Three days at the European Student Assembly 2023
Juliette Helfi, a student at Sciences Po, tells us about her experience at the European Student Assembly.
Juliette Helfi is currently enrolled in the dual Bachelor’s degree in European social and political studies between Sciences Po’s Undergraduate College and University College London. Her passionate interest for Europe has taken her beyond her multinational French, Spanish, Italian, and Belgian roots. She was selected to take part in the European Student Assembly (ESA 2023), representing Sciences Po and CIVICA at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Juliette shares her three-day experience as a member of the Assembly working on achieving a sustainable and fair digital transition for the EU in the context of raw material scarcity.
From 31 May to 2 June, I had the opportunity to attend the European Student Assembly (ESA) at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. It was the second edition of the ESA, an event organised by 40 European university alliances which aims at involving youth in the European democratic process. 230 students from 30 European countries gathered to reflect and craft policy proposals on a wide variety of topics ranging from the future of European democracy, the current energy crisis, questions of autonomy, to the digital transition.
For a period of three months, we were divided into online panels to work on a specific policy area. In my case, I worked on how to ensure a fair and sustainable digital transition in the context of raw material scarcity. From the beginning, I was impressed by the diversity of our team and the motivation of each and every member to design innovative policies, tackling current European challenges. Our diverse academic backgrounds helped me widen my perspectives. This remote period marked by productive debates with my peers and meetings with experts reinforced my belief that change can be achieved by setting a common goal and that the power of teamwork can overcome all obstacles.
Day 1: Setting the scene
Going through the security gates of the European Parliament, I could sense the inspirational power of such a political center. During the opening ceremony, different speakers from various university alliances reaffirmed the ideals of humanity, freedom, equality and democracy upon which the European Union was built. Sitting in the Robert Schumann Hemicycle, where many European personalities have debated and contributed to making the European project a reality, felt incredibly special and empowering. Then, panel coordinators stated the problem each group had to address. Listening to all of them, I could sense the complexity of the task ahead of us as well as the opportunity we all had to leave our imprint on something that would matter for the future of Europe. During the break, I got the chance to meet in-person my fellow panelists as well as people from other panels. Discussing European issues and experiencing the diversity of our Assembly was truly enriching. I enjoyed people’s open-mindedness and kindness when debating on such important topics.
After the break, European Student Network (ESN) representatives from Ukraine gave an online presentation about Ukrainian students’ situation since the war started. Together, we discussed a twinning initiative between ESN Ukraine and the ESA. In this chaotic period epitomised by the war in Ukraine and the multiple social, economic and political crises in the EU, I believe this initiative and the ESA will strengthen Europe in its position as beacon of democracy.
It was particularly moving to hear Ukrainian students’ testimonies on the difficulties they faced since February 2022. Dialoguing with them made me proud of being a European citizen while strengthening my belief that, as an EU citizen, I had the responsibility to defend EU principles and fight for peace and the sovereignty of people.
Day 2: Policy sessions and inter-panel exchanges
The second day was, in my opinion, the most important of all as it was dedicated to finalising and discussing our policy proposals within our panels. In my panel, we adopted a multi-dimensional approach to the digital transition based on legislation, sustainability and education to ensure that the global shift towards technology steers economies towards an inclusive and environmentally conscious digital future. It was a day of intense debate, where we confronted our visions of the European tech future, tackling challenges that new technologies and in particular Artificial Intelligence, pose in our lives.
We aimed at enhancing current EU policy choices by finding the gaps and flaws, while bringing a youth perspective to the debate.
Meeting with members of other panels and CIVICA to discuss how our policies could complement each other enabled me to dive into the logics of compromise and cooperation, at the heart of the European project. We also had to overcome communication challenges as debating in a diverse group is no easy task. As far as the policy proposals are concerned, taking care of style and speaking with one single voice to ensure the coherence and the fluidity of the recommendations was crucial to convey a straightforward message. I enjoyed the whole process as I could refine my ideas through discussion while striving to convince people.
Day 3: The exercise of democracy through voting
On the last day, we were all gathered again in the Robert Schumann Hemicycle to vote on the different proposals. This exercise of direct democracy was stimulating. To vote on proposals that our fellow students designed and enable democratic debate on points of tensions symbolised the beauty of European democracy: embracing diversity and bridging differences through the political exercise of debating. I couldn’t be prouder to take part in this session as I witnessed the cohesion and inertia that was created to spur action during these three days. I contributed to our European vibrant democratic life and to carve out ground-breaking policy advice, always prioritising collective enterprise, dialogue and cooperation.
We then had the opportunity to exchange with members of the European Parliament (MEPs) on the health of European democracy, the necessity to keep innovating and reforming European institutions as well as creating closer bonds between MEPs and their constituencies so that all voices could be heard. A common feature in the MEPs’ discourse was their relentless commitment to defend European values and ideas, in spite of representing different political colours. I gained lots of insights about a MEP’s life during this exchange and could concretely understand the difficulty of their daily occupation.
The event concluded with a treasure hunt to discover the European history of Strasbourg. This informal event reminded all of us that Europe is, before everything else, about people.
Overall, I would say that meeting and exchanging with people from all horizons, not necessarily sharing my views on current challenges, was in itself a process of enlightenment and self-reflection. The ESA was an invaluable human experience that demonstrates the power of community and diversity when it comes to policy making. It proved to be a unique opportunity to think, question and build all together European solutions to daunting challenges. Through this training simulation we all strived for a more sustainable, egalitarian and humanistic Europe. Additionally, the ESA is also a voice-amplifier to disseminate our proposals and influence the European democratic debate. I can’t wait to channel our innovative and disruptive ideas to deliver with purpose for our communities as well as within CIVICA.
"In 2022, we celebrated the 70th anniversary of the European Parliament. By being here, we celebrated Europe and Europe being the house of democracy. The European Student Assembly is a great example of civic engagement. Together we can build a better future and this future is in our hands. Facing the war in Ukraine, we have to be united as never before. As the motto of the European Union says: “United in diversity" says Oleksandra Pashkina, Ukrainian Undergraduate student on Sciences Po’s Reims campus (Minor North America) and panelist at the ESA 2023.
Written by Lola Leboulleux (Sciences Po editorial team).
Photo credits: Fanny Dubray (Sciences Po).