Youth debate brought together the main parliamentary forces participating in the European Parliament elections

On 15 May 2024, in the city of Sofia Amalipe Center and the youth activists at the Center organized a debate with representatives of the parliamentary parties that will take part in the upcoming elections for members of the European Parliament. We invited the five parliamentary forces (without the Revival PP – a principle we have followed for years is not to give a platform to extreme nationalists, from whichever political party they are) in a debate that is non-partisan and does not aim to “bring votes”, but to show commitment to youth policies and policies regarding the Roma community. Almost everyone invited responded. The tone of the debate was constructive and quite different from all the similar events we watch on TV… In this way politicians showed respect for young people and for the Amalipe Centre and gave cause for optimism that we live in a European country.

Who participated:

  • Tsvetan Predov, PP There Is Such A People;
  • Stefan Tafrov, CP We Continue the Change – Democratic Bulgaria;
  • Andrey Kovatchev, CP GERB – SDS;
  • Vyara Emilova, PP BSP for Bulgaria
    An invitation was also extended to the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), but their representative was not elected.

The debate was moderated by Sinan Kadyrov and Ayshe Rasimova – long-time volunteers of Center Amalipe and students at Shumen University “Konstantin Preslavski”, who explained that the debate is not party-bound and all participants are equal.

The objectives of the debate are:

  • to show young people the culture of meaningful, constructive and evidence-based public debate on key public policies – how to have a debate in which participants defend the issues and make substantive arguments without violating personal dignity;
  • give a platform for young people to put to the candidates for MEPs the issues, problems and ideas that concern them in the field of youth education and youth policies promoting civic engagement and tolerance;
  • MEP candidates from the different political formations to listen to the voices of young people and discuss with them different visions and concrete measures for the development of effective youth policies that promote citizenship and tolerance, for the future of the European Union and our place in it.

The debate was opened by Deyan Kolev, Chairman of Center “Amalipe”, who explained that the debate is the result of the activities implemented by the active youth. Center “Amalipe” works with nearly 300 schools across the country, some of which have youth groups for civic participation and tolerance. They provide training to their peers and implement campaigns on civic issues (prevention of early marriage, tolerance, Roma community, European institutions and voting in the upcoming EP elections).

Kolev explained that through the debate we show:

  • It is a principle of modern democracy that we elect the government not to govern us, but to govern on our behalf. He addressed the young people by saying that we all have the right to ask the people who will govern on our behalf what they will do and then periodically ask them for meetings as well as an accounting of the results of their governance.
  • The principle of a free mandate – when an MP is elected, they represent not only their constituents but all citizens. Young people have the right to ask about anything that concerns them, both about Bulgaria and about the EU.
  • In March 2023, when the previous parliamentary elections were held, Amalipe Center held debates at district level with candidates for MPs. To our delight, the leaders of the respective parties responded. We are glad that now a debate is also being implemented. Through these debates, young people are being shown that politicians can have a quality, reasoned European debate.

After explaining the rules of procedure for the debate, the floor was given to each panellist to present their main points. What the participants said:

  • Andrey Kovachev – Organising this debate is exactly the way to connect with young people. Youth policies are not made from the top down, but from the bottom up. To hear the voice of young people, to understand what drives them, and for politicians to pay attention, not only before elections, to the wishes of young people, because they are the ones for whom it is most important to shape policies and to give their voice to those policies they want to see for themselves, for career development, for their families, for their children, education, health and prevention.
  • Vyara Emilova – This is a debate in which we, politicians, have to show that we can talk and not shout against each other. When our thesis is one, when we have one goal, and in the EU our goal should be Bulgaria. We must all look together and in the same direction.
  • Stefan Tafrov – I am filled with hope that the future of Bulgaria is in the hands of a young generation that wants to make our country to be at the centre of Europe in political, cultural and every sense. For me, there is no more stimulating audience than yours, because, one, you are young, secondly, you stand for tolerance, integration. That is the meaning of the EU. These are values that I have personally fought for all my life… In this campaign, because it coincides with the elections to the National Assembly, there is a danger that European issues will be overshadowed by national ones. We, the candidates for the European Parliament, will make an effort to explain to you what we, as MEPs, can do for you specifically… The European Parliament can do a lot for young people, a lot for the integration of ethnic and religious groups, we do not need to say that we can immediately solve your everyday problems. The EP is the place where Bulgaria is given the opportunity to work out its policies, to find solutions regarding youth and minorities.
  • Tsvetan Predov – “I know very well what the word “tolerance” means. I know very well what it means to give strength and inspiration to the people next to you, including children, to stand up and be equal individuals with everyone else… We are aware of the problem that is not only in Bulgaria, but also in the EU.”

After the introductory part, the young people asked their questions to the candidates:

  • “What would you do to end the hate speech?”

