“Strengthening Ties in Youth Cooperation” was the title of an international conference in Zagreb from 24th till 26th of June, which aimed at empowering young people – and became a small AEGEE Agora. Organised by the EU on the occasion of Croatia’s accession to the European Union on 1st of July, around 200 young people from 36 countries took part. Among them were 80 from AEGEE, including former Network Comissioner Koen Berghuis. He shared his impressions with the Golden Times. “AEGEE people were in a great majority thus set the atmosphere”, Koen said.

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Former AEGEE-Europe president Marko Grdošić contributed to the event’s success.

Golden Times: Koen, with 80 AEGEE members the Zagreb conference was like an AEGEE event. How was the atmosphere?
Koen Berghuis: It was totally like a small Agora. Even if there were quite many non-AEGEE people around, I would say that AEGEE people were in a great majority thus set the atmosphere. But also others did fully integrate and this contributed to a nice European atmosphere where people from different organisations were intermingling. Also the programme was similar to an Agora: long sessions with speeches and question sessions from early morning till late in the evening, and only two hours of sleep each night. The only difference was that we stayed in a four-star hotel and had lavish breakfast and dinner!

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The conference was organised by the Directorate-General for the Enlargement of the European Commission.

Golden Times: Did the content of the conference match your expectations?
Koen: Not completely. Let’s say I had different expectations. Many of the speakers and topics being touched were all the same, the variety of it wasn’t huge. I expected more focus on real issues that Croatia and we are facing in the EU, plus then some interactive sessions how we can cooperate to solve them. Even if some speakers did slightly touch these subjects and some good questions were raised by the audience, it lacked a real result in the end. But maybe this is also quite impossible to achieve given the really short time the conference lasted.

Golden Times: What would you have done differently as organiser?
Koen: Including more sessions how to cooperate as youth to solve problems, plus more interactive sessions. Apart from that, I was quite impressed with the general organisational level of it! However,  with all the participants arriving on Monday late afternoon and leaving again at the end of Wednesday morning, the one full remaining day is just way too short to achieve proper results and to allow enough time for networking, certainly as many people already arrived very tired because of long travels. Another full day would already be a huge improvement!

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Koen Berghuis with Anca Gliga (left) and Andreea Pavel (right)

Golden Times: What were the content highlights?
Koen: For me personally there wasn’t a clear highlight when it comes to content, but if I must say something I would name the speech of Sandra Kramer of the Directorate-General Justice of the European Commission and some very interesting remarks made by Peter Matjasic, President of the European Youth Forum. I’m also happy to say that there were plenty of AEGEEans on stage who made very good contributions, either with speeches or in panels. Luis Alvarado Martinez, Silvija Perić, Marko Grdošić, Jelena Stankovic, Kathrin Renner, Lucille Reux & Anna Gots did great in the name of AEGEE.

Golden Times: You met a lot of people in Zagreb. Who impressed you personally most?
Koen: Two people I had no met before really impressed me a lot. I had some great, interesting talks with Ana Potočnik from AEGEE-Ljubljana. Plus I had the honour to work in a group with Anca Gliga, the former president of AEGEE-Cluj-Napoca. We won a small competition during the conference, making video messages to communicate the EU enlargement. With her energy, enthusiasm and experience Anca was the driving force of our group. And let’s not forget Silvija Perić and all the other people of AEGEE-Zagreb who helped out with some organisational tasks!

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80 AEGEE members took part.

Golden Times: There were a lot of other NGOs present. How was meeting them, being outside the AEGEE bubble?
Koen: For me it is always great to get outside the bubble. There were many other organisations, and personally I met interesting people from European Youth Press and ESN Spain which whom I will stay in touch for sure.

Golden Times: How is the perception of AEGEE in European Commission circles?
Koen: So far as I can tell, they were really enthusiastic about AEGEE. It is already telling a lot that there were so many AEGEEans on stage in panels, to give speeches. Also outside those people, the other AEGEE participants were really active. They were asking questions or showing great results in the competition to make video messages about the EU enlargement.

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Zagreb – one of Europe’s most beautiful cities.

Golden Times: Let’s talk about Croatia. In the EU and even within Croatia itself the enthusiasm about the country’s EU accession is not so high. How did you perceive it in these days?
Koen: In the exact same way as you say it. While Croatians were very enthusiastic to become EU member when their country regained independence in the 1990s, this has now completely waned with perhaps even more people being a bit skeptical than full on enthusiastic. I would rather describe the mood as impassive, also because there are quite some problems in Croatian society with unemployment or corruption.

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Croatia is still under construction – the country has many problems to solve.

Golden Times: Which problems is the country facing?
Koen: Croatia’s credit rating has been cut twice in recent months, foreign investors are turning their back on the country. According to official data, foreign direct investment has fallen by 80 percent since 2008 – last year it was back to the level of 1999. Since 2008 the country’s GDP has fallen by 11 percent. Around 120,000 people have lost their jobs in the last five years, with unemployment rising from 14 to 20 percent and whole sectors like construction have collapsed. People know that the EU accession will give them benefits, but given the crisis in the EU and the problems in Croatia, they know that there won’t be any huge changes overnight and it has to be seen what the future will bring.

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Sightseeing in beautiful Zagreb with the beauties of AEGEE.

Golden Times: Which main tasks are ahead for the country?
Koen: A huge unemployment rate, certainly under young people – Croatia will be third in the EU after Spain & Greece. And corruption. But I think the biggest task of the country will be to change their mindset a bit when it comes to such problems. This is not only a problem in Croatia, but through the entire former Yugoslavia. People are very skeptical, are not pro-active and are not aware of their rights and opportunities. With a more pro-active approach and a better understanding of active citizenship, they can go a long way.

Golden Times: Do you think that the EU accession comes too early?
Koen: No. Even with these issues I don’t think the EU accession comes too early. Croatia is a relatively small country that is easy for the EU to absorb, plus it can play a pivotal role towards the other Balkan countries which are not yet part of the EU.