A glance at the past…
The Olivaint Conference of Belgium (C.O.B.) has its roots in France where, in July 1954, some Belgian students met the Olivaint Conference of Paris, founded in 1852 under the name of “Réunion des Jeunes Gens”. The aim of this movement was to provide students from all university faculties with additional intellectual, moral and political training.
In 1875, the “Conférence Olivaint de Paris” was created and merged with the “Réunion”. Particularly aimed at students of Law and Political Science, it was also open to other disciplines. Its name comes from Father Pierre Olivaint, director of the “Réunion des Jeunes Gens”, who died in the turmoil of the Commune in May 1871.
Until the Second World War, the Olivaint Conference simply aimed at giving its members a spiritual deepening as well as a more acute awareness of the social responsibilities that would one day be theirs, as “future leaders”. In the aftermath of the war, the Olivaint Conference was transformed into a club for political education. Without making any distinction between the different studies, beliefs, opinions, party or nationality, the possibility is offered to everyone to improve their skills in tangible fields and, by learning the most valuable techniques (public speaking, written journalism), to prepare themselves to possibly play a political role at the various levels of the community, whether local and/or national.
See also “Un cercle d’étudiants catholiques sous la Troisième République: la Conférence Olivaint, 1875-1940″ by Professor David COLON (Sciences Po – Paris).
The creation of the Olivaint Conference of Belgium
In July 1954, a handful of Belgian rhetors briefly stayed in Paris to take part in the works of the “Paris Olivaint Conference”. This first contact was followed by a two-week seminar in Port-Cros where, under the aegis of senior officials from the Quai d’Orsay, young people from the two countries worked together on written work, oratorical jousting or other discussion tables.
It is filled with enthusiasm that our compatriots returned to Belgium, where they soon realised the uniqueness of the experience they have just shared, and discussed the possibility of creating a similar organisation in Belgium. The initial impulse came from Father Huvenne, the real driving force behind the “Olivaint Conference of Paris”, who during a visit to Brussels urged the participants present at Port-Cross to create a group whose work would be aimed at training young people to get familiar with the concept of politics. This call for action was received positively and led to the creation of the Olivaint Conference of Belgium on November 7, 1954, under the presidency of Father Haumont.
The takeoff of the Olivaint Conference
The Conference’s beginnings aren’t dazzling. Defections even occur very quickly. Some, in fact, had only hesitantly adhered, and very soon realised that political life, once stripped of the charms of the island of Port-Cros, no longer exerted any attraction on them… There remained a core of “fanatics”, vigorously supported by the Conference’s very first “technical advisers” (E. Debra – jurist; F. Behets-Wydemans – economist), who assiduously began to study current problems: planning, social issues, Marxism…
At the beginning, the young institution was mainly composed of people from Brussels, who still decided to call the group the Olivaint Conference of Belgium, as they were filled with ambition. A democratic internal organisation was set up: a Bureau elected by the members themselves, supported by the technical advisers.
In July 1955, a first expansion took place: two students from the Faculties of Namur returned enthusiastically from a Franco-Israeli session held in Port-Cros. They joined the group and brought friends with them: new blood was brought in. A third technical adviser, P. van Ypersele de Strihou, a lawyer and economist, also took up a position within the Conference.
In the years that followed, the work of the Olivaint Conference of Belgium became more and more rigorously organized: public speaking exercises, now criticized by an expert, were supplemented by essays on written journalism, corrected by a fourth adviser (J. Naveau, doctor of law and journalist). Several “workshops”, or work teams, were formed by members from the same university. The work carried out by these groups was submitted to a plenary meeting for expert appraisal and then debated.
In 1957, lunch-and-chat meetings were introduced, during which topical issues were addressed by personalities from the economic, political and social worlds. A lively dialogue between the guest speaker and his audience followed.
Another novelty which appeared in October 1957 was the magazine “Contact”, intended to keep all members informed of the ordinary and extraordinary activities of the Conference, and to offer everyone the contents of essays on written journalism. Various symposia were also organized, at which personalities of different streams of thoughts offered members divergent opinions on current problems.
It was also in 1957 that the Olivaint Conference of Belgium entered Flanders: at the beginning of the 1957-58 academic year, a workshop was set up by students from the University of Ghent.
In 1958 the first “eloquence tournament” took place; the themes, initially relating to the country where the annual study session was to be held, were then chosen from the domestic policy problems.
It was also in 1958 that the study sessions proper to the Olivaint Conference of Belgium began, according to an organizational formula which is still valid today. The Olivaint Conference of Belgium visited Israel in 1958, after having participated in the 1956 and 1957 sessions organized by the Olivaint Conference in Paris.
In 1971, the Olivaint Conference of Belgium was structured and decided to take the form of a non-profit organisation.
When the Conference lost its founding father
When Father Haumont, the founder of the Conference, died in 1981, the Olivaint Conference of Belgium was faced with several problems: the loss of a central personality, the absence of an efficient secretariat, the maintenance of an increasingly complex network of alumni, the continuity of its activities, …
A Board of Directors made up of former members was then established to take up these challenges. Thanks mainly to the energetic commitment of its President, Jean-Jacques Masquelin, the Olivaint Conference of Belgium managed to find balance and has continued its activities to this day.
In 2005, the Olivaint Conference of Belgium celebrated its 50th anniversary at a symposium at the Egmont Palace organised jointly with the Royal Institute for International Relations (IRRI, since renamed the Egmont Institute), in the presence of many alumni and surrounded by prestigious guests including HRH Prince Philippe of Belgium – Mr Armand De Decker, Minister for Development Cooperation – Professor Dr. Günter Burghardt, Former EU Ambassador to the United States – Mr. Philippe de Schoutheete, Honorary Ambassador.
On 30 September 2004, the title of Royal Association was conferred to the Olivaint Conference of Belgium.
Since 2005, the Olivaint Conference of Belgium has been updating its structures and its project in order to continue to meet its primary vocation: to train students to exercise future professional responsibilities that demonstrate a commitment to public service. In the current Belgian political context, the Olivaint Conference of Belgium also appears as a unique meeting place for young people from the country’s different communities.