shall also be open to co-operation with international organisations with authority in the field of youth, in particular the Council of Europe”.
The reasons for the partnership’s priorities are to be found in the intersection of the two institutions’ priorities in the field of youth. Of course the focus has been redefined regularly over the past two decades in order to effectively address young people’s needs and realities, as well as the challenges they face. Presently, we are defining the work plan for 2019 looking towards the Council of Europe’s Youth Agenda 2030 and the future EU Youth Strategy. The partnership aims to strengthen fields that are of interest to both institutions and also their governmental and non-governmental partners. Youth participation, democratic citizenship, social inclusion and young people’s access to rights as well as youth work are presently defined as key areas where the co-operation between the institutions can bring added value to the youth sector in Europe.
HW: What, in your view, have been the most significant achievements of the partnership?
FVH: Let me pick two recent achievements that illustrate how our co-operation can help open new doors. In the summer of 2018 the 20th anniversary of the partnership was marked, in Tallinn, by a conference focusing on digitalisation. I think that was a welcome decision. Whilst digital tools are omnipresent today, they still do not comfortably fit youth work practices. This may lead to challenges, or opportunities left untouched. Then there is the Structured Dialogue in the EU. The recent addition of researchers has helped raise the quality of consultations and reporting, and these researchers have been drawn from the pool that is facilitated by the partnership.
AR: The partnership has great merits as a think tank for youth issues and in the creation and nurturing of a dynamic process of dialogue between youth research and youth work practice. The resulting documented and shared knowledge provides support and orientation not only to youth work practitioners and the academic community but moreover to those active in developing and implementing state-of-the-art 21st century, participative youth policy. More concretely, PEYR and the European Knowledge Centre for Youth Policy (ECKYP), the capacity-building activities, the publications, research papers and training kits, the symposia and seminars and not least COYOTE – all instruments created within the partnership – are results of this dynamic process of mutual learning and enrichment, communication, exchange of good practice and knowledge production.
HW: What has been the partnership’s essential value to a) the youth sector in Europe and b) the institution you represent?
FVH: Even if there are two European institutions actively supporting young people and their representatives and enablers, each in their respective sphere of competence, there is only one “youth sector”. We work with the same stakeholders. It is our duty to ensure consistency and avoid duplication and overlap. Our co-operation can help everyone, stakeholders and institutions alike, to act in synergy and share what can be shared.
AR: The first part of your question would be best answered by the beneficiaries of the partnership, as different shareholders will give you different answers depending on where they are and what they need from the youth sector. I predict the diversity of answers would prove that the partnership offers a unique space for mutual exchange and communication for the community of youth work practice and youth research, as well as governmental and non-governmental partners. The partnership gives access to 50 European countries: 47 member states of the Council of Europe – which include the 28 member states of the European Union – and three signatory states to the European Cultural Convention. Some of the partnership’s activities also reach neighbouring countries in the Mediterranean. There is no other space where the expertise on youth of such a variety of shareholders is pooled and disseminated in an inter-institutional context.
From the Youth Department’s point of view, the partnership has certainly strengthened and boosted the co-operation between the Council of Europe and the European Commission on themes relevant to young people in the greater Europe. As banal as it might sound, sustainable and results-based inter-organisational operational co-operation is a major achievement and should not, indeed cannot be taken for granted. The longevity of the partnership is living proof of the political will, but also the institutional support to combine our resources and experience in favour of young people.
HW: Looking ahead, do you see any need for strengthening the co-operation on youth with the other partner institution? How do you envisage the partnership contributing in the future to your institutional agenda for young people?
FVH: We are looking forward to continuing our co-operation. There will always be issues that can be improved, and it is good to remain critical and regularly question if what we are doing is still on the right track. Our institutions are in regular contact and this usually leads to fruitful discussions.
It may also be good to mention that for the next Erasmus+ programme (2021-27), the Commission has proposed under Article 10, a legal base for “policy dialogue and cooperation with relevant key stakeholders, including Union-wide networks, European non-governmental organisations, and international organisations in the field of youth, the EU Youth dialogue as well as support to the European Youth Forum”. This shows that co-operation activities are part of a wider, more strategic vision of the value of our co-operation so far.
