On the 20th of August last summer, a high school student decided to skip class and sit down outside the Swedish Parliament until the Paris Agreement would be fully implemented.
This single action of a 15 year-old girl launched the most successful global environmental movement ever. Only six months later, the Fridays for Future would gather more than 1,5 million students in the streets of 125 countries.
Greta Thunberg is one of the many young people bringing a new urgency to the forefront of political change.
A generation that is often disillusioned with the old ways of doing things.
A generation that is the most educated Europe has ever seen and yet, for the first time since World War II, it is one that might end up less well-off than their parents.
A generation that is impatient in the face of environmental disaster, social injustice and discrimination.
A generation that is also impatient with the European Union.
The European project was always focused on youth. Robert Schuman, whose Declaration we celebrate today, believed that:
"L'idée d’une Europe réconciliée, unie et forte, doit être le mot d'ordre des jeunes générations."
In his writings, he gave schools an essential role in fighting the causes for territorial conflicts – through books, learning, encounters and travels. In the past 60 years, the European Union has worked to implement Schuman's vision.
It is impossible not to mention Erasmus – probably the most popular EU programme, with 10 million young people having benefited from it.
Erasmus enables to experience first-hand what it feels to be European. It also builds bridges between Member States and countries like Albania. Just in the last four years, 3500 Albanian students have participated in mobility programmes under Erasmus + and 2000 foreign students have come to Albania.
The European Union has also created a successful European Solidarity Corps, through which youngsters, including Albanians, can volunteer in their own country or abroad.
Some of us are old enough to remember a time when Europe was not an inclusive Union, but a divided landmass, where mobility of education was not the right of all, but the privilege of the few.
Those are unique and formidable achievements, but we should not stop there.
Young Europeans, inside and outside the Union, are impatient with their institutions, because of a strong feeling of disconnection.
A real risk exists of a generational divide between the younger and the older in terms of access to decision-making and material security.
These feelings are at the source of a growing need to look for better life conditions elsewhere, as it too often happens here for the Albanian youth. But even inside the EU, despite the benefits of a borderless mobility, an increasing number of young Europeans favour parties that turn their back to the European project.
In the EU and in Albania, the answers to this alarming phenomenon have to be found in ambitious education strategies and long-term economic development. But it is clear that both in Albania and in the Union's Member States, the most urgent action is to answer the call for inclusiveness which is coming from the young generation.
Let it not be a missed call. The need to involve them is more urgent than ever, not to jeopardise the benefits that we take for granted.
Young people can push governments, institutions, any of us, to act. We need them to be constantly involved in building the Europe of the future.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The challenge of our parents’ generation was to rebuild Europe from the ruins and destruction of war.
The challenge of the following generation was to reunite Europe after the divisions of the Cold War.
The challenge of our generation is to reshape a cohesive, resilient and sustainable Europe for the future. A European Union that is complete and includes the Western Balkans as Member States.
As said by our High Representative/Vice President Federica Mogherini, during her visit in Tirana yesterday and today: “Instead of the term enlargement, I like to say reunification of the Western Balkans with Europe”.
The Albanian youth of today are the EU citizens of tomorrow. In a country where 40% of the population is younger than 30, it would be folly not to include them in the process. It is the youth of your country which will bring it forward.
Education is at the very heart of this change. Without competent teachers and ethical education systems and, our societies cannot progress.
In the words of Franklin Roosevelt, “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.” Investing in education is vital in promoting our shared European values of democracy, freedom, human dignity and respect. Education is more than employability. It provides the values which enable us to live together.
But in Tirana, like in Brussels, the EU needs to do more to engage with young people. I have made cooperation with them a priority of my mandate. The Structured Dialogue that Brussels has launched with youth will also be implemented in Albania, in cooperation with the national authorities. In fact, we started already with Europe Week involving close to 35 high schools, universities, and children's organisations.
Four principles will structure this dialogue:
Engage: Put in place a regular engagement of the EU with youth organisations to listen to their ideas and concerns about EU integration. This morning already, with 9 of my colleagues Ambassadors, we exchanged with 150 young Albanian how to put in place this Structured Dialogue and tackle the issues they raised such as civic education and support for children without parental care or coming back from migration in a EU country.
Connect: Young people can be the strongest force in building communities. I am thinking of the high school girls of Rreshën who have created the Let Girls Learn group to support each other, or the Filizat youth NGO in Gostima which organises concerts for young with disabilities – because having fun is also a right! We will foster more exchanges connecting young Albanians on EU issues, but also with the youth of the Member States. The success of the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO) in Tirana testifies to the need for more inter-cultural exchanges.
Protect: Every single child has the right to safe and nurturing environment – free from violence, harassment or discrimination. The EU will continue supporting centres where youth belonging to minorities have decided to protect each other, like Streha, doing an exemplary job with the LGBTI community.
Empower: We need to build more mechanisms to give youth a voice. The EU supports a group called Young Environmental Experts in Bulqize who are pushing for more inclusion in local environmental decisions, and in Dibra, a group called Changing The Future, increasing youth involvement in local governance. Municipalities for Europe is already doing a fantastic job pushing for EU issues to be discussed at the local level.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Today is a celebration of Europe, of Albania and of the power of their youth.
The urgency and dedication that Greta Thunberg has brought to the fight against climate change, I see it every day in Albania in the eyes of the young people I meet.
Having a magnitude population of young people offers Albania a potential that is almost un-matched anywhere else in Europe.
We need their help and their voice to get the EU integration of Albania right, not as the leaders of tomorrow, but as the young citizens of today.
Europe has made a difference for my generation. We have benefited from education opportunities abroad and we have managed to freely travel for work, for fun and for love.
The European Union has enabled young people to be independent, to be different if they wish, and to grow, both personally and within their communities.
The young people of Albania deserve those same rights and opportunities as their friends in the EU, and our collective aim should be to make this happen as soon as possible.