“Young people can do something. Their voices are to be heard” – Interview with YEL’s Tillmann Heidelk

Tillmann Heidelk, Young European Leadership’s co-Founder and President, regards his taste for Europe as a conviction: he is a strong believer of the European project and what young people could offer Europe. He has an academic background in philosophy and economics, having studied in Germany, Spain and Denmark, and is now taking his PhD in Economics in Brussels. His YEL team is spread all around the world, effectively working in different time zones, 24/7 – in short: a different way of working.

What was the inspiration behind the organisation, Young European Leadership? And the Young European Council?

When we came together as a group of young people, we had the feeling that young people are very interested in regional, national and global politics, but the decisions that were made on behalf of us were often influenced by others. We do not necessarily have a strong say on what is actually happening. And we thought we should change that.

We should speak out, not only when we are of older age, but now. So we thought about how we were going to do that. Based on this conviction that young people should have their voices be heard, we came together.

Young people should have the option to shape not only their future, but also Europe’s because Europe is our home. Young people should take the lead, take leadership for and in Europe, and beyond. The question of the how is that, based on the fact that young people should have a strong say, we see that there are several means of engagement. For example, with political Parties, it is very difficult for young people sometimes to embrace the entire width of their political and societal values. It is difficult and they have to sometimes accept the Party’s positions they do not really agree with.

We thought to find a more innovative way of engagement and provide direct opportunities for young people to meet decision-makers and experts, and to really speak up and make their concerns and recommendations heard. We do not push our own agenda. When we have a delegate or a participant, for example with the Young European Council (YEC), they say what they want to say, what they are thinking. So, coming from this position of providing direct opportunities, the YEC really follows this direction.

As the name suggests, YEC is inspired by the Council of the European Union and the European Council. Young people all over Europe come together in Brussels and negotiate on topical issues, on a very realistic setting with very innovative content. It is based upon young people’s ideas and approaches, giving them the opportunity to speak up among themselves and policy makers. We had guests from the Committee of the Regions, the European Commission, as well as from businesses, organisations and civil society: a broad and wide variety of people to connect with. And it is not a one-sided conversation where the guests just speak and leave. During the closing ceremony, we have this conversation, this dialogue. For example, when our chairs presented the outcomes, there was this dialogue and this exchange between the speakers and the delegates.

We have a lot to learn from politicians and experts, but they too have a lot to learn from us as because they might be disconnected from young people and their needs, and as the young generation, we have a more innovative approach to problems, hence new solutions. We can inspire their decisions and their thinking. And that is really what we do and what we aim for in YEC.

How do you explain the gap between the EU institutions and citizens, especially young people? What can politicians and organisations like YEL do in order to close this gap?

The only thing that is important is that this gap is, so to speak, “sexy” and topical. It is often associated with a general disconnection, between young people and politics and a lack of people’s engagement. I think that this is completely wrong. It is important for me and for YEL to point out that most young people have a huge interest in European affairs and in politics. They want to know what is happening at a local, national, European and international level. It is just that the means of engagement are not necessarily there. This is where organisations like YEL come in. We try to facilitate the exchange of ideas and share knowledge. We, at YEL, work hard to have young people believe that, yes, they can do something. We translate European policies, decisions or laws into an easy-to-understand version, then we connect young people with decision-makers.

On the other hand, decision-makers have to do their homework better. Plus, different levels should work together, starting at the grassroots level. Decision-makers should learn to listen better, not only to people with a “lot of money“, but especially to us, the younger generation. After all, we are the future. Trust should also be enhanced. Very often when one talks about this gap, they mean the distrust people may have towards institutions, which is, to me, an easy thing to tackle. We have this wonderful tool called the Internet, use it! In connection with this trust, young people ought to be taken more seriously, not only as being the generation paying for pensions, but rather as the future. Politicians should work with us to make things change.

Do you agree that there is a democratic/information deficit in the EU?

Yes and no. The information deficit is there, on the one hand mostly because people may not clearly understand what is going on in the European scene. This could maybe be explained by an educational deficit that has to be tackled at a local level. And on the other hand, people take Europe for granted, the peace and prosperity… these are the results of sixty years of hard work by very devoted people. The history behind this European peace or even behind the mobility across European countries is very rich, and only a few people seem to be aware of the whys and hows, which is pretty frightening.

How does YEL empower young Europeans to become leaders, entrepreneurs and innovators? To what extent can youth leadership help fight youth unemployment?

 The YEL team believes our generation has to make the change. We have to make it happen; we have to go out and have to live up to our responsibilities, abilities and opportunities which we have more of than any other generation before us. Providing these direct opportunities is also a learning-by-doing process.

When people come to our events, not all of them actually have a big negotiation or team-living skills. Our events do not really have this direct and technical entrepreneurship or innovation training as other organisations have, but a more soft-skilled perspective so to speak. During our events or the summits we attend, our delegates and participants brainstorm on new, innovative ideas they have.

This policy input is actually a form of innovation, a softer form of innovation. It is not like technical innovation where you come up with a new software. It is more into policy, policy innovations so to speak. Also, I think it strengthens people’s convictions and self-beliefs. If you lead a team and work in an international setting, you really can do something.

I think of myself as a very normal person to be honest. I am not Superman. I am not overly intelligent. I am just a very normal person. If I can actually make things happen, I think many other people can and should do too.

If you look at the problems we have, especially on youth unemployment and how youth leadership can fight unemployment, I think of it this way: in an economy, it is not necessarily large or small businesses creating jobs. It is new businesses. So if we have young people who have the conviction and the understanding that they can really do something that they believe in themselves, that they learn how to lead and how to inspire themselves also senior decision-makers, then they can establish new businesses, create new jobs, and fight youth unemployment. This is a very indirect approach but it has a very positive “side effect”.

With the end of YEC 2014, what are the next steps for YEL? What does the organisation plan on doing in order to take the delegates’ recommendations on education to employment, digital revolution and technologies and sustainable development in cities to the next level?

YEC is not finished it yet. What we have to do is first, work on the recommendations our delegates came up with, they have to be heard. We had 16 speakers and guests from all over the European spectrum and they have already heard, shared and discussed the recommendations, but then this cannot be the end. So, we, in YEL, we really try to get the word out there. We try to connect not only with stakeholders at the European level, but also at the national level. We help our delegates connect with their respective national governments.

We fight this misconception that young people have a poor leverage to the European institutions. At YEL, we help them jump over this gap between stakeholders and them. We help their voices be heard, through different processes: after publishing a final communiqué, we go to press and to partner organisations… This is a very important part of our work: we move and react. Otherwise, it is just one more piece of paper ending up on many desks and then nowhere.

The second step takes the form of a continuity: the next Young European Council is coming up and we already started planning it a month ago. We have been really excited about it, even while working on YEC 2014. We know that everything was not perfect this year, but we have analysed our flaws and assets and we will try to make the 2015 edition better, more innovative through dwelling on what can be improved. This will take a lot of time, but the Young European Leadership team is already working on in.

Then we also have this series of diverse delegations, so we have an armada of motivated young people entrusted with different portfolios: a perfect way to achieve our goal of making the voices of young people be heard.



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