The young, at least, speak the same language: Teenagers from all over Europe were talking democracy and tolerance - until the politicians arrived. Jojo Moyes reports

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Eighteen-year-old Suzie from Northern Ireland took a swig of beer and fiddled uncomfortably with her Union Jack name badge. 'I don't like the girls I'm sharing with. They've nicked the best beds.'

'Everyone in my room speaks like an extra from Eldorado,' added Philly, a 16-year-old from Hampstead. This was the first day of their 'dialogue for the future' - a three-day meeting of 100 teenagers from nine different countries to discuss democracy and tolerance within Europe.

Initiated by the Belgian King Baudouin Foundation with the support of the European Commission, the Brussels conference was designed to raise awareness of democratic issues among young people. At its climax, they would present their conclusions to a panel of politicians and MEPs from the Belgian and European parliaments.

Suzie and the other 10 teenagers chosen from state schools across the UK were billeted into mixed- nationality rooms of four. There, they had discovered, tolerance was a lot easier when other cultures weren't hogging the shower.

The irony was not lost on Beth, a 15-year-old vicar's daughter from Shropshire. 'I don't think we should judge the others too quickly,' she said.

Despite some obligatory teenage posturing, the different nationalities swiftly discovered common ground, initially music and the first night's entertainment. Entitled 'Ja, Wacht' (Yes, Awake]) the show was described as a multi-national interpretation of democracy. What appeared was two hours' worth of actors spitting and throwing bloodied limbs around.

The viewers were united in their incomprehension - and spent useful time learning how to say 'What the hell was that all about?' in other languages. This had been so successful, Suzie confided breathlessly the next morning, that there had been a number of 'international liaisons' later on.

From the more conventional discussion groups the next day, the second universal factor emerged - cynicism. Politicians were 'corrupt', 'boring' and verbose.

The Britons had raised cynicism to an art form. But even those from countries with relatively recent experiences of democracy - such as Spain and Poland - expressed little faith in their rulers. Their voices were those of a disenfranchised generation. And these were the interested ones.

Their conclusions had horrified the adults present. 'I'm amazed at how cynical these kids are,' said Penny Phillips of the Citizenship Foundation, who had organised the British delegation.

Philly walked past with raised eyebrows. 'If we get called 'youngsters' once more,' she muttered. 'I'm going to scream.'

The enthusiasm of the organisers and the mounting excitement of presenting their ideas to 'decision makers' did erode some of the delegates' scepticism. This was apparent in the painstaking way they debated the wording of their final documents.

'I cannot agree with the statement that not enough consideration is given to the views of pupils at school. In my school this is not the case,' said Jakub, from Poland. 'OK,' said one of the co-ordinators, finally. 'Re-word that part of the document. All schools - except Jakub's'

Herded into the gilded conference hall, the young delegates shifted excitedly in their seats as the politicians took their places under the bright lights of the media for the conference's climax.

Shoulder to shoulder on the long rostrum, chins cupped in their hands, the elder statesmen gazed impassively out at the sea of young faces. One by one the young spokespersons stood up to speak. But instead of reading their carefully prepared documents aloud, they were offered swift, glib questions by two slick television presenters, along the lines of 'So, David, what do you think of democracy?'.

It was like some second-rate afternoon quiz show. Eighteen-year-old David from Northern Ireland and his companions stumbled gamely through their conclusions on the best way to promote democracy and end racism, but they were unrecognisable as the confident, articulate contributors of the preceding two days' discussions.

'Your initiative is really important and interesting, so congratulations,' said Louis Tobback, Belgium's interior minister. Then he added, indulgently: 'There are so many things you want to fight against as youngsters.' One of the Portuguese teenagers groaned.

After two hours, only Michael Elliott, a British MEP speaking with passion on the positive aspects of multiculturalism, won tumultuous applause - from an audience desperate for someone they could believe in.

Eventually some delegates substituted carefully constructed arguments with angry point-scoring. 'Even though politicians may listen, they often don't carry through their promises,' said David.

The face of Jos Chabert, finance minister of the Brussels region, bore the expression of a teacher whose pupil had just weed on his shoes. 'These groups are very important because they can remind us to remember our promises,' said his neighbour, tactfully.

'I think it's outrageous that you should need to be reminded of what your promises were,' spluttered 17-year-old Romit.

After the conference, the young people were angry and disappointed. And Penny Phillips, collecting her papers outside the conference room, was also unimpressed. 'I rather think the politicians let them down,' she said. 'The young people were so good on their own.'

(Photograph omitted)

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