Gabor Berczeli is Director of the Robert Schuman Institute (RSI) and has over fifteen years of experience with youth engagement, political organisation development and political education. Gabor has been at the centre of educating the next generation of political leaders and party activists. Taking lead from the EPP, the Robert Schuman Institute has helped to develop centre-right political parties across Europe and beyond.
What are the main activities of the Robert Schuman Institute?
The Schuman Institute was set up in 1991, same age as BullsEye, we could have a birthday party together. The RSI was set up in the wake of the fall of the Iron Curtain and during this time the EPP was pretty special from the political families, because they thought of supporting the country transformation processes as well as the political transformation. The EPP had the idea that to make a country work you need the right kind of politicians and democrats. It is not difficult to write a new constitution, this is something that could be done in a couple of weeks, and in months set up new a parliament and institutions, however if it is the same people as old and used up before it is not going to work and deliver on meaningful change.
The EPP, together with the Schuman Foundation (Luxembourg) and a number of member parties set up the RSI and initially focused on Central European countries such as Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and later on in the Baltic states once they got independence. Together they would also be trained for the new tasks and to help make connections for eastern partners. This was an exciting and new opportunity for the opposition to the Communists as the opposition could now freely network with each other, which is a very important aspect of politics! The process of training from the RSI was very much different than how it is done today, for example not many people spoke Western languages and so it was a challenge with interpreters and non-English speakers. People also had different expectations on what the education of the Institute should look like.
It can now look funny to see pictures of the old trainings taking place as they are quite different from today! For example, sometimes there would be a lecture delivered by a politician with very little open discussion but many people would be taking notes and listening intently.
And so the original mission was to train this new influx of politicians and democrats and also to set up the new centre-right political parties and to give them the new tools and knowledge to bring forward their vision for their countries. We trained the full spectrum of people in politics, from the figurehead politicians to the advisers and also regular party workers. It is still our objective to train the next generation of political leaders and activists.
We are now changing the geographical focus and have moved on to the neighbours of the European Union and have links all the way to the Caucasus. We have also recently expanded to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, which is related to the statutory objectives of the EPP and so we follow the political objectives of the EPP.
The first partnerships made in MENA were in Lebanon, in particular the Christian parties. We have also had two political parties from Morocco where we have built connections and there is a scouting and fact finding mission around Tunisia, so we are expecting in the future that relationships can be made there.
The countries in MENA are a little bit complicated in terms of ideology. In Lebanon for example there is an already existing synergy and understanding of aligned political objectives, in the other countries it will be more of a challenge to forge ideological common ground.
Has it got more difficult to follow the goals of leadership building for the next political generation in these new regions such as MENA?
In some places yes, such as Morocco where a fresh project is stopped halfway by the pandemic, that makes a difference to a country like Albania for example, where there is already a long-time, firm understanding of EU politics in relation to their countries. There are also existing regional partnerships within Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans, whereas this does not seem to be the case typically for MENA countries. Arabic is also a challenge for us on the organizational level, but overall, quite exciting to build relations with the local parties and experience their regional challenges.
What are the key objectives of your activities?
We have a programme called “Young Leaders”, which explores democracy and political leadership. It is a long-term programme that discusses social and economic topics, as well as security and international issues. We find that a leader needs to know a bit of everything. This is one part of the trainings and we also have a focus on getting women into leadership positions, or supporting first-time elected councillors to deliver well in their mandate. Meanwhile we are also looking at policies as sustainable development in a way that it is not just about fancy power point presentations but also about highlighting and working in regions of deprivation. For example, a region in the north of Hungary where we have identified some interesting example projects to visit. We find this helps to highlight the benefits and mechanisms of these projects and also gives our trainees a useful perspective on projects that can work in similar economically deprived regions. We encourage our trainees to build up firstly their local communities for sustainable long-term projects. We also do other field trips, such as to campaign offices and we find this to be really exciting for younger people who don’t benefit from the opportunities existing on senior levels.
What do you see as the main challenge for youth engagement for centre-right parties?
