Why do unions want to be members of the European Students’ Union?

Julian Lo Curlo

Some weeks ago, I was asked to write an article on why a national student union would be interested in becoming a member of the European Students’ Union (ESU).

 

I was thinking about the matter when, yesterday, while I was coming back to Copenhagen from a meeting in Helsinki, I got a text from an old friend from the student movement. The message was from Yulia, who used to be a representative from the Belarusian student organization BOSS, before being elected later on into the European Students´ Union (ESU). She told me that she was in Helsinki too and was getting the same flight to Copenhagen as me, and she asked whether we should meet-up to catch-up and take the plane together. With surprise and excitement I accepted her offer to travel home together.

Yulia was not simply active in BOSS, she was the person that led the organisation to become a member of the ESU 3 years ago - a membership process that was not at all easy.

 

The debate on the BOSS’ membership happened on my first ESU meeting and is one of the discussions that I recall best in my time in the student movement. Membership discussions in the ESU have always been tough. Giving decision-making power to a new actor in the biggest representative student organisation in Europe is not a decision that can be taken lightly, but the case of the BOSS was different.

 

The BOSS was in a situation in which they did not fully comply with one of the criteria to be members of the ESU. This was not because they did not want to, but because doing so was illegal in their country. Membership matters are especially complex when you are dealing with student organisations that operate in authoritarian states as Belarus.

 

On the day of the vote, Yulia held a very sharp speech in the podium of a hotel somewhere near Gdansk, in Poland. A very long debate behind closed doors followed, where the complex nature of the situation was discussed for hours. While that situation was taking place, Yulia waited impatiently outside the meeting room.

 

The debate concluded with a nerve-wrecking vote and with the organisations present agreeing that the BOSS needed to be recognized as an equal member of the European Students’ Union. That day, the ESU took an extra stand against authoritarian regimes in Europe and the long efforts of Yulia and her colleagues finally paid off.

 

On the flight home from Helsinki, Yulia and I sat together and remembered those moments 3 years ago. There I asked her why the BOSS at that time put so much effort and work to become part of ESU, why they wanted that membership so badly.

 

Yulia told me that joining the ESU was all about their fight for a democratic society in Belarus. Being part of a joint European voice was a tool to receive international recognition for a work that the government of their home country would never consider legitimate. It was about being part of an international community of student organisations that also understood that students must be able to organize themselves independently. It was a way to put pressure on local actors to sit and talk with them. It was a way of reaching international fora, where they would have never been invited to by their government. As well as it was a way of getting the rest of European students to support their fight.

In other words, the BOSS’ membership in ESU was an act of resistance. A form of legitimizing themselves in front of a government that considered them as destructive student activism.

 

The case of Belarus is very unique given their national political context, but the foundations of their motivation to become members are actually quite common across European unions of students.

 

If we look at the facts, the ESU is an organization that fulfills the very necessary role of being the representative voice for 45 National Unions of Students from 39 different countries across the continent. It is important to have representatives that take the voices of students of Europe up into the different European and international fora, since otherwise no one else could do so. That is the primary goal of the organization.

 

A forum that builds strength through unity.

 

But the ESU is something more than that. The ESU is a platform that unites hundreds of student representatives from all over the continent to work together and strengthen each other. It is a meeting point that creates ties across student representatives. A forum that builds strength through unity.

That meeting point is probably what motivates all unions who want to be members of the ESU to apply to do so and what makes the ESU such an attractive organization. It is about knowing that out there there are other organizations, with whom to share values, dreams and challenges. It is about not being alone in the different national fights.

 

I do not know why the organization I represent, the National Union of Students in Denmark (DSF), decided to become a member of ESU. It happened in fact such a long time ago that ESU even had another name. What I can though say is why we remain in it.

 

The easy answer to that is to say that we stay because the ESU is the organization that ensures that we can work on European matters. We would not have any form of overview of what is happening outside our borders, if it wasn’t because we are part of this bigger forum. We need representatives in Europe and the ESU fulfills that role.

 

We remain because we are stronger when we stand with our European peers.

 

A more in-depth perspective would say that we stay because the lessons we learn from our European peers make our organization systematically better. Lessons that qualify our knowledge in those areas of work we do not have experience on. Lessons that improve the structures of our organization and make them more efficient and democratic. Lessons that inspire our advocacy work at home.

In the past years we have replicated activistic actions made by Latvian students. We have been taught by Irish students how to work with sexual harassment and violence and by Norwegian students how to work with climate change. We were inspired by Italian students by their summer camp, which has hundreds and hundreds of participants every single year. And we have developed a global organization in partnership with students from the UK. Among many other things.

 

We remain because we are stronger when we stand with our European peers.

There are some similarities between our motivations and the ones of BOSS. While the context is totally different, we both look for a common European space to strengthen our fights. A space for cooperation across borders.

In reality, this might be the true magic of ESU. This is what makes that cooperation work at the end of the day: we are all different, but alike at the same time.

 

There is where the true strength of ESU lays - in the power to unite the voices of students of Europe to fight for a brighter future. As the founder of the National Union of Students in the UK, Ivison Macadam, once said: “if students are cooperating today, surely there is hope for tomorrow”.

 

ESU is just that: hope for tomorrow.

 

This is why national unions of students join ESU.

Julian Lo Curlo

Executive Committee Member

International Officer Danske Studerendes Fællesråd - DSF

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