The first session of the European Youth Parliament (EYP) to be held in Switzerland is underway in Berne, and the delegates are using the occasion to enjoy themselves as well as to discuss some weighty issues.
Good-natured laughter is not often heard at political meetings, but this gathering of parliamentarians is somewhat different. For a start, none of them are older than 23 and, unlike their more experienced counterparts, they try to inject as much fun and bonhomie into their work as possible.
"We have a very creative approach to committee work," said 23-year-old Martin Camenisch of Switzerland, who is president of this 34th EYP session. "Committee work most of the time is just discussion and trying to come up with solutions and we incorporate elements of team building to revive the spirits when the delegates are tired."
His sentiments are echoed by Olya Smirnova, 19, who is an enthusiastic representative of Ukraine, which is attending the EYP for the first time. "There's this electrifying team spirit," she said. "It brings you together."
Asked what she's gained from the event so far, Smirnova said it emphasised tolerance and the importance of listening to others. "We've been playing an enormous number of games that teach you how to be respectful of other people."
The fun and games are part of the social aspect of the EYP, which to 20-year-old Nedim Agalar of Turkey is more important than the issues discussed in the committees.
"The social aspect brings together a diverse group of people and helps them realise each other's problems and differences and breaks down stereotypes."
But the delegates from nearly 30 countries can't escape the issues altogether. They've been divided into 15 committees to discuss such heady topics as Cyprus and its future admission to the European Union, along with EU policies related to climate change. They will also be debating ways of encouraging young people to take an interest in politics and society as well as the establishment of the referendum system and other instruments of direct democracy in the EU.
Martin Camenisch said he wasn't convinced that Switzerland's system of direct democracy could be applied in the rest of Europe.
"The problem of direct democracy is that it works in a small country, in a federalist country, with a cooperative system such as ours, but it doesn't necessarily work in a country with a political system where there's an official opposition."
Twenty-one-year-old Shamal Ratnayaka of Britain agrees. "Personally I think it depends on the country. It's difficult to see the referendum as separate from the Swiss political system, which is consensual and makes the referendum that much more important. The referendum works very well for Switzerland but I think every country in Europe needs to find its own solution."
Throughout this week the EYP will be holding meetings at a school in Berne. On Friday and Saturday they will vote on a series of non-binding resolutions to be presented to the European parliament.
The current session ends on Sunday. The next meeting of the year is scheduled for December in Oxford, England.
By Paul Sufrin
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