The season of graduation: European politics for youths & changes across continents

I talked the talk and walked the walk with my 2nd-semester well-spent.

In this Estonian city of good thoughts, I gave my best shot to make every possible change happen across the continents. During the spring semester, I travelled to Brussels, Budapest, Yale University, The Hague and Strasbourg to grow seeds in everyone’s mind, in hopes that the world, one day, will never be the same again when I walk away.

If you still recall my previous article on My First 100 Days at the University of Tartu, then this article is probably no surprise for you–I met the heart of European politics, engaged with a diplomat to the UN, and organised a simulation of international peace talks in France.

Perhaps, this is beyond an ordinary university student’s daily routine.

EU-ASEAN Young Leader Summit, Brussels (24-28/2)

Asking questions at the EU-ASEAN Strategic Thinkers Forum, Brussels. Photo: Friends of Europe

In the beginning of this semester, I received an email about my acceptance as a British representative to attend this high-level summit that connects European policymakers, 38 national representatives (EU-28 and ASEAN-10) and numerous Brussels insiders to discuss a range of issues, including political and security cooperation, economy, trade and business exchanges, as well as people-to-people contacts.

Along with dozens of other European leaders, I was arranged to stay at The Hotel Brussels, a 4-star hotel where the former American president Barack Obama stayed for a night. As a Master’s student on a budget, it would be simply unimaginable if I wasn’t sponsored to stay in this luxurious place where the gym room is located at 26th floor with the highest public viewpoint in this Belgian capital. For me, it’s a moral question on whether I have the strength to withstand materialistic temptation when I become a policy-maker in the future.

Throughout the summit, I was stunned by the fact that while most of the European representatives are either full-time students working at think-tanks or community leaders from prominent NGOs, almost every ASEAN representative is a national diplomat. It was indeed a sign of the imbalance of power.

Also, it was obvious that most ASEAN representatives didn’t speak much to express their opinions. But when they did, they somehow showed the clash of EU-ASEAN ideologies; when the Europeans (including me) brought up the issues of values and principles, the ASEAN leaders emphasised sheer pragmatism in economic terms.

Being part of this open discussion was like immersing myself into the real EU-ASEAN scenario–I adhered to the priority of British foreign policy, insisting that our European partners and ASEAN allies have to seek solutions on Russian annexation of Crimea and its destabilisation of Ukraine, whereas several ASEAN leaders brought up the possibility of strengthening SME cooperation in the context of digital economy.

Meeting with Federica Mogherini, HR/VP of the Commission at the EEAS, Brussels. Photo: EEAS

The highlight was, though, a face-to-face meeting with the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. My ambition, as always, is to seek peaceful resolutions for the situation in Ukraine as I witnessed the war-torn region of Donbas in person (read my dystopian vision on A Game-Changing Letter from the Future). With the help of a EU trainee, I managed to ask the last question during the Q & A session with Mrs Mogherini. As I pressed her on the absence of a EU delegation in Minsk II Agreement, she gave me a personal answer where I couldn’t find it in press statements, meaning that she didn’t give me the soundbite I’m tired of analysing.

“Are you satisfied with my answer?” she said, as I highlighted that my career goal is to work at her department to change lives in the future. After the session, I had a personal conversation with her, and she asked why I chose Estonia. As I explained in my first UT blog  A Hong Kongese crush on Europe, I was inspired by my first visit in the EU institutions in Brussels when I was an exchange student in Denmark. While I never got a chance to explain my full story to her, I’m almost certain that her cognitive map has a piece of Estonia for now.

Overwhelmed by the international profiles of the European delegation, I had a feeling that some of us will meet again in different European conferences or events, as we all have the same vision–to make politics accessible to “the people”. What changed was, without a doubt, that we had established the first initiative for European and Asian youths to have cross-continent dialogues with the policy-makers, laying foundations for the future cooperation between the EU and ASEAN.

Mock Trial on European Migrant Crisis in 2015, Budapest (5-7/3)

Debating head-to-head with Lilla Batuszek who represented the Member States during the Mock Trial, Budapest: Photo: EucA

Less than a week after the Brussels summit, I was on the plane again, flying to the Hungarian capital for a grand debate in defence of the EU Commission’s infringement proceedings against Hungary and Poland. Some 60 participants from more than a dozen countries came together for rounds of debates between the EU institutions and EU Member States.

Whilst staying for literally 48 hours in Hungary, the 2-day debate in the historical milling room of Eötvös Loránd University was memorable. My first defence as a Commissioner began with the functioning of the European Union for the general audience to have a clear concept about the institutions, followed by a set of arguments regarding the established international norms through EU regulations. The opponents, on the other hand, imitated the rhetoric of populist leaders who emphasised traditional sovereignty which won the sympathy of the student judges of the simulation.

Beyond the blurred line between Brussels’ technocracy and populist’s rhetoric on the “collective will of the people”, we had a truly international squad for a Hungarian dinner, including people from Asia, Europe, the Middle East, South America and Africa. It was more than just another international exposure which I’m not lack of, it’s more about examining the notion of “Europeanness” through the lens of people who are not from Europe. A problematic European Self can be seen through the case of Ukraine here.

