Opening speech by Thorbjørn JAGLAND, Secretary General of the Council of Europe
Council of Europe Youth Assembly on the occasion of the World Forum for Democracy
(Strasbourg, 5 October 2012)
Let me welcome you most warmly to the Council of Europe and to this Youth Assembly. You have the privilege – and the responsibility – of being part of the very first event of the very first Strasbourg World Forum for Democracy, and this is no accident.
There is a well-worn saying that “Young people represent the future”.
I think that older people, such as myself, like to use this cliché partly because it comforts us in our own place as the movers and shakers of the world. But – sadly for our egos – I do not believe that it is true.
No: young people do not represent the future – they are the present.
Today, more than ever, we are witnessing the active role played by young people in questioning and redefining our democratic societies. A real revolution is underway, in many senses of the word. Let me explain what I mean.
Our democratic models and institutions – the main political ideologies, our voting systems, parliaments, and governmental structures – came into being as a consequence of the second Industrial Revolution in Europe. This is still evident, even in the terms we use. To give you an example which I like very much –the term “left-wing” for socialists and “right-wing” for conservatives find their origin in the French Revolution, where supporters for the king were seated to the right of the chamber and supporters of revolution on the left.
For the last decade or so, we have been in the midst of a new type of industrial revolution, or rather a technological revolution. In fact, it is not the technology in itself which is the real revolution, but how it is impacting on our ways of communicating and acting as individuals and as societies.
Our societies are undergoing a deep transformation, and for the moment we cannot clearly foresee what the outcome of this transformation will be. But already we start to realize that the implications for how we practice democracy may be profound.
To give just a few recent examples, think of the role played by the use of new technologies in the mass demonstrations of the Arab Spring, bringing together those who we mistakenly believed did not have a voice.
Think of the growth of so-called “pirate parties”, where citizens join together spontaneously around a message or manifesto which challenges mainstream political organization.
Think of the speed with which politicians now comment and take a stance on unfolding events in real time, via Twitter or Facebook – sometimes, I fear, before they have taken even a few minutes to think through their reactions.
And yet, at the same time, we are witnessing a deep dissatisfaction with and disavowal of the traditional means of political participation. Many ordinary citizens have lost faith in the political classes and in the traditional institutions, and this is reflected in falling participation in voting at national and local levels, and unprecedented demonstrations of protest and unrest on the streets in many European countries.
Today, the high-minded ideals of our democratic systems may well seem far-removed and disconnected from the daily reality and future prospects of many ordinary Europeans.
What can we make of these opposing tendencies – widespread engagement in political expression, through new media and popular movements on the one hand, and a sense of disenfranchisement and disassociation on the other?
What is clear to me is that we need to see how to reconcile the new technologies with the representative democracy which we have developed in Europe, and which is still the best – even if imperfect – system we have. We must take what is best of the new ways of political expression and organization and see how we can incorporate them into our representative systems.
And it is the young generations which are capable of bridging this gap.
I hope that during your discussions you will have the opportunity to reflect upon this challenge.
It is my sincere wish not to monopolise the floor for too long. This Assembly belongs to you, and it is your role, not mine, to define what issues you wish to target.
I would nevertheless like to highlight a second area in which I believe that young people are truly best-placed to take the lead. Namely, in finding ways forward to live together in diversity.
For you have grown up with the reality of diverse European societies, which for older generations are still sometimes viewed as something new, perhaps transitory, and sometimes unwelcome.
The reality is that this diversity is needed by Europe, and it is here to stay.
Successfully managing diversity is the litmus test for the strength and maturity of our European democratic societies.
So far, we have not succeeded well. We have failed to bring together different populations and communities under a shared, cohesive European identity.
Unconnected, parallel societies have emerged, characterized by social and economic divisions and in some cases by tensions around perceived cultural or religious fault-lines. And the current economic crisis is only deepening these divisions.
What worries me most is the increasing banalisation of the discourse of intolerance, blame and exclusion towards those who are seen as different or outside from the majority society. Looking at the European political scene today, we see how ideas and positions which would have been marginal some time ago are slowly gaining ground in the mainstream.
Such politics of hate come from nothing good, and lead to nothing good. They must be resisted.
Young generations are often those who suffer most from the problems of intolerance and discrimination which follow stigmatization. But they are also those who are the strongest advocates and living proof of a truly diverse society.
The Council of Europe’s new project on combating hate speech on-line, which was proposed by our youth representatives, shows how innovation can be brought to bear to protect our democratic values and to share them with others in Europe and beyond, literally at the click of a mouse.
The provocative question posed as the topic of your Assembly is whether the young generation has been sacrified.
With record levels of youth unemployment, with the risks we see today of marginalization and exclusion of young people from the opportunities which their parents took for granted, the question is a real one, which merits our serious consideration.
But I do not subscribe to this perspective.
On the contrary, it is my conviction that your generation holds the key to bringing us forward to more stable, equal and democratic societies.
The present belongs to you, and I wish you all the best for your Youth Assembly.