The first time I ever heard of OBESSU was in the last century, more than twenty years ago. It was 1999 and I had just started being active in UDS, my school student union in Italy. At that time, “OBESSU” for me was just the weird acronym of an international network UDS had joined. I discovered what it really was some time later when I attended my first OBESSU conference in Naples in March 2001. My knowledge of this organisation increased after I became UDS international officers and my interest in its history started in 2005, when I went to Dublin for the celebrations of the 30th anniversary of its foundation. Nevertheless, I would have never thought that, a few years later, in 2007, I would have had the honor to run this organisation as Secretary General.
Being Secretary General was both an honor and a challenge. OBESSU was growing fast in those years. We had more and more applications for membership, a large number of events and campaigns to organise each year and an increasing responsibility towards the European institutions. The EU was facing the implementation of the Lisbon Strategy and we were actively involved in that new challenge. In the same years, we got actively involved in the European Social Forum and in 2008, we organised a demonstration during the ESF in Malmö, Sweden (our first flags and banners date back to that very moment). The secretariat in Brussels was growing: we finally had new staff members instead of volunteers and we had more funds. Moreover, to support new School Student Unions in the Balkans (after the wars of the 90s and early 2000s) we had a temporary branch office of OBESSU in Skopje. This meant more events, more meetings, more travels. Our commitment was restless.
Many things made me proud of OBESSU in those years. One of them was the work we performed on the Declaration of School Student Rights through the campaign “Light on the Rights”. Eventually even the European Parliament officially recognised our claims. I was also proud of our work on the International Day of Students. We wanted the 17th of November to become for students as important as the 1st of May is for workers but actually student unions almost forgot that date after the XX century. Therefore, we re-launched it and we organised a big event in Brussels on the 70th anniversary of the 17/11 in 2009 with a final demonstration outside the European Parliament. As far as I can see, you still celebrate it. This means a lot to my generation: our work was not in vain.
Around the end of my mandate in 2009, I decided to give a deeper look into the archives of the organisation in the basement of our “International House of Students” in Rue de la Sablonniere 20 in Brussels. I found dozens of dusty folders full of interesting things and I quickly realized that a significant piece of European history was there. Moreover, I had the chance to meet and interview some of the protagonists of OBESSU’s history in Brussels and then I had many others on the phone. Some of their stories were almost incredible. For instance, the story of OBESSU channeling money from Europe to support the student revolts in South Africa during the Apartheid regime in 1986 (!) is one of them.
Therefore, when I had to choose the topic of my thesis as a student of contemporary History at the University of Brussels, the choice was very easy to make. That’s how I started writing about the history of OBESSU. Here you will find a very brief summary of what I discovered by studying the documents and talking to former representatives of OBESSU. However, remember: the best has to come yet and now you are the protagonists.
All the best, my dear OBESSU.
Giuseppe Beccia, OBESSU Secretary General (2007-2009)
Dublin, 1975: a (north) European school student network is born
At the beginning of the 1970s, there were just few school student unions in Europe and most of them were concentrated in the Northern countries. In these countries, there were usually two organisations: one for high schools and one for technical or vocational schools and both received public funding. This was the case in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland. In addition to the Scandinavian countries, there were school student unions in France (UNCAL), Ireland (IUSS), Great Britain (NUSS) and German Switzerland (VSM). The French UNCAL was mainly composed of local groups linked to UNEF (the national student union) and to the 1968 legacy. The other three unions were very young and small organisations seeking to build national structures.
UNCAL, the Danish DGS and the Finnish STL had a political orientation close to Communist parties and a strong communist influence was predominant in the leadership of the English NUSS too. Moreover, there was a very strong "broad left" orientation that came from young people in the aftermath of May 1968 and according to this orientation the official communist parties were considered rather conservative while social democracy was too far to the right, too "bourgeois". The Norwegian and Swedish leaders, on the other hand, were relatively close to the liberal parties, but the orientation of their unions was still quite independent.
The first debates to create an international school student network started in 1970. The International Union for Students (IUS), an organisation essentially linked to the Soviet bloc, which was trying to widen its influence also in Western Europe, made the first attempt. At the beginning of the 1970s, IUS proposed to school student unions the creation of a European network. Several pan-European conferences were organised in mutual agreement between youth organisations from the Warsaw Pact countries and a number of Western European organisations. Representatives of English and Irish school student associations were also invited, but in fact, although some of them were members of communist parties, they did not share the line of Moscow and demanded the new European organisation to be free and independent.
