The Council of Europe is the smaller, older, and poorer of the two European supranational institutions, and is often confused with the Council of its much larger sister organisation, the European Union. In the youth sector, however, nobody makes that mistake: The two European Youth Centres in Strasbourg and Budapest and the European Youth Foundation have profoundly shaped international and intercultural youth work. But while the organisation celebrated its 70th anniversary in public this weekend, it has been secretly playing with scenarios to sacrifice its youth sector amidst a financial crisis.
The financial crisis of the Council of Europe
The current financial crisis of the Council of Europe has a variety of causes. Best known is the deficit caused by the suspension of Russia’s annual payment of 33 million Euro in response to its voting rights being suspended by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Less known is that Turkey decided to change its contribution status and will no longer be one of the six major contributors to the Council of Europe, a status and role it had only started playing in 2016. The other major contributors, in budgetary terms, are France, Germany, Italy, the UK – and Russia. Least known is the current zero growth policy for the Council of Europe’s budget, which doesn’t even allow for an adjustment of the budget to inflation, and de facto steadily reduces the organisation’s budget over time. In combination, these factors have jostled the Council of Europe into a financial crisis – one that was, however, long in the making and utterly predictable.
The public response to the financial crisis
The current Secretary General, Thorbjørn Jagland, former Prime Minister of Norway, has outlined a number of responses to this crisis in his April 2019 report (pdf) to the upcoming Ministeral Session of the Council of Europe, which will take place later this month in Finland, the country holding the chairmanship of the organisation at the moment. Among his proposals are the creation of a special fund – the Helsinki fund – to compensate for the delay, and potential loss, of income. In his report, the Secretary General writes on page 49:
“The Council of Europe is currently facing budgetary constraints that highlight the need for alternative funding sources for its activities. Member states are therefore invited to express their support for the Organisation through non-earmarked voluntary contributions towards the Ordinary Budget. The ministerial session of the Committee of Ministers in Helsinki in May 2019 provides an excellent opportunity to launch a special fund (the Helsinki Fund) for this purpose.”
The internal contingency plan of the Council of Europe
Over the past months, the Council of Europe has discussed several options and scenarios in more detail than outlined in the public report of the Secretary General. For the youth sector, two options for budget cuts were discussed, one with cuts of 39.1% and another with cuts of 48.3% to the youth sector’s operational budget, which currently amounts to approximately 6 million Euro annually. In the internal document CM(2019)72, which was distributed to member states last Friday, 3 May 2019, and which we have obtained, the Secretary General surprisingly suggests the following:
“Should it be required to implement the contingency plan, the Secretary General considers it necessary to lessen this impact across sectors and preserve the Council of Europe’s leading role in key areas of its work. He therefore proposes to end the financing of the Organisation’s youth sector activities from the Ordinary Budget as of 1 January 2021 and to set up a new enlarged partial agreement on Youth. This would provide a possibility to continue with part or all current activities, as well as an opportunity for increased financial support from the European Union. Over the coming months a study would be undertaken and a more detailed proposal would be presented that would allow this enlarged partial agreement to be in operation by 2021.”
Out of the blue: a proposal to sacrifice the youth sector
The reaction of the youth sector over the weekend has been scathing. On social networks, the celebratory messages were overshadowed by furious youth representatives and activists, all of whom were caught by surprise by this proposal.
Anja Olin-Pape of Sweden, the current Chair of the Council of Europe’s Advisory Council on Youth, confirmed to us that in none of the many internal discussions the idea to stop the funding of the youth sector from the organisation’s core funding had been discussed. She stated:
“This would dismantle all the cutting edge structures for youth participation that have been developed over the years, as well as the close connection the Youth Sector has to the Council of Europe values today. It would put the entire financial burden on the member states, and would abolish the incredible important exchanges, training and support ensured by the European Youth Centres.”
Not only youth representatives were caught by surprise by this proposal. Governmental representatives were equally left in the dark. Miriam Teuma of Malta, the current Chair of the organisation’s governmental European Steering Committee for Youth, confirmed to us independently that there had been no indications of the intention to move the entire budget of the youth sector out of the Council of Europe’s core budget. According to her, “the contingency plan is utterly shocking.”
Clumsy political strategy or deeply malicious intent?
This leads to the question whether the Secretary General, whose second and final mandate runs out at the end of September 2019, has pulled off this manoeuvre with malicious intent, keeping the statutory organs of the organisation willfully in the dark about his plans. We reached out to Daniel Holtgen, the Spokesperson of the Secretary General, among other things asking whether the Secretary General considers the youth sector, with its two residential educational centers and its own foundation, no longer a key area of the organisation’s work. His response, which we received within a few hours on a Sunday, was:
“Youth policy along with education for democracy and democratic citizenship is a key area of the Council of Europe’s activities to promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law.“
If these words are taken at face value, the contingency plan may turn out to be nothing more than a clumsy political strategy. Staff members close to the Secretary General, who spoke to us under condition of anonymity, have expressed growing frustration over Jagland’s inability to disconnect the political turmoil surrounding Russia’s voting rights from the managerial question of how to respond to a budgetary deficit.
In his response to our press inquiry, Spokesperson Daniel Holtgen stated the following:
“Intensive efforts are under way by the Committee of Ministers and deputies of the Parliamentary Assembly to resolve the current impasse over Russia’s participation in the Assembly (PACE) on the basis of the principle of equal obligations and rights of all member states, as set out by the Secretary General in his annual report. Our aim is therefore clearly to avoid the need for budget cuts. On the contrary, the Secretary General has called on member states to end the policy of “zero nominal growth” i.e. not to compensate their contributions for inflation.
Secretary General Jagland on Friday described the on-going talks regarding PACE as “positive”. All efforts should now be focused on finding a constructive solution.”
The upcoming Ministerial Session, to be beld on 16 and 17 May 2019 in Helsinki, will show whether Jagland’s optimism is founded in a realistic assessment of the situation.