Postcard from Brussels

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Following three days of insightful debate, brainstorming and collaboration, Friends of Europe has wrapped up the spring seminar of the European Young Leaders (EYL40) programme, which represents an alternative leadership for an inspiring Europe.

While thousands marched in support of International Women’s Day and Russia launched one of its biggest aerial assaults with 84 missiles targeted at Ukrainian infrastructure, we engaged young leaders on these issues and more with Emine Dzhaparova, Ukrainian First Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs and 2023 EYL40, and women and men changing the world on a daily basis through their businesses, NGOs, and academic, cultural and governmental positions.

Continuing the programme’s decade-long tradition, the 9-11 March event combined a head-on confrontation of challenges facing today’s Europe with teambuilding and social events that forged new partnerships and friendships among the expanding EYL40 network.

European Young Leaders (EYL40) Brussels seminar


Is Europe Alice in Wonderland?’ was the title of the three-day seminar, reflecting concerns that Europe needs to determine whether its interpretations are accurate or distorted, and whether those perceptions can guide it through the years ahead as it decides how to confront Russia’s war on Ukraine, climate change, tension with China, migration pressures, the impact of Big Tech and other fast-moving challenges.

Sessions featured senior officials from NATO, the European Commission and the Belgian federal government, as well as leading academic, media and civil society figures. Debates stressed the need to rethink European funding to speed the transition to clean energy; examined how to engage with citizens in constructing sustainable urban mobility solutions; and debated the limits of regulation in tackling fake news and online hate speech.

Belgian philosopher and economist Philippe Van Parijs told the group their good luck in growing up on a continent that enjoys a historically and geographically rare combination of peace, freedom and economic well-being brought a responsibility to give something back. “The fact that you have these privileges creates an obligation, a duty toward the community and a duty toward the world.”

A free-flowing debate between the veteran thinker and the youthful audience touched on the need to strike a balanced approach to migration as Europe’s population shrinks, the impact of economic inequality and issues of gender discrimination. The importance of education to confront post-truth narratives on social media was highlighted. “Becoming xenophile instead of xenophobe is part of the process of civilisation,” Van Parijs noted.


The seminar’s first day introduced powerful female narratives from the frontlines in Ukraine, the fight against female genital mutilation (FGM), the struggle for rights in Afghanistan and the battle to preserve Europe’s natural environment.

Emine Dzhaparova recalled stories of her compatriots killed, maimed and tortured for defending democracy against Russia’s aggression. In the face of such brutality, Ukrainian women are standing “brave and invincible”, she concluded. “Our motto – of every single Ukrainian woman – is that everything is possible,” Dzhaparova asserted. “We live in a time where everything is possible, and we have a strong feeling that the moment and history are in our hands.”

More compelling testimony came from other 2023 EYL40s, including Ifrah Ahmed, Founder of the Ifrah Foundation, who outlined the campaign to eradicate FGM in her native Somalia and among the Somali diaspora; and Camilla Appelgren, Chief Patrolling Ranger at the Heritage Parks Federation, who has faced death threats for her efforts to protect nature in Malta.

Zarifa Ghafari, Founder of Assistance and Promotion for Afghan Women (APAW) and former mayor of Maidan Shahr, evoked the tragedy that has fallen upon women in her homeland since the Taliban’s return to power, but had a message of hope. “We never thought that we would end up back in a world where being a girl is a crime,” Ghafari said. “The fight now is being led by women […] I’m sure that Afghanistan can walk more beautifully than what we are going through now.”


Several members of the European Parliament met with politicians among the EYL40 group to brainstorm on efforts to change the political culture and build more constructive politics. In the wake of the Qatargate scandal that has shaken Brussels’ euro-bubble in recent weeks, there was a focus on efforts to tackle corruption and rebuild trust ahead of the 2024 European elections.

“Let’s try to go out of the power political box,” said Dacian Cioloș, MEP, former European commissioner, former Romanian prime minister and Trustee of Friends of Europe. “The problem of trust in politicians is a very serious one all across Europe. More and more, political class is perceived as a political caste.” To counter that, he said, politicians have to reach out to reconnect with voters. The group also looked at how new rules could be tailored to tackle corruption and change political mindsets.

In a very practical session, the EYL40 worked with organisations seeking solutions to real-world problems: improving education about the European project; constructing measurement tools to help peacebuilding; and using tech to integrate migrants into the workforce. The multidisciplinary nature of the EYL40 group, which brings together politicians, entrepreneurs, scientists, activists and leaders from the arts sports, media and fashion, generated unique approaches.

“Having that interdisciplinarity in the group was super, super helpful,” said Anne Kjær Bathel, Founder and CEO of ReDI School of Digital Integration and 2020-2021 EYL40, after a session on how to upscale her vocational training programme for migrants. “There is so much power in the networks and connections people have. Very much appreciate it and it will have impact for sure.”

The European Young Leaders (EYL40) programme represents an alternative leadership for an inspiring Europe. Learn more about the programme here.

The EYL40 programme is supported by the John S. Latsis Public Benefit Foundation, Fondazione Cariplo, the United States European Command (EUCOM) and Coca-Cola in Europe, and co-funded by the European Union. The Brussels seminar was also kindly supported by the UK Mission to the EU, as well as FIDE and Debating Europe.

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