Time for fresh ideas: give young voices the chance to shape Europe!

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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“Young people must be able to shape Europe’s future.” Only a few weeks ago, President von der Leyen stood in front of the European Parliament and stated her ambition that young people will help lead the debate in the Conference on the Future of Europe.

Despite making up 25 per cent of Europe’s population, young people are one of the least represented groups when it comes to political decision making. In order for Ursula to make good on her ambition to include young people, the Conference needs to deliver on its promises of meaningful participation. Can it be done? So far, the answer is mixed.

After a rocky start, the Conference is starting to emerge as an exciting opportunity to inject new ideas and creative thinking into the European project. While young people have always been among those who spark social movements, lead protests and push for change, their voices are not often reflected in traditional politics. For many young people, who have never had the chance to engage with politics or decision making at the European level, this Conference could be a gateway to discovering more about how the EU can shape their lives. A bridge between youth activism and institutions.

So, what steps have been taken so far? Within the formal structures of the Conference, some work on youth engagement has already begun. The first meetings of four groups of Citizen’s Panels are starting to take place, bringing together Europeans who were randomly selected as participants from different geographic and socioeconomic backgrounds, representing different ages and genders.

Significantly, one-third of each Citizen’s Panel is made up of young people between the age of 16-25, a clear acknowledgement of how important young people are in these discussions. Furthermore, among the citizens’ representatives at the Conference Plenary, the President of the European Youth Forum, Silja Markkula, has also been selected to be a strong advocate for young people.

Once labelled as the ‘lost generation’ and even more recently the ‘lockdown generation’, there is undoubtedly a lot at stake for young people. All of these youth voices will play a crucial role in putting young people’s perspectives forward and speaking out about the change young people want to see. They bring with them the realities, needs and concerns of thousands of young people from across Europe and it is only right that they play an integral part in the whole process of the Conference.

However, connecting young people with the EU and allowing them to have their say doesn’t stop there. The European Youth Forum, which represents national youth councils and international youth organisations from across Europe, has been calling on the organisers of the Conference to truly represent European diversity and create a far-reaching dialogue across the whole Union. We want to open the debate to include ideas, big or small, local or European. We want the voices of the 25 per cent to count.

No one should be excluded from this Conference. The 25 Percent project, launched by the European Youth Forum aims to outreach beyond the few hundred young people selected to contribute to the Panels and engage all young people in a conversation on the future they want to see for Europe.

Together with national youth councils and international youth organisations that work with minority groups and marginalised youth, we will gather 15,000 ideas from young people regardless of their language, social background or education level. Every idea will be taken seriously and brought back into the Conference debates.

Participation should not be a one-off, which is why The 25 Percent goes beyond simply collecting young people’s ideas. Young people should be encouraged to take action and to discover other ways to engage. This project also gives young people the tools, skills and knowledge they need to advocate for themselves and inspire them with real stories of young people who have made a difference. Will European decision-makers uphold their side of the bargain?

The 2019 announcement of the Conference on the Future of Europe seemed to come as the Commission’s response to the many challenges that the EU is facing. Challenges such as the growing lack of trust in EU institutions, increasing polarisation, and the rise in populism.

If this major listening exercise to strengthen the European project is to succeed, then it is crucial that the input of citizens does not end with the Conference. There must be a clear commitment from institutions and a binding legacy mechanism to ensure that the ideas and priorities expressed during the Conference continue to drive future policy development at the EU level.

The stakes are high: if young people are left out now if their voices are not truly taken into account, they will become disillusioned and disengaged. Young people are at the core of the European project, and this is the moment to demonstrate that their voices matter.

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