European youth should participate in political discussions, specifically on reforming democratic processes and not just on traditional topics like education, European Youth Forum President Silja Markkula told EURACTIV.
In mid-September, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen proclaimed she would make 2022 the ’Year of European Youth‘. The aim is that young people are encouraged to contribute to debates in the consultations of the Conference on the Future of Europe as this is “their future and this must be their Conference too“.
The Conference on the Future of Europe Executive Board has committed to ensuring that 30% of the European citizen’s panels and the conference plenary are young people.
According to Markkula, this would be “a good start”, “but it is not just about having a seat in the room, but to really be given the space to voice our views, and then ultimately, to be heard”.
Von der Leyen’s initiative has been welcomed, but youth organisations have cautioned against creating another “paper tiger”.
Asked about the policy topics Europe’s youth should give input on, Markkula said that beyond the ‘obvious’ issues of education and culture, employment and pandemic recovery are areas that could benefit from more youth policy recommendations.
“We have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, yet we’re not really seen as part of the solution or brought to help to solve those challenges – rather the opposite, we’re still seen as the culprit,” she added, noting that “our generation is the last one to be vaccinated.”
“We want to take part in the discussion not just in those traditional youth topics like education, but also the other areas where we’re not traditionally seen as the key players, even if the decisions very much touch our lives,” she added.
“From our perspective, we should be looking at this from the angle of the transition period from education to employment and what the ways and means are to ease this to reduce the amount of unemployed,” she said, stressing that Europe’s unemployed statistics show these are disproportionately young people from Southern Europe.
“But this also means to look at how to increase the number of young people in quality employment – so not just any work, but work that really both guarantees your rights and provides some meaning of your life,” Markkula said.
Although youth unemployment declined from 18.7% last year to 16.2% in the EU and 16.5% in the eurozone (July statistics), Europe’s south struggles with high youth unemployment rates.
“It is justified to talk about a lost generation,” Markkula said regarding the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young people.
Asked whether COVID-19 would run the risk of disenfranchising people from politics and participation, she stressed that “what we are seeing currently is actually the opposite” with more young people taking the streets to fight the climate crisis.
Beyond the youth topics
Democracy at large, both in the context of the recently initiated Conference on the Future of Europe citizens’ consultations, and the discussion about European electoral reform should also be an area for increased youth engagement.
“When we think how we could change Europe in the future, then changing the way or the age how and when young people can contribute formally to who is getting elected, for instance, would be an interesting part of the discussion,” the Youth Forum head said.
“An agreement of lowering the voting age could be a very interesting outcome of the conference, as we believe this is what Europe’s young generation desires – more participation,” Markkula added.
She added that this would be closely connected to reforms involving digital voting and making it more accessible for young people to participate in formal democratic processes.
[Edited by Alice Taylor]