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14th Aug 2022

EUobserved

Schoolkid 'climate strikers' outnumber MEPs at debate

  • A group of European school children travelled to Strasbourg to watch MEPs plenary debate on climate change. At one point there were some 60 watching from the public gallery - and only 28 MEPs (Photo: European Parliament)

European Commissioner for climate action Miguel Arias Canete thanked MEPs discussing global warming on Wednesday (13 March) "for engaging in this important priority debate in parliament".

But it seems that young climate activists, listening from the public gallery in Strasbourg, actually outnumbered MEPs in the chamber.

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  • A young climate activist last Sunday, at a protest organised by adults, in the Dutch capital Amsterdam (Photo: Peter Teffer)

Ten-year-old Lilly Platt was there.

She is part of the international movement of school children demanding more climate action via street protests - often during school hours.

She said on Twitter that she counted 28 MEPs in their seats at the start of the debate, which lasted less than an hour.

There are 751 MEPs in total.

"I thought it was a really disappointing turnout for something so important," said Platt.

According to centre-left MEP Udo Bullman, there were some 60 young climate activists, from 20 countries, attending the plenary debate.

If it had been up to him, and several other political groups on the left-leaning side of the house, the activists would have been allowed to take part in the debate.

"I think they should be here in our place today and talk to us. They should come forward with their demands, they should question us. We should be giving the answers," said Bullman.

But the format of Wednesday's debate was decided by the leaders of the eight political groups, and there was a majority against.

"Conservatives, liberals and the far-right denied us this chance for an open debate today. They blocked an open discussion with the young people that are going to the streets," said Bullman.

Apparently not all liberals agreed with that decision.

Pavel Telicka, a Czech MEP and vice-president of the parliament, said that if it had been up to him, he would have supported a debate with the young activists in attendance.

A spokesman for the liberal group said that its members listen to what the activists have to say, and that they share their concerns about climate change.

"However, the debate in the European parliament is done between representatives of the council, commission and parliament," he noted.

According to spokespersons from the Left and Green groups, the argument given during the meeting of group leaders discussing the format, was that children should not skip class.

But considering the low turnout by MEPs themselves, that charge of truancy seems somewhat ironic.

Then again, the debate was not really a debate. It had already been decided beforehand that no spontaneous interventions would be allowed, with speaking time strictly distributed by group size.

The debate was opened by Romanian secretary of state Melania-Gabriela Ciot - whose country holds the rotating six-month EU presidency.

"The European Union is determined to lead the way in the global response to climate change," said Ciot.

EU commissioner Canete praised the young activists, and focused his speech on the commission's recent paper on scenarios for reaching a carbon-neutral Europe by 2050.

"We are all beginning to suffer the consequences of climate change, but most of us will not be there to see what a profoundly changed planet would look like in 2050," said Canete - who is 69.

Adults in 2050

"The young Europeans that are taking to the streets - and are doing so in growing numbers and in more and more cities across Europe – will be in the prime of their adult life in 2050. I welcome their engagement, they have the biggest stake in the fight against climate change," he added.

Other speakers also thanked the children for coming to Strasbourg, but Green MEP Bas Eickhout, from the Netherlands, warned that is not what they came for.

"They don't want thanks. They want actions," he said.

"We are talking about a climate crisis here," said Eickhout.

Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy, another Dutch MEP, but from the liberal group, pointed out that how MEPs voted mattered more than what they promised.

"This Monday I'm afraid we proved that we are letting the future generation down," he said.

On Monday, the EU parliament's economic affairs committee voted on a definition of sustainable investments, but according to Gerbrandy the committee "voted out all ambition".

A representative of Dutch members of the Youth for Climate movement said on Twitter that the debate was positive, but that it was "regrettable that only one speaker noted we wanted changes now".

Asked if they felt taken seriously, the answer was that European politicians take them "somewhat" seriously.

Jorg Van Renterghem, 21, is a Belgian Erasmus student involved in the Latvian climate strikes.

He told EUobserver by email that he noticed MEPs were not trying to persuade each other. "They were just giving speeches, with a lot of them directed at us and not at each other," he said.

"But I was hoping that in parliament they would be debating actual solutions and details, and not just shouting general propaganda. Because in the end the parliament is the place were these general ideas should be converted in real detailed legislation and actions," said Van Renterghem.

More school strikes coming

On Thursday afternoon, Youth for Climate is organising another school strike in Amsterdam.

On Friday, students across the EU, and indeed the world, are planning to hold another strike.

Tens of thousands of activists are expected to protest in more than 1,300 cities in 98 countries - including in all 28 EU states.

Germany is the country where most strikes are registered, namely 190, followed by Italy (140), the USA (140), and Sweden (112).

Sweden is where 16-year-old Greta Thunberg is from, the climate activist who started to skip classes to call for climate action seven months ago.

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