So, after the last of these pan-European conferences (Helsinki, 1972), a group joined forces to try to establish an alternative. Eventually the Irish IUSS, the English NUSS, the Norwegian NGS and the Swiss VSM agreed to organise a European seminar on school issues around Easter 1975 in Dublin. After receiving a grant for it from the Council of Europe (through the European Youth Foundation), they invited to the seminar the French UNCAL and eight Scandinavian organisations: two from Sweden, two from Denmark, three from Finland and the other Norwegian union. The seminar was actually only a pretext and an opportunity to discuss their project. The choice adopted by a majority vote was to create an “Organising Bureau” rather than a complete organisation. The task of this "organising office" was to prepare a structure and eventually dissolve into a pan-European plan. This is why they provisionally called it Organising Bureau of European School Student Unions. Finally, they agreed that the Irish IUSS would provide the secretariat for OBESSU and that at the outset the secretary general of the IUSS would also be the secretary general of OBESSU.
The political priorities of OBESSU in the first years were above all: access to education, democracy and participation, and public funding for education. Anyway, to be able to produce common political positions, it took years. The main concerns of school student unions at the time focused on their national education systems. Besides, these systems were so different that many discussions were either very general or purely comparative. Several seminars were then organised with the aim of confronting either the national education systems or the functioning of school student unions. From the start, there was also a very strong interest in social themes, such as the fight against discrimination through education, the fight against gender discrimination, linguistic discrimination, racial and social background discrimination.
OBESSU and pan-European cooperation
Although OBESSU was a Western European structure, there was no ideological opposition to the organisations from Eastern Europe, since several members of the OBESSU were themselves fairly oriented politically to the left. The founding members of OBESSU wanted to involve school students from the West and the East of Europe, and the nature of the temporary “Organising Bureau” was proof of the desire to achieve this goal. Opposition to IUS was not about ideological issues but rather about the independence and autonomy of the new structure.
OBESSU and IUS slowly established a certain degree of cooperation. In 1980, there were contacts with the official school student unions of USSR and Poland and OBESSU organised a meeting with their representatives in Helsinki. A seminar on the theme "Cooperation and Growth - School Student Unions throughout Europe" was jointly planned to take place first in London and then in Hamburg in 1981. OBESSU obtained a grant for its implementation, but because of technical problems, they postponed it several times and, eventually, they canceled it. Anyway, the efforts to advance cooperation on a pan-European basis attracted more left-oriented school student unions to OBESSU.
Until the late 1980s OBESSU's relations with the East, although improved, remained rather formal. OBESSU received several invitations to events organised by IUS and by the World Federation of Democratic Youth such as the International Students’ Day in Prague and the World Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow in 1986. Finally, during the spring 1992 IUS held an international meeting in Cuba with the aim of founding the IUSSES, International Unions of Secondary School Students. OBESSU received the invitation but, although there was no opposition to this initiative, they did not go. Nevertheless, the Danish member of OBESSU (DGS), sent his representatives and one of them was even elected in the board of IUSSES. According to the report written by DGS delegation, the conference was not a success but there was a fair participation from the Latin America and there was anyway a certain optimism in the success of the new organisation. However, after this conference, there were no more news about IUSSES, which probably disappeared a few years later.
Some political parties took an interest at a very high level in what was going on in OBESSU, even in Western countries. For instance, in Germany the members of JUSOS (the organisation of young socialists in the SPD) who were active in the German school student union BundesSchulerVertretung (BSV) had a meeting with the social-democratic leader Willy Brandt before agreeing to support BSV membership in OBESSU.
Stockholm, 1984: OBESSU and the struggles for human rights
From 1984 until 1988, the secretariat moved to Stockholm as OBESSU received public support and funds from the Swedish government through its Swedish members. In those years, the political climate of Sweden and the governmental engagement on the struggles for human rights at international level highly influenced and involved OBESSU. A first seminar on this topic was organised by OBESSU in 1984 with the support of the Council of Europe. As a result, OBESSU started an international solidarity project for students in El Salvador. This project, carried out in cooperation with the Norwegian “Operation Dagsverke”, was one of the biggest fundraising campaigns for the country during their 12 years of civil war.
In 1985, OBESSU engaged in the fight against apartheid by actively supporting the Congress of South African Students (COSAS). OBESSU Secretary General Roger Hällhag traveled to South Africa in 1985 with a small French and Swedish delegation. Since the situation in the country was extremely tense, the delegation had to be clandestine: they had to declare that they were tourists. There were mass student protests and strikes: students escalated the struggle with the white regime and, in many respects, they took the lead to push trade unions and many others to become more active. The government reacted by imprisoning, torturing and even killing students during the protests. OBESSU met Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who received the Nobel Piece Price, and then went to Durban where an important conference of the resistance movement took place to discuss the tactics of the school boycott. After the international delegation left, the conference was attacked and some people were killed. Then they traveled back to Johannesburg by car with the president of COSAS who operated underground. In this framework, OBESSU and its Swedish member organisations played an important role: they became a channel of communication between governments and struggle and they even channeled money provided by the Swedish government.
