October 22, 1999

As Romano Prodi's "wise men" prepared to release their report on a strengthened and enlarged European Union, a less-publicised forum gathered in Weimar, Germany.

Weimar was chosen for the most recent session of the European Youth Parliament to mark both the 80th anniversary of Germany's Weimar republic constitution and a decade since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Although delegates are mainly senior school students (Belarus alone sent university students), academics show a keen interest. Alan Flowers, of Kingston University, is a parliament facilitator and says it complements his Know-How Fund activities. The workshops teach young people "to research across the whole range of EU activities, from human rights to genetic engineering, to cultural activities, EU expansion, and the rise of dictatorships".

Janusz Tomiak, president of the inter-university study group on education in Russia, the independent states and eastern Europe, said: "These young people come from very different backgrounds with very different degree of political sophistication. For some, democracy is a vague and ill-defined concept of a better future."

Juliet Lodge, director of the centre for European studies at Leeds University, believes the parliament is important for established and new democracies. "Democracy is something we take for granted, but at our peril. Democracy is only as strong as the citizens who practice, value and nurture it."

The parliament addressed some burning issues of the students' early adulthood. They rejected a proposal that an international body should be created with the right to close obsolete and dangerous nuclear power plants, arguing it would infringe sovereignty.

But its success depends on participation. Unfortunately, many "new democracies" can only afford to be represented at one of the three sessions a year. Professor Tomiak said: "There were serious absences of some who would benefit most - Russians, Ukrainians, and Serbs, not to mention student from Slovakia and Lithuania, named last week among the six new EU candidates."

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