Given my workload as a EU-Russia Studies student at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies, I never regretted scarifying my sleep for this intense debate. It was an event where my expertise on EU institutions could be applied, informing other European students who are not specialised in this particular field of political science. By the end of the event, we had a civic engagement activity on collecting Hungarians’ perceptions towards the EU. It was the EU-funded citizen project Message to Europeans 3.0 that make thought-provoking trips like this happened. I believe changes started as we initiated debates which Hungarian people might not bring about in their daily lives.

European Students Conference at Yale University, Connecticut (28/3-2/4)

Discussion on EU’s military cooperation with Josep Borrell, the former European Parliament’s president. Photo: Iverson Ng

Just a few weeks after Budapest, with the generous support of Dora Plus Programme, I managed to travel from Estonia to the US for a pan-European conference organised by the Yale-based transatlantic think-tank European Horizons. I attended the conference on behalf of the University of Tartu’s Chapter. Throughout the conference, we had to choose one are out of six major challenges for 2018–Democracy, EU-China Relations, Security, Energy, Technology and National Sovereignty.

In my case, I chose National Sovereignty as my top priority. Along with two teammates from Czechia and Bulgaria, we crafted a policy paper, engage in debate on our proposal, and drafted a concrete action plan by the end of the conference. We proposed an enhance legal military framework which seeks to improve the EU’s latest voluntary defence cooperation framework PESCO.

But being part of the conference held by Yale University also gave us access to reach out some heavy-weight policy-makers and diplomats, such as Enrique Barón Crespo and Josep Borrell, two former Presidents of European Parliament, as well as Yuriy Sergeyev, the former Ukrainian diplomat to the UN. Lucky enough, our group received useful feedbacks from two former European Presidents in a row. Much to my surprise, after I presented our proposal to both former Presidents, one of them told me that I even knew more about PESCO than he did.

Leaving aside the secret party (if I tell you what it is, then it is no longer a secret) and great vibes with American students who have immense interests in European affairs, I did enjoy wandering around Yale University for its astonishing architecture, signifying the prestige of a world-class university. From my perspective, Yale looked like a mix and enlarged version of Cambridge and Oxford. Although my favourite English town will always be all but Oxford, Yale is the place making my first American trip truly special.

A snapshot at Grace Hopper College, Yale University with European enthusiasts from England, USA and Germany. Photo: Iverson Ng

It’s a special trip also because I encountered some people from places which hold dear in my heart –Hong Kong and Donbas. During the first networking dinner, a Hong Kong teen approached me as she came from Hong Kong like I do. We accidentally found that we “knew” each other before we even met, as she found my name in her email box about an English Public Speaking Competition which I administrated when I was working at a Hong Kong youth organisation. As I told her about my dream, she was deeply impressed. “If there is anyone I wish to see him succeed, that would be you,” she stated.

Then it came a Ukrainian PhD student from Luhansk. I was humbled enough to know this law expert working at the World Bank, offering me insights about the implementation of EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. We had a quality time in Yale as we spared our last hours to capture some moments spending together at Sterling Memorial Library.

Great power comes from great responsibility. Sometimes, we unintentionally become the hero of others’ lives, and that’s why we can only move forward if we stick to our promises and start walking our walk after talking the talk. And I did. Determined, I made a somewhat emotional statement as I made the voice of Estonia/Hong Kong heard in a transatlantic setting.

Simulation of The Hague Congress 1948, The Hague (11-13/4)

Group photo with the Cultural Committee during the simulation of Congress of Europe 1948, The Hague. Photo: Iverson Ng

When the centre cannot hold, things fall apart.

It was almost like a back-to-back trip between the US and the Netherlands as I found myself checking in at the Tallinn Airport again. Succeeding the momentum in Budapest, our student leaders from Message to Europeans 3.0 were about to accomplish a milestone, as we planned to stimulate a historical debate on the future of Europe after WWII, and it’s the first time in history for an Estonian delegation to have a say in one of the committees among political, cultural and socio-economic committees. I chose the cultural committee to challenge my cultural competence.

In essence, this event was considered as the most productive simulation since our project first launched in Warsaw. Summoning up 53 participants from 13 countries, we managed to conclude our simulation with three draft resolutions on burning issues such as European integration, external actions, Eurozone reforms, and de-radicalisation.

When we discussed about the cultural issues in Europe, it seemed that there was a hegemony which assumed all EU nationals feel Europeans as they do. In fact, after the “big-bang” enlargement in 2004, it is inevitable to address the Eastern European identity with their Communist past which most Western Europeans never experienced. Unfortunately, my proposal from an Estonian perspective was rejected by my peers due to such pre-assumption.

Nonetheless, it’s never a bad practice to ring a bell towards European youths who are unaware of the East-West divide. With the Estonian Presidency of the EU Council last fall, there had been more discussions on the Estonian priorities, prompting for greater changes to bridge the gap between Eastern and Western European countries.

