International Venice – Student Program Promotes Participation in EU Politics

Anna Lodeserto

We recently had the opportunity to meet Giovanni Gereschi, a Councillor and Board Member of the student organisation, the Venice Diplomatic Society, and Mila Bjekić, the organisation’s President, to talk about their work at the VDS, as well as the opportunities for students after university life in Venice. Our conversation follows.

Would you please explain to our readers what the Venice Diplomatic Society is, and what its future value could be for the international dimension of the city?

Giovanni – The Venice Diplomatic Society is a student organisation affiliated with the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. Established in 2015, it is a relatively new entity, though it has become well-established through partnerships with VIU – Venice International University and the Europe Direct of the Municipality of Venice. We have collaborators who help organise our activities, particularly our biggest event, the Venice University’s Model European Union – also known as “VeUMEU” – which is held annually during the Europe Week celebrated in May. While our main aim is to empower students, anyone can be part of our network as there are no membership restrictions.

Mila – The Venice Diplomatic Society, at its core, strives to enhance the university experience not only for International Relations students but many others as well. We achieve this by engaging in projects and events that put into practice the knowledge gained from an International Relations degree. It can be considered almost like a year-long internship.”

Giovanni explains further: the Venice Diplomatic Society aims to create a space where students and young people can freely learn about and debate topics in the international dimensions of politics, economics, and law. This includes international relations, diplomacy, international law and international economics. We have a strong multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary focus, encompassing international, European, and national perspectives. Our interests being so broad, we organise a wide spectrum of activities to reflect them and provide space for participation as there are yet not many opportunities in Venice for discussion on such topics. Specifically, we organise debates, publish articles on our blog, and run a programme called “VDS@School” as part of the “Percorsi per le Competenze Trasversali e per l’Orientamento” (PCTO), a governmental initiative targeting students in the last three years of high school at the national level. This programme allows them to gain basic, yet hands-on knowledge in public institutions, or private companies, helping them better understand their vocations and talents, and consequently guiding their future choices after school. We designed this programme specifically for school groups from Italy. As part of this, we visit high schools in Venice or the rest of the Veneto region to simulate the knowledge transfer of the decision-making process of the United Nations.

You mentioned Venice University’s Model European Union, which is generally held during Europe Week. This year’s edition just concluded. Could you explain in more detail how this works?

First of all, VeUMEU is a simulation of the EU legislative and decision-making process, specifically focusing on the two institutions responsible for debating and approving legislation: the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union. These simulations are based on real-life legislative proposals from the European Commission. This year, we debated two topics at the forefront of the European political agenda: the regulation on asylum and migration management, in particular the new Pact on Migration and Asylum voted by the European Parliament on 10 April 2024 then formally adopted by the Council of the EU on 14 May 2024, and the directive on empowering consumers for the Green Transition approved by the Council 20 February 2024.

The event is organised by the Venice Diplomatic Society in cooperation with Venice International University (VIU), a consortium of universities based in San Servolo. Several universities are part of this consortium, including Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, and we reserve spots at our events for applicants from these institutions who can apply for simulation positions as members of the European Parliament or Ministers in the Council.

The Venice Diplomatic Society and VIU organise this event together, supported by our partners: Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, Europe Direct Venice, the Global Campus of Human Rights, and Servizi Metropolitani di Venezia. Additionally, the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) supports and oversees our simulation, sending representatives annually to monitor the event and give guest speeches on the regulations or directives being discussed.

Deepening the processes of European integration by starting with youth participation

What was your specific role?

Giovanni – I specifically served as the President of the European Parliament. In this role, I organised the event alongside the other organisers. My responsibilities included selecting participants for the European Parliament, assigning them to political factions, and coordinating logistics for the European Parliament sessions during the simulation. Additionally, I simulated the role of the President of the European Parliament, overseeing and guiding debates and discussions among the participants.

Regarding the modified version of the ordinary legislative procedure, I simulated the plenary sessions of the European Parliament according to its rules of procedure. This was my main substantive task during the simulation. I was also available to provide any clarifications the students might have needed and, along with the legal advisor, I checked the legal basis of the amendments proposed by participants to the two legislative proposals, ensuring they complied with EU and international law and were procedurally correct. This was my comprehensive task for this year’s event, which marked its 8th edition.

The event boasted an extremely diverse student body, including many from the Philosophy, International, and Economic Studies Bachelor programme, and the Comparative International Relations Master’s programme, which are the first two courses in International Relations ever offered in Venice. We also had students from other courses at Ca’ Foscari University, such as Environmental Humanities and Economics, and some from the University of Padova. Additionally, we reserved spots for VIU students from various universities worldwide. For instance, we hosted a group of students from the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. Thus, we fostered a very diverse and international participation of students.