In the 80s, OBESSU also got involved in the Palestinian question. In February 1989, they took part in a European student delegation visiting the occupied territories on the West bank and Gaza strip and afterward, they planned a seminar in Europe with a delegation of Palestinian school students. The reaction to human rights violations, especially when they affected fellow student and school student unions, provoked the harsh reaction from OBESSU. The legacy of those struggles highly influenced OBESSU in the following years.
1989: The fall of the Berlin Wall and its consequences
Political changes in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s affected the life of OBESSU. The end of authoritarian regimes in eastern countries led to a sharp increase in the applications for membership. In 1994, OBESSU launched a project to support new school student unions in Eastern Europe. It was the “Eastern European Training Program” and it aimed at organising training activities to provide concrete support for the creation of school student unions in Eastern Europe. It was a quite difficult work but the new organisations in the East considered it extremely important and finally it brought considerable results. In those years, also thanks to this work, national school student unions were established in Estonia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Lithuania, Hungary, Czech Republic and Romania.
In 1999, OBESSU started a specific project to support national school student organisations in the Baltic countries and in 2003, the same thing was done for the Balkans after the long season of military conflicts had just finished. This last project led OBESSU to open a branch office in Skopje, Macedonia, in 2006, to better organise training seminars and conferences in the Balkans. In the years 2003-2009, the support of OBESSU towards school student organisations in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia as well as the support for school student groups in Croatia, Albania and Montenegro, contributed to transform them into more organised structures.
It was not easy for OBESSU to manage meetings where school students from countries in conflict met right after years of wars. The relations between Croats and Serbs and especially between Kosovars and Serbs, were initially very tense but then they soon improved during (and thanks to) these OBESSU seminars.
OBESSU facing the European integration process: 1993 – 2010
At the outset of OBESSU's activity, relations with the European Community (EC) were weak. At that time, the privileged institutional interlocutor was the Council of Europe because, through the European Youth Foundation (EYF) and the European Youth Centers (EYC), the CoE strongly supported student and youth organisations in Europe. The CoE had a vital importance in the birth of OBESSU since it financed the first seminar in 1975, the one where the organisation was born. For OBESSU it would have been almost impossible to carry out its first projects without the support of the CoE. In July 1981, OBESSU submitted a request for consultative status within the Council of Europe and the following year the Parliamentary Assembly approved it.
In between 1993 and 2000, the process of European integration increased through the Maastricht agreements and the creation of the European Union. Through articles 126 and 127 of the Maastricht Treaty, the EU acquired some competencies in the fields of education. In addition, in 1995 a general directorate for education and culture, DG XXII, was created within the European Commission and then 1996 was declared "European year of Lifelong learning". Schools, however, were relatively less affected by the consequences of the agreements since secondary education remained firmly in the hands of the member States. This is why OBESSU's interest in the EU was initially limited.
The year 1993 was nevertheless a turning point in the history of OBESSU because for the first time a stable secretariat settled in Amsterdam thanks to the active involvement of the Dutch member LAKS and thanks to funds from the Dutch government. The secretariat was errant since 1988 when members decided to move each time the secretariat in the country of the elected SG. From 1993, the secretariat finally had a stable office for the following ten years. In 2003, eventually, the office moved to Brussels. From the early 90s, OBESSU ceased to be an essentially North European network dominated by the Scandinavians members (that nevertheless remained very influential) and a process to become a true European organisation started. The structure was officially registered in the Netherlands, the statutes were restructured, the external relations improved and finally the OBESSU received the economic support from the European Commission.
In 1997-1998, OBESSU held a conference on "Partnership and Cooperation in Improving Quality of School Education" in Pisa inviting all the main associations involved in teaching at European level. The conference was a great success and, since then, OBESSU began to maintain closer links with other European associations in the field of education and with the European Commission. Moreover, given the success of the Erasmus program for University Students, OBESSU proposed the creation of an international mobility program for school students, the Comenius program being limited to class exchanges. It was called ESSE (European School Student Exchange) but it took several years for the European Commission to launch an "Erasmus" proposal for school students: the program, called Comenius Individual Pupils Mobility, was launched only in 2008 as a pilot version.
Greater integration processes in the field of Education began around 2000 with the "Lisbon Strategy" adopted by the European Council with the aim of making the European Union the most competitive and dynamic "knowledge-based economy" in the world. The Lisbon Strategy was presented as the major axis of the economic and development policy of the European Union until 2010 and the Education & Training 2010 (E&T 2010) program, that is to say part of this strategy which related specifically to education, became the main object of political debate among the organisations which dealt with education in Europe.