This is something we are considering for the last few years and in particular we look at the Millennial generation as each new generation is quite different. This is an added challenge for centre-right parties as in your youth most people do not align themselves with Christian-Democratic or Conservative values. Younger people at that stage in life generally align easier with the left wing values, as the Germans say “If you vote for CDU you don’t have a heart, and if you are moving on in life and are not voting CDU then you don’t have a brain!”. The centre-right values and policy offers begin to align with people when they are thinking about buying their homes, raising children or planning their long-term career goals. The younger generations are difficult to target and often we see the centre-right parties are possibly abandoning the youth vote because of limitations to resources.
The centre-right parties perhaps do not place value on engaging with the youth vote?
Yes, this is a key problem and another aspect is the political communication itself. The machinery of political communication is not quite suitable for reaching a generation of young people who are consuming lots of media from lots of different places. For example, my own children are not even on Facebook because the platform is now considered to be for the older people. At the same time, it is not necessarily a good idea for a politician to use something like Tik Tok!
Certainly you can do fun stuff as a politician but how do you translate that into votes?
Do you think politicians have a difficulty in allowing the ‘fun’ and authentic side of their personalities coming out? Especially because they have to be serious in political discussions.
Well, many politicians don’t have a life to start with!
In general, I think that politics has become very demanding on a person’s life and so it doesn’t allow for personal time. It can also be quite difficult for a politician to balance meeting people on the serious policy side, while also meeting regular party activists and constituents.
What are some of the solutions to organising activities during this difficult period?
It is tricky because many people assumed that online meetings and learnings would thrive, but we are beginning to see a burnout in uptake of online webinars. However, these tools are also very important to use; it is very economical to make an online webinar and allows the potential to connect with many people. It is not just seminars or webinars we do online, we have also launched a mentorship with the Eduardo Frei Foundation which we can do as a 1 to 1 training. This allows us to match people in different countries very naturally, for example we have a current matching where a Dutch politician mentors a student in Serbia or a Lebanese mentoring an Albanian. This kind of arrangement seems to have worked out very well as it allows for plenty of free-flowing feedback.
The lockdown also allowed us to reflect on what we were doing and many people are now accustomed to using video methods for learning and connecting with others. We managed to connect with our alumni particularly well too, who could see their former group mates again easily via zoom sessions. We have found that as long as we combine in-person and online methods where possible while keeping our offer fresh then we can continue to deliver on our goals as an institution.
Furthermore, we are also launching an e-book club where people can discuss and learn in a more interactive manner. The e-book club in particular is very low intensity and only takes one hour per week.
Both EDS and RSI aim to connect, educate and develop the political experience and careers of young people with centre-right views. In what ways could we cooperate to achieve these aims?
Of course, we do have a lot of aligned working goals with EDS as a member of the union of RSI and in the past we have tried to match up EDS speakers with the topics they are most interested in. We could apply for joint projects and their funding together while also working towards training and engaging the next generation of activists.
We are also open to hearing about what EDS might want to do together and would be happy to work with you on that.
We are always interested in further collaboration, for example in the past we worked together on a project with the youth and the European Seniors Union about intergenerational dialogue, and as this seminar discussed different policy topics we found that there was considerable common ground and crossover. This helped us to understand the mutually acceptable solutions going forward.
At the beginning of the pandemic, when schools and students were the first affected, we had a common roundtable with you on how student organizations are coping with the circumstances. One year on, maybe it would be interesting to draw conclusions and see the best practices for student interest representation and shaping the new normal of education.
We are proud that EDS is a strong bridge and the only organisation that makes a connection between British Conservatives and other centre-right people and parties. In what way could we connect this to RSI’s work?
Brexit means that the Conservative Party is no longer a direct political competitor to the EPP in terms of European Institutions and parliamentary groups so this eliminates potential barriers for work with the UK. I also believe that the Conservative Party has paid a lot of attention to the neighbouring countries of the European Union and they have been one of the drivers of enlargement, so there is considerable common ground especially in relation to a geographical focus. We have been providing support to the same parties as the Conservatives and so there is definitely scope for synergy and collaboration. Future work together could involve a sharing of speakers on relevant topics, we find these quite useful as it also allows for relationship building as well as a broader spectrum of views on topics. I believe that experts from the Conservatives would be very welcome to join us in policy discussions and joint-events.