I have just returned from Strasbourg, where for three days the European Youth Forum ran its annual YO!Fest as part of the European Youth Event, which took place at the European Parliament. I have come back to Brussels truly heartened and inspired by the ideas and motivation of the 5,300 young people that came together for this event.
In the run up to the European elections, we hear time and time again about how young people don't care about politics, how they are not going to vote because they are not engaged in the political process. Now I can strongly refute this supposition that young people are disengaged from politics and important matters, having seen the evidence with my own eyes.
That is why it is particularly disappointing to read the response to this inspirational gathering of young people in the UK's Daily Mail. Which, as is typical of right-wing trashy press, searched for a way to criticize the event labeling it "a 6 million pound party" and "an orgy". They clearly were not at the same event as me!
Of course there was a fun, vibrant atmosphere; there was live music (Asian Dub Foundation headlined a massive gig in the main square of Strasbourg and well-known Belgian band, Puggy, played the second night), but there were also serious discussions featuring European commissioners, MEPs and youth leaders on topics as varied as youth unemployment, discrimination, lowering the voting age to 16 and the future of Europe.
But it's called YO!Fest because it's a political festival; at the same time as workshops, talks and debates, there was street theatre, graffiti workshops, skateboarding and dancing. Just because it's politics, it doesn't mean it's boring! And I can guarantee if you ask any of the young people that came to this year's YO!Fest they will certainly tell you that they had a good time. Yes, they may have drunk a bit too much on the Saturday night, or maybe they spent more time relaxing in the sun when they intended to go to a debate in the Parliament, but at the end of the day over 5,000 young people have been inspired to discuss ideas to improve their and their peers lives and if the festival atmosphere made that a more enjoyable experience, then I for one am not going to apologise for it!
When the Daily Mail - no doubt spurred on by UKIP's EU hatred - says that this unique event was all about pro-EU propaganda, what it failed to mention was the huge range of educational and thought-provoking topics that were highlighted over the three-day event. Here to name just a few: a workshop on social inclusion and volunteering, a workshop on sign language, a debate on sport as a tool for inclusion, a workshop on social inclusion, a debate on lowering the voting age to 16, a workshop on hate speech. And these are a mere few!
By reducing young people to a stereotype of partying nymphomaniacs - though its grotesque twisting of some simple common-sense guidance about sexual behaviour- the Daily Mail and their like dangerously undermine young people and risk further alienating them from both voting and from engaging in the processes that decide their future. That is why, in ten days time, I urge young people in the UK and across Europe to show the Daily Mail and UKIP that they are wrong, that they are interested in more than the next party, and to come out in force to vote at the European elections. If they do not, then others are going to and their voice is not going to be heard.