European youth demand to be heard, the EU must listen


Picture of Carina Autengruber
Carina Autengruber

President of the European Youth Forum

“I would like next year’s elections to be a landmark for European democracy.” A year ago, when Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker delivered his State of the Union, this may have seemed like a farfetched idea. After all, his speech touched on something that the European Union (EU) has consistently failed to do: meaningfully invite its citizens – especially young people – into its decision-making processes.

This is not for lack of trying. For decades, the EU has pondered how to achieve this aim. How can it bring citizens closer to the institutions? For most observers, EU-level policy-setting and decision-making seems so remote from the daily lives of citizens. The 2019 European Parliament elections, however, have shown what is possible when citizens feel that they have an opportunity to shape their future. With a 50% overall increase in youth voter turnout from the 2014 elections, it is clear that young people are demanding to be heard.

In fact, when it comes to driving political change, young people have been leading the way for a long time. This segment of the population has been making its presence felt on the streets, making waves through its activism and pushing progress through its organisations.

The reality is that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to youth participation

As the most pro-European generation, they provide a positive force for change and new-thinking. For decision-makers, there is incredible potential, now more than ever, to recognise and connect with them as a means of strengthening democracy beyond the elections.

The reality is that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to youth participation. However, there are countless good initiatives at all levels of government, from local to European, that can serve as best practice models.

The most visible example has been the mass student demonstrations for climate action. The public demand for climate justice has generated a momentous wave of activism but, shamefully, too few cases exist where these protests have culminated in welcoming young people to the table to discuss solutions.

That is not to say there are no such examples. Following this year’s global call for action, Denmark launched the Danish Youth Climate Council. It aims to bring together youth representatives to seek solutions, share ideas and advise the nation’s Minister for Climate and Energy. The minister in turn is tasked with taking these proposals to the political agora. The Danish Youth Climate Council is further supported by municipal analogues and closely cooperates with the Danish National Youth Council.

Similar to the Danish approach to climate change, young citizens have been welcomed into transformative city planning initiatives. Most notably, Vienna recently took on the challenge to design their new Child and Youth Strategy for the coming years and did so by involving tens of thousands of young adults and children from across the city. The municipal government ran 1,300 workshops and engaged with citizens in the streets, at their schools and day centres, and via the Internet. Politicians now know more about the needs, ideas and aspirations of young people, a crucial element in the development of quality youth policy.

Hundreds of thousands of youth organisations impact the lives of citizens across Europe every day

France has also taken steps to connect with its citizens. French President Macron’s initiative of ‘European Citizens’ Consultations’, similar to the Commissioners’ ‘Citizens’ Dialogues’ and the EU ‘Youth Dialogue’, is a testament to ongoing efforts to reach out to citizens. Real dialogue and a seat at the table in between elections is exactly what is required to reinforce trust and confidence in the EU.

However, these conversations must not end at the table. Young people want to see the impact on their day-to-day lives. Decision-makers that ask for the thoughts, concerns and ideas of their youngest constituents must understand that these engagements must be paired with political follow up if they wish to implement continuous and robust civic participation.

Hundreds of thousands of youth organisations impact the lives of citizens across Europe every day. These associations bring young people together and into the political arena as they fight for a cause, gain new skills and find their voice. Taking advantage of their new-found expertise, first-hand knowledge and unique perspectives is crucial to guaranteeing successful, effective policy.

Last year, the Youth of European Nationalities organisation, in an alliance with other groups, gained the support of more than 1 million Europeans for their European Citizens’ Initiative for minority rights and diversity. It was a breakthrough created through youth participation. Thanks to their initiative, the European Commission is required to provide an answer.

Looking forward, if policymakers really want to achieve this vision of a more democratic, participatory EU, they must do more than just ride the momentum of May’s European elections. They must actively reach out to those who face obstacles to political participation. If the member states and the EU as a whole include youth perspectives in decision-making processes, there is a real chance that the same level of energy and activism seen on the streets will be invested in the European project for decades to come.

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