Do you think that these kinds of simulations can help raise interest in European affairs and disseminate information about how the European Union system works?

Giovanni – I truly believe that these simulations are incredibly valuable for raising interest in European affairs and helping people understand the complexities of the EU system. European competencies are often not well understood by the general public, as the EU is indeed complex and continuously evolving.

For example, the topics we selected this year, such as migration and the environment, are at the forefront of European political discussions. Issues like the EU Restoration Law and the Migration Pact have taken decades to become integral to the EU’s agenda, highlighting the growing and multifaceted nature of the Union. Although the EU started with a focus on economic matters, it has significantly expanded its scope. Yet it remains primarily seen as an economic union or collector of local instances.

These simulations also offer a special opportunity to better communicate with stakeholders, such as Europe Direct and local authorities, and to interact with them about what the EU truly represents. There is often confusion between what Europe is and what the European Union, its institutional embodiment is, as they are two distinct entities. Simulations help demystify these distinctions and provide insight into the EU’s inner workings.

From my experience, these events empower young people with knowledge, skills, and a curiosity to learn more about European institutions. I recall my first Model European Union at Venice University two years ago—it was a revelation. The event is organised by very competent individuals in collaboration with excellent partners, and the stakes are high. This year’s participation was of very high quality, and we are very pleased with the outcome. It showed that participants were inspired by the event and by what Europe truly represents: unity in diversity.

Simulations like this teach participants to appreciate cultural differences and find common ground within those differences. They also clarify the specific functions of European institutions, such as distinguishing between the Council of the European Union, the European Council, and the Council of Europe—distinctions that can be confusing even for lifelong learners.

So, definitely, on both an academic and a personal level, these simulations enhance understanding of the EU’s decision-making processes and what Europe means culturally and socially. This is precisely what we aim to achieve and what we strive to transmit to the students: our vision of Europe.”

Do you think that the students, or at least those attending the event, along with the experts you mentioned, can also serve to amplify the message, and transfer this knowledge beyond the group of participants? For example, to their families or local citizens who may not be involved as much, to their university peers and fellows, perhaps in other departments such as purely economic or oriental studies, who might think they are not involved in European affairs, fields which seem very different but are still relevant and will be touched by European policies at some point?

Giovanni – “Yes, of course. I think the participation in the Venice University’s Model European Union gives a lot of confidence to the participants, encouraging them to discover and share the knowledge gained with others. It is like a trampoline into the world of European discovery. As students, we can raise awareness through various initiatives and ongoing efforts about the European Union, which is exactly what we at the Venice Diplomatic Society aim to do all year round. The event is extremely important, but it is also crucial to channel this enthusiasm into concrete initiatives.

This is exactly what the Venice Diplomatic Society was founded for, and why we organise Venice University’s Model European Union. It serves as both the culmination of a journey and the beginning of a new one.

This enthusiasm, combined with the lessons learned, is a key concept at the European level, which we often refer to as sustainability. Most of all, it is about how to move forward. Doing this in Venice, with its strong, yet not fully developed international potential, is particularly significant. While the city is often perceived as far from the central European institutions, its international, inner essence makes it an ideal place to foster and spread knowledge about the EU.”

Challenges and Limitations of Living, Working, and Studying in Venice

What do you think are the challenges and limitations of living, working, and studying in Venice at the international and European levels?

Giovanni – There are certainly limitations. Although I am not an expert in urban planning, I believe the main issues are logistical and economic due to the city’s heavy reliance on tourism, which is unlikely to change in the short term. Venice is a unique and vibrant city, but some might say it is too vibrant because of tourism. Art also plays a huge role here.

One of the logistical problems is that Venice is an island, and its size cannot be expanded. The city is a bit saturated, particularly with tourism, and sometimes it seems there is not enough space for other initiatives, such as the ones we are discussing.

There is undoubtedly interest from the student body in these matters. Whether there is enough interest from institutions to amplify this and make Venice a hub for international and European affairs is another question. I do not want to provide a disillusioned answer, but Venice is currently very saturated with tourism but at the same time, we recently had the G7, which was both an international and a European political event.”

Could Venice still offer a stage for these kinds of events during the high tourist season?

Giovanni – Yes, ideally. Venice has the potential to be a significant international and European city for hosting such initiatives. It is a renowned city and a dream destination for many. However, the initiatives must be well-structured, and a lot of people need to believe in them.