AR: Multilateralism as a concept to ensure peace and democratic security is in crisis. Young people and also the youth sector are affected by nationalist and populist tendencies, by legislation that limits the space for civil society, by the growing social divide and precariousness, and by unclear perspectives for life projects. These are just a few of the challenges that young people are facing today. These challenges cannot be tackled in isolation, they are inseparable from international developments. Multilateral co-operation is needed if effective responses are to be found. The same is true if we wish to offer opportunities for young people, opportunities to learn, to travel, to engage with European values and to actively participate in society: it will be thanks to multilateral co-operation that these opportunities will be opened up.
Government policies must support young people to realise their full potential, to enable them to develop life plans and exercise their rights. European institutions can and should assist member states in the development and implementation of youth policies as part of good governance – strong inter-institutional co-operation is indispensable in this respect.
With regard to the future contribution of the partnership, youth engagement and dis-engagement will certainly be an important subject for the Council of Europe. What motivates young people to participate? What hinders their participation? Which structures foster participation? With its blend of empirical and evidence-based research and its networks, the youth partnership is ideally placed and can draw on the Council of Europe’s experience in good governance and co-management as well as on the practical examples of the EU Youth Dialogue.
The training and education of youth workers is another important priority for the Council of Europe – the Committee of Minister’s Recommendation CM/Rec(2017)4 on youth work is an important step forward in this respect. The partnership has already contributed to its implementation with a Europe-wide mapping exercise; the result shows huge differences in the existing (or non-existent) youth work and qualification provisions in member states.
A seminar on educational paths for youth workers to be hosted by the Finnish Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in Helsinki in February 2019 will be an important event to advocate for better provisions for youth workers’ training.
The 3rd European Youth Work Convention will be held in Germany in 2020 when Germany simultaneously holds the EU Presidency and the Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. This event will be another milestone in moving the youth work agenda forward.
On a more practical level, we should be aware that more and more players, also commercial agencies, are moving into the European youth sector as more funds are made available, in particular through the Erasmus+ programme. Competition sometimes dominates co-operation, which can be in contradiction to the values youth work wishes to convey. In my opinion, the partnership may have to contribute even more than now to the quality development and quality assurance of youth work on the European level so that the achievements of the sector are not diluted and proven methodological and educational concepts are not watered down or used irresponsibly. For example, we know for sure that intercultural learning does not happen automatically simply by travelling or meeting people of different backgrounds. Intercultural encounters which are not responsibly facilitated might even reinforce stereotypes and prejudices they intend to question.
The partnership and PEYR might be needed to assist the community of practice to deal with the ever-increasing demands to measure and assess the impact of youth activities – both institutions would benefit from this.
HW: On a slightly more personal level, what are your most meaningful or striking memories and moments in relation to the partnership?
FVH: Our institutional cultures vary, we do things differently. However, over the years, I have come to appreciate our strong common interests and our efforts to always seek common ground.
AR: I think I can honestly say that it is impossible to answer that question! The past 20 years have been full of meaningful moments and I have so many striking memories, I couldn’t possibly single out a few. What I can say, though, is that on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary, there are some people whom I would really like to thank: first of all, my heartfelt thanks go to those visionaries who foresaw the added value of institutional co-operation in the youth field and were brave enough to argue for it despite solid opposition; and of course to those who have made the partnership relevant over the past two decades and those who still do so today.
HW: And finally, as a kind of “parting glass”, do you have any particular wishes for the partnership?
FVH: I hope that our co-operation will be a long and fruitful experience that embodies the common interest of both the EU and the Council of Europe to put youth participation, civic engagement and democracy to the fore. This agenda is relevant and our joint efforts on promoting European values are precious.
AR: That is a far easier question to answer! Yes! I hope the partnership will continue to build bridges and break down borders within and beyond the youth sector in Europe. I hope it will continue to remind us all why we need youth policy, why we need youth work, and why we need youth research.
HW: Thank you both very much for your incisive and illuminating remarks!
 30.5.2018, COM(2018) 367.