“Family photo” with all participants after voting for all draft resolutions by the end of The Hague event. Photo: EucA

As the EU-funded citizen project proceeded, I raised concern about the civic engagement fatigue among our student leaders and warned that if we fail to collect more raw data, we would have insufficient materials. During an informal meeting among student leaders, I made an emotional speech to address the fact that the project was crumbling, and our efforts would go in vain if we remain “business as usual” for our work in this project. Read more on Daring to dream is a necessity, a joint declaration regarding our European dream by Lilla and me.

On the note, I must recognise how much love I felt after delivering the speech. I remembered my Hungarian working partner who backed up my proposal, showing her unconditional support for my ambition to be the change-makers of Europe instead of bystanders; my German friend who put his arm around me, indicating that we were still united with strength after all; my Italian peer who rationalised my arguments and made sense of every idea I expressed.

You must be the change you wish to see in this world. I recalled. It was a mixed feeling when I left The Hague. But as I thought of how much trust the event organisers had on me, I realised that being a true leader is not just about winning the heart of the people, but it’s rather an art of balancing one’s passion and ego without breaking down.

European Youth Event (EYE) 2018, Strasbourg (31/5-4/6)

Clarifying the rules and procedure during the Minsk II Simulation at the EYE 2018. Photo: Ceren Kaya

My final test on leadership and management skills approached as I began my trip from Tartu to Strasbourg. To fulfil my fervent wish of bringing diplomacy to every youth’s life, I formed a team of 10 people with six nationalities (British, Dutch, Turkish, Estonian, Hungarian and Bulgarian) to organise an international ceasefire agreement between Ukraine and Russia with the meditation of France and Germany. As the leading organiser, I had to write a proposal on the event, delegate task to my team and managed the financial matter as our group was funded by the European Parliament.

As a voluntary job, it was rather demanding. I had to overview every detail about my group from synchronising 10 schedules during the EYE to monitoring the logistic arrangements throughout the trip. There were occasions which I was almost exhausted by the heavy workload due to some internal communication issues, but when I thought about how much the European youths would be benefited from our simulation, my inner “Churchill” kept me away and continued to fight the good fight.

Excited, I received an email from an Estonian officer who works for the European Parliament, seeking details about our simulation on Minsk II Agreement. We arranged a short meeting right before the conference and I came to realisation that my life would be easier if I had support from the Estonian representative. But I knew too little, too late as I only paid attention to this backup when I was already in Paris.

Final rehearsal with the moderators before the Minsk II Simulation began. Photo: Ceren Kaya

I kicked off the event by introducing the brief background about the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, showing them some photos I took when I was in the city centre of Donetsk in 2015. My monitoring effort began as my teammates started to moderate their own group of European youths who were acting as Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France respectively.

Throughout the 90-minute simulation, some 40 participants from at least a handful of different EU countries made consensus from forming a unified position within the delegation to selecting a spokesperson for the negotiating, then from challenging their counterparts to working alongside with each other in the midst of conflicting national interests. They seemed to be positive after the event.

Led by six of us from EU-Russia Studies programme, our organising team filled with a sense of academic relevance as we applied what we have learnt from our classes. I believe that changes will only be brought about when we persevere and endure all the painful roads before reaching the point of real change in Europe. However forward-thinking it may sound, there were conflicting realities that took place in the EYE. I had a critical review on Conflicting realities in young Europe–a critical review on the European Youth Event 2018.

Concluding thoughts

To be fair, I wasn’t travelling all the time. As an illustration of my academic endeavour, I had a presentation on Rethinking Ukraine-an Experimental Approach to its Contested Regions during the two-day seminar 4th Eastern Platform-Tartu Seminar which is a Ukrainian-oriented initiative aiming to analyse and better understand EU-Russia relations and their shared neighbourhood. It took place only a few days after I returned from the US.

Roughly two weeks after dedicating my first academic presentation at the Tartu Seminar, I also attended Narva XVIII International Research Conference to further strengthen my academic competence. As an application to my knowledge in the field of EU-Russia Studies, I had a brief presentation on Russia’s role in affecting the implementation of EU-Ukraine Association Agreement.

Just a day after Europe Day in May, I, as the Estonian Chapter’s President of European Horizons, organised an Oxford-style debate on the motion “the European Union does not understand Russian foreign policy”. It was a satisfying debate as the former Estonian Prime Minister Siim Kallas had a head-to-head debate with research fellows and student debaters from our university.

In the age of political uncertainties and democratic fatigue, the only anecdote is perhaps a little bit of faith on humanity with our concrete actions that count.

Presenting my findings during the Narva Conference. Photo: Narva College, the University of Tartu

Iverson Ng is a first-year student of the EU-Russia Studies Master’s Programme at the University of Tartu. He’s the President of Yale-based transatlantic think-tank European Horizons’ Tartu Chapter, student leader of a European citizenship project entitled “Message to Europeans 3.0”, and a leading organizer of one of the events at the European Youth Event 2018, European Parliament, Strasbourg.

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