Andrey Kovachev – A huge problem that leads to discrimination. The EU is a pioneer in this area. We adopted the Digital Act (the Digital Market Act and the Digital Act) for the first time in the world. These are two pieces of legislation in which we are placing huge new responsibilities on the big platforms that influence millions of European citizens to absolutely prevent this kind of hate speech, this kind of discrimination, on whatever grounds. This is not just a global issue. In our society, we need to make sure that this kind of hate speech is not tolerated, is not accepted as normal. With good examples – politicians should have good behaviour in the National Assembly, when they are doing the debates not to insult each other with vulgar words, not to attack each other. Athletes, people from the academic world, the media – not to allow such speech. We have a lot of work to do here, including in schools – teachers have and families have a huge influence.

Vyara Emilova – The language of hate starts from upbringing, education. In many cases it starts from the lack of attitude of the parent towards the child within the family…. Reading people, educated people, people who seek to develop themselves do not tolerate hate speech. In social networks, in our daily lives, we are part of this process. I ask you as young people, when you encounter this hate speech, to be the stopping line. Do not spread videos on social networks, do not retweet a bad story when you hear one. We can be part of the whole process. As the internet continues to grow, the use of this language is expanding.

Stefan Tafrov – One of the things we can do is to see how these new regulations affecting social networks work. Social networks act as megaphones for hate speech, but the EU has no jurisdiction over them. I, as an MEP, will monitor how these European regulations are implemented and will make proposals to introduce new ones if they are not sufficient, so that hate speech is not reinforced by social networks. Of course, we as a society need to tackle the root of the problem. We need to make it clear that racism is absolutely unacceptable, that all difference has a place in a society, that it enriches society. Let us ban coarse language and let us politicians not set an example with coarse language, with indecent behaviour.

Tsvetan Predov – There are many external factors that influence that attitude. A person can talk to you with a smile and at the same time he can exude hatred. What’s the first thing to do? Personal example. Personal example is always a choice in any situation. We choose whether we are going to hold the language of hate or whether we are going to be who we were created to be. The two main things that control society are fear and love. Both, when paired, become very heavy. The mass media, television, public life, all contribute. When we choose a side, because modern society has one huge plus – that information is available to each one of us and we can decide what we want to be. I don’t agree that it’s just the family environment, just the educational environment, or low status. Yes, they play a role, but it’s primarily societal attitudes, which is like an overall pattern of behavior. What awaits us in the future modern world is to open our hearts and be extremely tolerant, because even people who use hate speech need tolerance and understanding.

  • “Is any thought being given to providing some good basis as in Europe for more young people to develop in their own country, not to be restricted, not to be oppressed?”

Andrey Kovachev – The starting positions are not equal, unfortunately. This should be the goal of the entire political class, education, families. We must work to ensure that young people born in Bulgaria find their happiness here, that they can develop in their country, that they can feel their hometown, their street, their square, their neighbourhood, their neighbourhood, where they live as something attractive, good, and that they can get an education wherever they want, but return to their place of birth. The political class is indebted to many young people in Bulgaria for equal start opportunities, for staying in school, for being well enough educated and informed that a young child cannot become a mother at the age of 1-13, she must get her education and the opportunity for career development.

Vyara Emilova – There is one word in the question and it is “homeland”. The main problem of young people not staying in our homeland is the lack of perspective in our country. The lack of work immediately after they finish their education, the lack of opportunities to buy an apartment immediately so that they can raise their families, the lack of a future and of a perspective in Bulgaria. That is why many young people, after finishing their education, have their first look outside our country, because there the countries are set up in such a way, better socially secured and they find their fulfilment faster, especially if they know several languages. What should we do? There are a few basic things that we put in our programme. Have a state housing policy and interest-free credit for young families. It is very important that young people, once they reach a certain age, should be able to take out a loan that will make it very easy for them to buy a home so that they can settle in our country and not look for their future abroad. There must also be agreements between universities and employers. Once young people graduate from university, there should immediately be a contract with an employer so that they can start work, rather than endlessly going to the job centre to sign. This is extremely important and this is how young people can be retained in our country. Young people should have security, they should have hope. These are just a few of the programmes, the policies that we are putting in place, but we are also making it easier for young people to start their own businesses. By the age of 29, the regime for young people who want to start their own, private business should be extremely easy. Expanding the Erasmus programmes, making these programmes more accessible to all of you.

Stefan Tafrov – The main goal of the EU is convergence between the more developed and the less developed member states. Unfortunately, Bulgaria is one of the less developed ones and this answers this question why the EU helps young people to gain perspective. How does it help? By helping Bulgaria to get closer to the level of the more developed countries. Bulgaria contributes something like three and a half times less to the EU budget than it receives. We need an independent judiciary to ensure that this money that is coming into Europe, which is not small for Bulgaria, is spent in the most transparent and efficient way, so that it creates prospects for the young person. Therefore, it is very important that, when we talk about the prospects of young people, we also refer to what we are doing in Bulgaria so that we can take advantage of the prospects, the opportunities, including the material resources that the EU provides us with. This radical change in terms of respect for the rule of law must take place in Bulgaria in the next parliamentary term, otherwise Bulgaria will fall behind and there will be no prospects for young people.