The European Commission invited OBESSU to be part of certain working groups within the framework of the E&T program 2010. However, the position of the OBESSU on the Lisbon strategy was very critical because of the essentially economic approach that was the basis of the Lisbon strategy. Europe, according to OBESSU, had to produce a strategy not only based on the concern for economic growth but also on the human and social development of citizens. In order to provide institutions with a clearer and more structured framework for its educational proposals, OBESSU adopted in 2000 a Political Platform that was officially presented at the international conference "Global Europe, Global Students", held in Naples in March 2001. During the first “European school student convention” held in Campobasso (Italy) in December 2008 OBESSU promoted a series of benchmarks for the new Education & Training 2020 program.
“Light on the rights”: the Declaration of School Student Rights
In 1994, OBESSU officially began its first campaign for school student rights. The main objective of this initiative was to encourage school student unions to obtain official recognition of school student rights in their countries. A Charter was conceived during a conference in Alicante, Spain, in December 1994 and then it was finalised and adopted during the conference in Helsingør, Denmark, in April 1995. Some organisations worked hard on the campaign and were able to get the charter approved as an official state law. In Italy, for instance, the campaign started in 1996 and two years later, the government officially adopted a charter for school student rights. In other countries, laws about student democracy took into account the OBESSU Charter.
In December 2005, the 1st European School Student Convention held in Campobasso (Italy) launched the proposal for an updated Charter based on the previous one. The charter, called "Declaration of school student rights" was adopted in June 2006 during the OBESSU General Assembly in Macedonia and finally the 3rd European School Student Convention held in Rome in December 2007 adopted a strategy to implement a new European campaign. The resolution of the Convention committed OBESSU to put in place a whole series of actions to ask national governments and European institutions to officially recognize the Declaration and guarantee the rights of school students. The new campaign took the name "Light on the Rights". It was launched first at the European Social Forum (September 17-21, 2008) in Malmö, Sweden, and then at the European Parliament in October 2008. The November 17 celebrations were ultimately used to promote the campaign.
OBESSU members organised protests and other public initiatives to support the campaign. This happened especially in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe where the rights mentioned in the Declaration were far from being guaranteed. In countries such as Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Romania OBESSU members strongly promoted the campaign and achieved significant results.
In March 2009, the European Parliament officially recognised the need for a European Charter on school student rights. The Committee on Culture and Education of the European Parliament examined the report entitled "Improving schools: a program of European cooperation". OBESSU had carried out effective awareness-raising work in collaboration with the European Youth Forum (YFJ) in order to improve that report. This joint work and the cooperation of MEP Helga Trüpel, led in March to the unanimous adoption of seven OBESSU amendments, including one that recognizes the charter. The final report states: "The European Parliament considers that all children have the right to quality education and that a European charter on the rights of pupils would be an important first step to guarantee respect for this right".
The organisation born in Dublin in 1975 was strongly linked to the tradition of Scandinavian, British and Irish student unions. The Scandinavian political climate of the time greatly encouraged international engagement and highly influenced the agenda. It was not only a political influence, it was also a cultural influence with long-lasting effects. The democratic methods used by OBESSU even today have almost nothing to do with the student democracy typical of 1968 in Italy or France where all the attention revolved around few charismatic figures. The democratic methods chosen and implemented in OBESSU are rather modeled on the Nordic ones, which are much more creative and more horizontal.
There is anyway a cultural heritage of the struggles of May 68 in the policy of OBESSU. The "watchwords" are the same: fight against authoritarianism in schools, democratic participation, support for public education, claim of a civil and social role of education, equality and fight against discriminations, contestation of wars, support for human rights, gender equality, defense of the environment. As a result, although there is not a "direct filiation" between the protests of 1968 and the birth of OBESSU, the references to 1968 remain an important historical reference.
With regard to the relationship between student movements and the end of the Cold War, we can say that the role of students as promoters of the protests was undoubtedly extremely important. The role of OBESSU in relation to the end of the Cold War is also important if one refers to the efforts made after the fall of the wall. Through dozens of seminars, meetings, visits, projects, OBESSU effectively carried out important work of liaison between school students in the East and in the West.
In the last decades, OBESSU had to face an increasingly accelerated process of European integration and its role in Europe became unique. Today OBESSU is the only school student network on the continent representing such a large number of members and such a broad "constituency". Consequently, it is today the only organisation of school students truly capable of facing the challenges of the European integration in the field of education and the challenges of the knowledge-based society.