Venice has all the cards to become an authentic international and European city. But these cards need to be played well, and the initiatives must be supported and structured effectively. So, while there are challenges and limitations, there is also significant potential.

What brought you on a more personal level to Venice, and what do you study or work in?

Giovanni — I am soon graduating in my bachelor studies in Philosophy, International, and Economic Studies, and it is precisely this bachelor programme that led me to pursue studies in Venice. On a personal level, my approach is multidisciplinary. I aim to study and analyse issues from multiple perspectives—philosophical, economic, and political. The richness of the programme offered in Venice made it a compelling choice for me, and I am happy to have pursued my bachelor studies here. I believe this multidisciplinary approach should be the foundation of international studies at the academic level, especially in cities with such a rich global past, not only in international relations but also in other aspects like diplomacy.

Mila — I am currently finishing my Master’s degree in Comparative International Relations, but previously I graduated from a multidisciplinary course in Philosophy, International Studies, and Economics. My curiosity about different cultures and broadening my viewpoints is what brought me to Venice. Coming from Serbia, a completely different socio-historical-cultural environment compared to Italy, has really helped me obtain a unique, comprehensive understanding of international dynamics and relations.

However, most students tend to leave the city after completing their bachelor’s degrees, or even before in some cases. Why do you think they are more prone to leaving rather than considering continuing their studies or working in Venice? Is it a completely personal decision?

Giovanni — There are multiple reasons for this trend. Firstly, Venice is a city that offers a lot but also demands a lot from its residents. The demographic trend is ever decreasing, and the services offered are becoming more and more limited, with tourism becoming increasingly dominant. The recent decision to introduce an entrance fee to limit day-to-day tourism highlights the challenges of living in Venice.

Another reason is the academic and employment landscape. Academically, there may not be an offering that reflects the advances in international relations disciplines found elsewhere. The academic offering in Venice is not yet aligned with the needs of students wishing to pursue international or European studies, and especially to build on them. Additionally, the job market in Venice is heavily focused on tourism and art. While there are some consulates, the city’s development is primarily oriented towards economics and private companies.

Overall, the academic and employment offerings in Venice may not fully meet the needs and aspirations of students and professionals interested in international affairs. This mismatch is a challenge also seen in many other places. Moreover, the over-presence of tourism here further complicates the issue, raising questions about the city’s balance and sustainability.

From my perspective, being exposed to the decision-making process of young people nowadays, which is even more complex due to the structural and personal factors they face, I believe making decisions about where to live, work, and invest is indeed more intricate than understanding European or local institutions. Living in expensive cities like Venice can be considered an investment in itself.”

After investing so intensely in multidisciplinary, programmes, internships, transitional mobility activities, language certificates, EU and UN simulations, and other resources, are there consistent opportunities in Venice or similar places for international young people, such as recent graduates with an international relations background?

Mila believes that although Venice offers some opportunities for recent international relations graduates, it is not nearly enough. Furthermore, for non-EU students, the process of obtaining necessary work permits does not facilitate the start of their careers.

Giovanni elaborates: In general, I do not believe the opportunities outweigh the costs. While there are some opportunities available, they do not justify the investments made. Also, access to education remains a privilege, and entry barriers are still high. On a personal level, and I believe this sentiment is shared by many of my peers who wish to pursue careers in international relations or European affairs, there is a gap between the aspirations of recent graduates and the jobs supplied by the labour market in Venice. Moreover, securing jobs seems to rely more on connections than qualifications, especially in Italy. While this may be one of the easiest times to live in terms of mortality rates and poverty, there are urgent and irreversible challenges, such as climate change, which concern young people deeply.

To reverse this situation or at least have an impact on it, as a counsellor and former vice president of the Venice Diplomatic Society, I propose investing more in youth-led initiatives. Enthusiastic and committed young people are ready to make a difference, but a lack of resources limits their potential and impact on their community, starting with such a fragile context like the one in Venice. Providing more support, both financially and in terms of physical spaces for activities, would allow these initiatives to thrive and create meaningful change. Making sure our voices are heard and having dedicated venues for our activities is essential for fostering a vibrant community focused on international relations in Venice and beyond.”

This is the warm and timely invitation from Giovanni, Mila and their colleagues to contribute to more significant exposure for Venice from both the European and international perspectives.

Good luck to these committed young people for their future endeavours!

Photos: Elia Mariotto

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International Venice – Student Program Promotes Participation in EU Politics ultima modifica: 2024-06-05T13:59:52+02:00 da Anna Lodeserto
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