Tsvetan Predov – In order to have this stability the Bulgarian state must have a guarantor from the birth of the child until the age of majority and then when he is already firmly on his feet. You know people who barely survive. In such a family, how do you make his child feel significant? How are you going to make his child accept that when he finishes his secondary education with all his efforts and when he goes to apply and if he doesn’t have a parent – an MP or a businessman father – how is he going to get a job? I didn’t think we would start with this type of talk so early. I would point out to you that we have a National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues in Bulgaria. In 2011, the EU created a European framework of the National Roma Integration Strategy. By now, we should have a wonderful, well-developed support network not only for the Roma ethnic group, but for all children living in Bulgaria or the children of visitors living in Bulgaria. None of this has happened. We can fix it when we are united, when we understand the gravity of being a child and surviving on your own, because parents struggle to survive, physically and socially. Attitude as a guarantee to you and political, national and regional is missing.

This was followed by questions on the Amalipe Center’s Facebook page:

  • “What do you think about vote buying, and more to the point, what would you do to stop it, because we’re assuming no one would say or approve of that?”

Andrey Kovachev – This is a criminal phenomenon that is observed in Bulgaria and there should be strong state institutions (court, prosecutor’s office, police) to monitor very carefully how and who is involved in buying and selling votes of the people and to be sanctioned, including making this very public so that others cannot afford it. Since vote-buying has been criminalised in this country, that trend is decreasing and will decrease more and more. With more education, more awareness of Bulgarian citizens. This should be our common goal – to fight for education, for awareness, to prevent vote buying, because it is a substitution of the sovereign vote (of the Bulgarian people). With common efforts, I hope this will be stopped.

Vyara Emilova – Of course we are against vote buying. By buying votes, the vote of the Bulgarian citizens is changed. Unfortunately, votes are being bought in Bulgaria, and I, as an MP, have repeatedly lodged complaints and signals on election day itself. The procedure is so heavy-handed that when these checks are launched, things end up being swept under the carpet so that nothing comes to light. There are areas of the country where people sell their votes for small amounts. They say, ‘Let me get through the week so that I have money to get through this week’. We have got to the point as a social level that some people are selling their votes to have a week to get by. Others out of ignorance, low education perhaps, relatives, acquaintances, family ties, corporate voting. The law should be enforced to the fullest, not turned a blind eye when elections come around. We get an awful lot of reports on election day itself of a lot of electoral violations. I ask you, when we see something like this, not to turn a blind eye. There is a law, and from now on we will fight to apply the full force of the law to stop vote buying. In two or three Balkan countries this problem is occurring. In other countries they cannot imagine how an intelligent person or any person will sell his vote. So be young Europeans.

Stefan Tafrov – Yesterday I received three proposals from vote brokers who wrote to me “Mr Tafrov, do you want us to collect one or two preferences, one or two votes?”. They want contact with me and make it clear that they are willing to broker for me. The key is in the institutions. The police, the prosecutor’s office. Investigate these brokers, including the representatives of the local government. There are a huge number of villages and small towns where people heat with wood and if you don’t prove to the mayor that you voted for his party, he won’t give you a receipt for wood. I blame myself for not reporting these people to the police until now. Because I too am in the grip of this general distrust of institutions. I’m not sure that by making a complaint, by saying to the police, “Look at this guy, check him out, he’s trying to offer to buy my votes,” that that’s going to happen. And I’m guilty of that. We are all guilty because we don’t trust the institutions and the guilt is mutual. And they have not given us reason to trust them completely.

Tsvetan Predov – Buying and selling votes is a personal act. Leave it whether it is illegal, whether it is criminal. Everyone decides for himself what he can do. But there is a group of people for whom they barely survive. For them, it really is a matter of survival. How has the state ensured their existence? If a political, national decision is taken vote buying will stop within a week. Every one of you knows or has heard in the region in which you live about the people who are involved in this. It is just that the people who are involved in this have someone who is from the relevant neighbourhood, who is from the upper class. But he has somebody to call in Sofia, because you have all heard “The money from Sofia has come”. Tolerance is a responsibility, in what you say. If you know that in some way you were involved or were part of a political party that was involved, I don’t think it’s right to talk about what buying and selling votes means. Think about the last mayoral election. What was the voting percentage in the regions concerned? It is a personal choice, no matter what state we are in, and the state’s unwillingness to deal with this problem I am adamant.

You can see more of the questions asked in the live recording HERE:

 The debate ended with a group photo of the youth and participants, lots of smiles and positive mood. 

Photos from the event can be seen HERE

The debate is part of the project “EMPOWEREU: Promoting the participation of young people and vulnerable groups in the European elections”, funded by the European Parliament. However, the views and opinions expressed are entirely those of their authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Parliament. Neither the European Union nor the European Parliament is responsible for them.