“Youth is half the present and all the future. We should invest in youth leaders, not for tomorrow, but today. Let us build the economy together, not walls."
These words came in an address by Malta's Foreign Minister Carmelo Abela at a forum for 20 young leaders from 15 countries in the EuroMed region, held in Malta in January. The week-long gathering — the first in a series of such meetings to take place in Malta in the coming year — offered the youth participants from the Young Mediterranean Voices (YMV) Programme an opportunity to discuss with decision-makers, policy issues affecting youth in the region.
The YMV Programme was set up by the intercultural Anna Lindh Foundation as a regional youth network connecting civil society and policymakers "to develop the skills and opportunities for youth-led debate" across the region and "support youth to speak up and be heard," according to the Anna Lindh website.
The discussion at the seminar focused on the themes of youth participation, education, migration and mobility, sustainable development and clean energy — topics that were selected as priority issues by the youth participants who presented their policy recommendations on the chosen subjects to the 5+5 Ministerial Forum held in Malta.
The 5+5 Ministerial meeting, jointly presided this year by Malta and Algeria, is the oldest forum bringing countries from both sides of the Mediterranean together to foster relations and identify new areas for cooperation. Officially launched in Rome in 1990 as an informal sub-regional forum, the 5+5 Dialogue comprises Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritarnia, France, Italy, Malta, Portugal and Spain.
For the first time in its near 30-year history, the foreign ministers’ agenda included an exchange of views with youth representatives. Among the ideas put forward by the young participants were shared responsibility for development and integration to tackle migration, humanitarian visas, compulsory classes on citizenship, debating and politics in schools, and microcredits for students who cannot afford to pay for their education.
"We are presenting the ideas of thousands of young people from the member states with a focus on education, youth participation and engagement, migration and mobility and finally sustainable development. Youths represent about 60 percent of the population of the region, yet their presence in the process of decision making is almost zero.
"We want to be involved in designing, implementing and monitoring policies related to our areas of concern," Manal Benani, a young doctor from Algeria, told the gathered ministers.
A Tunisian female participant, meanwhile, recounted how a young village student in her country met his death while attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe after despairing at the lack of career prospects in his country. Dire economic conditions are driving thousands of young Tunisians to attempt to flee their country, she lamented. In 2017 alone, 1,600 Tunisians, mostly from impoverished and marginalised parts of the country, died at sea. Their deaths, however, did not stop other Tunisians from trying to migrate in pursuit of a brighter future in Europe.
Another Tunisian said he was forced to leave his country after exposing corruption among high-level officials. "My life was in danger so I had no option but to leave," he told the seminar.
Participants from Morocco, Egypt, Libya and the occupied Palestinian territories shared their concerns about stringent immigration policies and tight border controls which they said were limiting their mobility. Their European counterparts meanwhile, said they were surprised to learn they had a lot in common with their southern neighbours. They cited high youth unemployment and a desire to be more engaged in decision-making as some of the challenges they were facing on both sides of the Mediterranean.
Paul Gillespie, a columnist with The Irish Times who attended the Malta seminar, lauded the YMV Programme as "a progressive effort to combat false stereotypes and prejudice, in the belief that lack of knowledge of the other brings hatred."
"Surveys show that people throughout the region value hospitality and public engagement over forced migration or violence. These young ideas deserve a much wider hearing," Gillespie wrote in an Op-ed published in the Irish Times.
Seeking to allay the youths' concerns, Federica Mogherini, high representative of the EU for foreign affairs and security policy and vice president of the EU Commission, told 5+5 Ministerial meeting: "The young people involved in the Young Med Voices are a source of inspiration. We are already transforming their ideas into practice, including by widening access to Erasmus+."
Indeed, in May last year, the EU Commission announced that it was doubling its budget for the Erasmus+ Programme to 30 billion Euros to support education, training, youth and sport for the period 2021-2027. This means that the next phase of the programme will provide learning and mobility opportunities to 12 million people, compared to four million in the current phase.
"We are determined to continue to work together to make the youths' aspirations and their proposals a reality," Mogherini added.