A glance at the past…

rpolivaintThe Olivaint Conference of Belgium (OCB) takes its roots in France where, in July 1954, a group of Belgian students took part in a meeting organized by the Olivaint Conference of Paris, an organisation established in 1852 as the “Réunion de jeunes gens”, which aimed to provide French university students with complementary moral, political and intellectual education.

The Olivaint Conference of Paris was created in 1875 and then joined the “Réunion des jeunes gens”. Named after Father Pierre Olivaint sj (former Director of the “Réunion”, executed during  the “Commune” insurrection in May 1871), the Olivaint Conference of Paris was originally aimed at Law and Political Sciences students but grew rapidly to include students from other fields as well.

Until the World War II, the Olivaint Conference of Paris focused on giving its members the opportunity to develop their spiritual life while preparing for future responsibilities and becoming leading French political, economic or social figures.  After the war, the Olivaint Conference of Paris became a political club.  Since that time, it aims to provide students, with no distinction as to educational background, beliefs, opinion, party or nationality, the opportunity to acquire new skills (oratory art, journalism…) with the view to exercise a political mandate in the future, at local or national level.

See also “Un cercle d’étudiants catholiques sous la Troisième République: la Conférence Olivaint, 1875-1940” by the professor David COLON (Sciences Po – Paris).

Foundation of the Olivaint Conference of Belgium

historiqueolivaintAs noted, a group of Belgian students attended a meeting of the Olivaint Conference of Paris in July 1954, followed by a 15 days seminar organised in Port-Cros (Corsica) where students from both countries benefited from training sessions by officials of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs on improving their oral and writing skills.

Back to their home country delighted by their experience, the Belgian students started discussing the possibility to establish a similar organisation in Belgium. The decisive impulse came from Father Huvenne, a dynamic member of the Olivaint Conference of Paris, who came to Brussels to encourage the participants in the Port-Cros seminar to start a group whose activities would aim at training young Belgian students into political affairs, generally speaking. This led to the creation of the Olivaint Conference of Belgium on 7 November 1954, under the leadership of Father Haumont sj (see photo).

The take off

The early days of the Olivaint Conference of Belgium were difficult.   Some members quickly left the boat once the stimulating “Port-Cros effect” had disappeared, leaving only a handful of motivated young people who, supported by the technical advisers (E.Debra, a Lawyer and F. Behets Wydemans, an economist), started studying in depth topical political and economic issues.

Originally, the organisation was composed mainly of students from Brussels.  Nevertheless, the founders quickly decided to give a national dimension to the Conference Olivaint of Belgium.  In July 1955, students from Namur took part in a French-Israeli session at Port-Cros and convinced some of their friends to join the Olivaint Conference of Belgium upon their return, thus bringing new blood and new ideas to the group.  A democratic organisation was set up with a Students’ Board elected by all active members in charge of organising the various activities with the support of advisers.

In the following years, the OCB structured its activities more rigorously: oral exercises were commented by a specialist and students started exercising their journalistic skills under the supervision of a new adviser (J.Naveau, lawyer and journalist). Several clusters were established by members studying at the same university, who then presented their work at plenary sessions where the students and experts commented on the form and debated the content thereof.

In 1957, lunch meetings were introduced where specific topics were discussed and debated with prominent actors of the Belgian economic, politic, or social scene.  The same year, the magazine “Contact” was launched with the objective of informing the members and friends of the Olivaint Conference of Belgium about recent and upcoming activities and to disseminate the outcome of students’ journalistic efforts.  Various symposia were also organised with guest speakers confronting their opinions on specific topical issues.  It is also in 1957 that the Olivaint Conference expanded in Flandres with a cluster established by students of the University of Ghent.

The first eloquence contest took place in 1958.  Originally, the theme of the contest related to the destination and issues selected for the yearly summer study session, but were subsequently left at each candidate’s discretion.  It is also in 1958 that the Olivaint Conference of Belgium organised its first summer study session, following a pattern that is still used today. The country visited on that occasion was Israel.

In 1971, the OCB incorporated formally as a non-for profit organisation.

The Conference without its founder

historiqueolivaint2After the accidental death of its founder, Father Haumont sj, in 1981, the Olivaint Conference faced several challenges: the loss of a pillar of the organisation, the absence of an efficient secretariat, the maintenance of a complex alumni network, the continuity of the activities…

A Board of Directors composed of alumni was created to take on those challenges and Jean-Jacques Masquelin endorsed the presidency.  Under his dynamic leadership, the Conference acquired a more stable status and pursued its activities, up until today.  Throughout the years and despite profound changes in the Belgian society, the Olivaint Conference continued carrying out its project with the same objectives and values, which make it a privileged place for young students of all Belgian Communities to meet and exchange ideas and to grow as future leaders.

In 2005, the Olivaint Conference celebrated its 50 years of existence by organising a symposium at the Egmont Palace in Brussels, jointly organised with the Egmont Institute (Cf. Links) (formerly the Royal Institute for International Relations – IRRI). The event attracted many alumni and prestigious guests, including his Royal Highness the Prince Philippe of Belgium (cf. photo album). Programme / “Sécurité et défense de l’Europe” – Monsieur Armand De Decker, Ministre de la coopération au développement. / “The transatlantic relationship between the European Union and the United States – ready for a fresh start ?” – Professor Dr. Günter Burghardt, Former EU Ambassador to the United States. / “Notes d’intervention sur les relations transatlantiques” – Monsieur Philippe de Schoutheete, Ambassadeur honoraire.

September 30th, 2004, the Olivaint Conference was awarded the title of “Royal Association”.

Since 2005, the Olivaint Conference undertook to modernise its structure and project to continue to responding to its core objective: teaching governance today to grow leaders for tomorrow.  In the current Belgian political environment, the Olivaint Conference has become today a unique forum allowing young adults from the various Belgian communities to share experiences and ideas.