From Strasbourg to Stuttgart, via Democracy

31 May

A couple of weeks ago the IYTT had the honour to be invited to participate in The Strasbourg Summit on May 5-8, and the ACT NOW Mayors Conference in Stuttgart on May 8-10. Youth Fellow Sara Maria Barbaglia reports from her experiences, at these two prestigious events, together with Youth Fellow colleague Mathes Rausch and IYTT Director Urban Strandberg, and from the Open Chair Democracy Talks performed at various places along the trip.

Mathes Rausch, Urban Strandberg and Sara Maria Barbaglia at ACT NOW in Stuttgart

On the early morning of friday 6th May, Mathes and I hopped on a train to reach Urban in Strasbourg. A day of events and Open Chair Democracy Talks was waiting for us.

Starting strong in the early afternoon, we joined the Strasbourg Summit in Villa Schutsenberger to present International Youth Think Tank proposals and methodology. Strasbourg Summit is an event that intentionally takes place before the end of the Conference on the Future of Europe to support citizens’ proposals within the Conference itself, to coordinate civil society in its actions, as well as to push European leaders to implement the proposals.

Our position was right between civil society and European leaders, since after our fruitful and dynamic presentation we took to the streets of Strasbourg to ask people what democracy means to them, and what they would need to feel more powerful. Moreover, the results of the discussions with youth at the summit and with people on the street would have been useful in the following days when meeting mayors from all over Europe. But more of that later.

A major issue we identified in the data we collected was a general need for accountability in politics: while citizens have the essential right to vote, they still feel powerless against the unaccountability of government. May people we spoke to claim that promises made before an election often fails to lead to tangible results. On a lighter note, we found a cute manifestation of the patriotism of the French people, that to the question “What are the first three words that come to your mind when I say democracy?”, instantly reply “Liberté, égalité et fraternité”.

On our walk back to the hotel, I asked a man whether he wanted to answer some questions about democracy. Elegantly he answered “Oui, en quelle langue?” (“Yes, in which language?”). The question didn’t puzzle me too much, and I told him I was comfortable with French and English, eventually Spanish. I thought there was no need to mention Italian, but promptly he answered “I would love to speak Swedish”. Well, little did he know, we had Urban with us. After a little chat in Swedish, Mathes came and they had another chat in German. He spoke Spanish and a bit of Italian to me until he managed to explain to us his unprecedented language skills. Growing up in a village he learned both Alsacien (Alsacian regional language) and Swabian (German west-south regional language) but at school he was allowed to speak only French. He explained to us the turmoiled history of Alsace in this regard and proceeded to tell us how effortlessly he learned Swedish, just by listening to a dear friend of his that sang in Swedish while actually having been in Sweden only for a couple of months.

Sara Maria, Urban & Mathes at the Strasbourg Summit in Villa Schutsenberger

The next day, we stayed at Barrage Vauban situated in a beautiful historical neighbourhood of Strasbourg and again, ran Open Chair Democracy Talks. Here we found tourists and other people from all over the world. I think it’s worth mentioning the opinion of a German lady from Hamburg: “I know I have many powers as a citizen, but I don’t always use them. Whenever I feel the need, I can just talk to institutions and work it out. I feel like change must be done first locally, and by young people. They are the ones inheriting the future, I am just trying to support them since my generation did not do this enough”.

A small sandwich, a short walk and we caught another train, this time from Gare de Strasbourg: direction Stuttgart!

On the 8th of May, we woke up to breakfast with Helfried Carl, Co-founder of the European Capital of Democracy and Partner at the Innovation in Politics Institute, the organisation behind ACT NOW mayor’s conference. Over a coffee, we discussed the Open Chair Democracy Talks and the European Capital of Democracy, as well as our plans for the next few days in Stuttgart. We proceeded to the conference itself, in Wagenhallen, where we met 30 mayors, 20 changemakers, and other people for a total of 120 participants between 17 to 70 years old, from over 20 countries. It was the perfect place to share ideas for the future, touching upon economic transition, climate action, social cohesion and youth action.

Starting on a somewhat darker note, the first panel presented two mayors from Ukraine, Andriy Sadovy (Lviv) and Oleksandr Senkevych (Mykolaiv), together with the founder of the International Mayor’s Summit, Irina Ozymok. The discussion was well moderated by Malgorzata Bonikowsko, who asked the mayors about their current situation and next steps. As Vilnius’ mayor Remigijus Šimašius said in the next panel “I beg you: stop talking about a crisis or a difficult situation. It’s a regular war, and it’s the mayors’ obligation to speak loudly about how cruel it is”, and that was also the takeaway from Mr. Sadovy’s and Mr. Senkevych’s accounts.

Mathes doing an OCDT at ACT NOW in Stuttgart

In between panels and workshops, we ran OCDT with attendees, thus getting the chance to talk to mayors and deputy mayors from Lebanon, Portugal, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Poland… and many more! Some talked about the situation after the pandemic, some of the new measures taken after the outbreak of the war and the ongoing refugee and economic crisis. Some underlined how little this war is affecting them, because of a previous war. I remember talking to a young changemaker from Cyprus, who gave an in-depth account of the Cyprus dispute and its effects on different generations. When talking to her, It struck me how many of her ideas revolved around the same aims as many of our policy proposals. The need for youth to be heard, the need for youth budgets, a better mental health infrastructure, and a better tone of democracy.

On the second day, we participated in a “Fireside chat”, a workshop that takes place literally on the side of a pixelated fireplace to evoke the cosiness and easiness of an informal chat, while still having a thoroughly absorbing theme: young mayors – how to lead at a young age. I might be biassed due to the presence of an Italian mayor friend, but I felt it was rather a dynamic and interesting chat, in a new and cool format. After this, nervousness started piling up, because of our presentation in the afternoon!

Everything went smoothly, however: Urban explained the methodology of the Bottom-up Policy advice Loop, while Mathes and I showed the IYC21 proposals, IYC20 and IYC19 policy briefs, as well as our OCDT results from the previous days. We got some interesting questions and suggestions, as well as follow-up requests. It was the perfect wrap-up for the conference!

Mathes and Sara Maria presenting at ACT NOW Stuttgart

On the next and final day, we had a field trip with “mEin Stuttgart, mEine Welt” on implementing Sustainable Development Goals in local and global development, and we all separated at around lunchtime to go back to our normal life.

On the train back home, I started thinking about how crazy it is for us to have this kind of opportunity, and how this can lead to a butterfly effect. I know some of the people I met had a huge impact on me just by saying a couple of words, and I hope that International Youth Think Tank has had the same impact on others.

Meeting Mayors from all over Europe and listening to panels planted seeds for future development. Let’s make a local change to build up our society. Let’s make it with democracy!

Sara Maria Barbaglia

Youth Fellow